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How to Get the Sleep You Need

Photograph courtesy of Icon Sportswire 

As a sleep coach to record-breaking cyclists, international soccer teams, NBA and NFL players, and Olympic and Paralympic athletes, Nick Littlehales knows the importance of rest. In his latest book, Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps, and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind, Littlehales shares some of the techniques and advice he provides to some of the world’s greatest athletes. Here, he provides some quick tips on how to get the most out of your bedtime.

Sleep in cycles, not hours. The pressure people put on themselves to get eight hours of sleep each night is misguided and counterproductive. Athletes who use my R90 recovery program learn to think about sleep in 90-minute cycles—the amount of time it takes people under clinical conditions to cycle through the various phases of sleep. Most people need four or five cycles over a 24-hour period, but there’s no need for them all to come in one block overnight. If you get only 3 cycles (4.5 hours) from 1:30 a.m.-6 a.m., for example, your body provides you with a great chance to sneak in an extra cycle between 1-3 p.m. or 5-7 p.m.

Set a fixed wake time. The most important thing is to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what time you’ve gone to sleep—even on the weekends. Your fixed wake time provides a crucial anchor for your circadian rhythms. Sleeping late on the weekend if you’re tired might seem like a good solution, but trust me, it isn’t helping. A much smarter approach would be to get up at your normal wake time, do some light activity until at least 1 p.m., and then use the 1-3 p.m. recovery period to get in an extra 90-minute cycle.

Get in position. When the athletes I coach go to bed at night, they get into the fetal position on their non-dominant side, because this is the less used and therefore less sensitive side. In other words, if you’re right-handed, you sleep on your left side, and vice versa. The fetal position should involve a gentle bend at the knees and your arms out in front of you, gently folded. You should have a smooth, straight postural line through the neck, spine, and bottom. In this position, your chances of snoring or sleep apnea are reduced. Your brain likes this position, because it feels that your body is secure— your dominant arm and leg are protecting your heart and other organs.

Remove distractions. It’s crucial to leave all electronic devices outside the bedroom. The athletes I work with take things step further by choosing a neutral color for their bedroom walls and removing anything that isn’t absolutely essential to sleep—including stimulating artwork, pictures, books, and even furniture. This might not be realistic for everyone, but the more you can convert your bedroom to a true “recovery room” and use it only for sleep, the better off you’ll be.

Develop a good pre-sleep and post-sleep routine. It’s unrealistic to think that you can come home late from a dinner with colleagues, do a quick email check, hop into bed and fall into a healthy, relaxing sleep. Your body and mind need time to wind down from your day. This is also true in the morning: Give yourself a bit of time to transition from sleep to wakefulness—don’t jump out of bed and reach for your smartphone. A healthy pre-sleep and post-sleep routine are crucial to getting the maximum benefit from the time you spend a sleep. Remember: if you’re feeling tired, you need to sleep smarter, not necessarily longer.

Adapted from Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps, and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body & Mind, by Nick Littlehales. Copyright © 2018. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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