The majority of my clients are professional sailors that compete in short course racing, lasting anywhere from 3-4 hours of cumulative racing time each day. Sleep is key to prioritize recovery for the next days competition and training. So, for today’s blog, I will address some of the basics of why quality sleep is important and some simple strategies to help improve your performance.
Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that as humans we are driven by rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a 24hr process that many animals, plants, fungi and even bacteria experience on a daily basis coinciding with one full revolution of the planet. Getting caught up in our day to day is so easy with work, family, boat work, training, and competition, but acknowledging this natural rhythm and, more importantly, honoring it, is vital for our health and longevity.
In the charts below you can see the relationship between hormones, melatonin and growth hormones (blue line) and cortisol (red line) throughout the day and night. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for regulation of sleep. Cortisol is the hormone responsible for a number of functions and is released in response to stress.
As the sun rises, the cortisol hormone rises and peaks between 6:00am and 9:00am. Cortisol is an activating hormone that is released in response to stress and light. It is a natural process that works to turn your body on and get it prepared for movement.
In the afternoon, cortisol levels drop significantly, especially as the sun descends into darkness. This allows for the release of melatonin and also increases the levels of growth and repair hormones. This is why the wind down period before sleeping is the most important lifestyle characteristic to ensure best performance each day.
This is one of the main reasons why so many athletes struggle to recover from training and competition, are injury prone and have trouble with muscle growth and fat loss.
Disrupted sleep/wake cycles, in my opinion, are the single biggest killer of strength gains and the ability to rectify your bodies natural cycle by getting quality sleep is the best way to excel your performance training.
Take a look at the charts above and compare them to your current daily schedule, this should give you some idea of why your sleep may be sub-optimal.
Some important questions to ask yourself:
1. What are my energy levels (very closely tied to your cortisol response) through the day, are there any big crashes of energy, do I wake up energized, etc.?
2. What times of the day do you currently train on and off the water?
3. When do you go to bed?
4. Do you crash when you hit the pillow or do you have a slow wind down?
5. What about sleeping and waking times?
These are some of the questions that at Sailing Performance Training and as an OPEX HQ Remote Coach I address in the initial consult with our athletes, and ensure to optimize through the first months of training. It is imperative for the success and performance of any athlete.
It is important to keep in mind that training (whether it be on or off the water) is a form of stress, whether we perceive it that way or not. Managing overall stress is one of my primary roles as a coach. We want to achieve the minimum effective dose to ensure you adapt and improve in your training, but not so much stress that you fatigue or over-train. This is a fine balance to strike, especially in a sport specific realm where you need to train in the sport and in the gym. Add in life stress of school, family, work, boat work, team fundraising, logistics, we can see that managing stress, responsibilities and training can be a difficult task.
So training in the evening, around 6-8pm (or later) is going to cause a stress response from your body, raising cortisol and delaying sleep. Likewise, watching TV or being on an electronic device in bed is going to prevent the brain from being able to release melatonin and growth hormone and again, delay or reduce the quality of your sleep and ultimately your performance. Thus, if out of necessity for our competition we are required to race in the evening (as we did in the GC32 in Marseille this year), then our sleep habits need to be spot on to be able to wind down and recover for the next day of competition. In the sport of sailing this happens, and we need to be ready for it!
Training needs to be structured around your rhythm, recovery and lifestyle. Too often, I see athletes with poor sleep and highly stressful jobs hitting highly intense workouts day after day (often in the evening). This repeated forcing of a round peg into a square hole is almost certainly a recipe for injury in a short term and illness in the longer-term.
When it comes to managing overall training volume, lifestyle stressors and recovery – sleep is king. As a benchmark, it is good to aim for 8-9 hours of sleep per night (I personally need 9-10 when I am training hard). The national sleep foundation has different recommendations based upon age (below), although activity level and other factors need to be taken into account on a case-by-case basis.
Here are a few simple strategies that you can implement into your routine to dramatically increase both sleep quality and quantity while supporting a natural and healthy circadian rhythm.
#1 – Sleep in 100% darkness
When trying to sleep, the bedroom should be so dark that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Any light in the room will stimulate the optic nerve and in turn inhibit the pineal gland from secreting melatonin essential for a deep and restful sleep.
Blackout blinds are a must-have (we have two layers at home), and where this isn’t possible or you are traveling and sleeping in not normal locations (i.e. hotels, boats, airplanes, etc.), invest in a sleeping mask. If you need to go to the bathroom in the night – DON’T turn on lights as this will ruin your hard work, use your other senses to find your way.
On waking in the morning, try to get exposure to sunlight as soon as possible to boost cortisol and stop production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates when you sleep at night and when you wake in the morning. I understand this isn’t always possible depending on your location and the time of year, having a daylight lamp, or daylight alarm clock can be hugely beneficial in these cases.
As good practice on waking, I recommend spending 2-3 minutes looking at the sky to help in this process. If you supplement with Vitamin D (as most people need to) then this is an ideal time to take these to support your circadian rhythm. Then as soon as possible aim to get outside for 30 minutes in the sun, whether for a walk, yoga, or AM aerobic sessions.
#2 – Using devices before bedtime or in bed
Don’t do it! It’s becoming increasingly prevalent over recent years to use electronic screens to read, to work, and study just before or in bed.
If you absolutely must use devices before sleep using a free app like f.lux will help to limit the blue light emitted from the screen negating the stimulatory effects on the pineal gland. A more complete alternative to these apps are blue-light blocking glasses that will help to support your circadian rhythm, improve sleep quality, and aid in relaxation in the evening before bed.
Wearing them for 60-90 minutes before bed blocks our blue light not just from screens, but also artificial light sources allowing the pineal gland to start release of melatonin and winding down in preparation for sleep.
#3 – Stress
A common factor for people struggling to sleep is having thoughts running through their head, or analyzing conversations from the day and subsequently worrying about them. Before sleep, our goal should be to unwind and stimulate the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (responsible for resting and digesting). There are a number of simple ways that we can do this.
- Mindfulness/meditation – there’s a plethora of methods out there, which can be a little confusing at first. I’d recommend the free app ‘Headspace’ which can run free ten day course for ten minutes a day (you can repeat as often as you’d like). Also subscribe to Tara Brach’s podcast where she posts great material and meditations regularly.
- Breathing – spend time practicing quality deep breaths where you aim to fill the belly with air. 30-50 quality breaths of Box Breathing (3 sec inhale, 3 sec hold, 3 sec exhale, 3 sec hold) in the evening DAILY is a good starting point and with practice extend the length of breaths and holds. A good app to help with breathing practice is ‘BreathPacer’.
- Dry skin brushing – this provides a multitude of benefits, with a parasympathetic stimulus being just one. Start out with a soft natural fiber brush and spend ten minutes brushing towards the heart starting from the extremities.
- Brain dump – on those evenings where your mind is running with thoughts, ideas, or worries, get them on paper. Writing them out or creating a to-do list can be a powerful tool to ‘empty’ them from your brain. I write them out in my journal at night and then put them in my reminder lists on my iPhone in the morning to avoid using a device at night.