Why you aren't getting enough sleep

Why You Aren’t Sleeping Well

Head Coach Matt Connolly shares some tips on getting better quality sleep

As someone who worked shifts for more than nine years, I’m only too familiar with struggling to sleep and the subsequent negative effects it can have on health, performance and overall quality of life. However, these effects aren’t unique to shift workers and increasingly I see the same patterns arising within those involved in fitness.

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.

Often this natural rhythm is disrupted by our day to day activities involving work, family, training and other commitments. However, acknowledging this rhythm and, more importantly, honouring it, is vital for our health and longevity.

In the image below you can see the relationship between two hormones, melatonin [blue line] and cortisol [red line] throughout the day and night. Melatonin being the hormone responsible for regulation of sleep and cortisol which is responsible for a number of functions and is released in response to stress.

melatonin and cortisol graph

Take a look at the chart above and compare it to your current daily schedule, this should give you some idea of why your sleep may be sub-optimal.

What times of day do you currently train? When do you go to bed? What about sleeping and waking times?

Keep in mind that training 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 overtrain, it’s a fine balance to strike.

Training in the evening, around 6-8 pm, is going to cause a stress response from your body, raising cortisol and delaying sleep. Likewise, watching TV or being on a device in bed is going to prevent the brain from being able to release melatonin and again, delay or reduce the quality of sleep.

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 the short term and illness in the longer-term. No wonder they can’t sleep very well.

When it comes to managing overall training volume, lifestyle stressors and recovery – sleep is king. As a benchmark to aim for I work on the basis of 8-9 hrs per night. The national sleep foundation have different recommendations based upon age (below), although activity level and other factors need to be taken into account on a case-by-case basis.

Sleep recommendation graph

Here’s a few simple strategies that you can implement into your routine to dramatically increase both sleep quality and quantity as well as 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, and where this isn’t possible, invest in a sleeping mask. If you need to go to the bathroom in the night – DON’T turn on lights or open your eyes 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 appreciate 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 mins 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 mins in the sun, whether for a walk, yoga, or AM MAP10 session.

#2 – Don’t Use Electronic Devices Before Bedtime 

Don’t do it! It’s become increasingly prevalent over recent years to use electronic screens to read, to work, 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 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. I recommend these to the majority of people I work with to help support circadian rhythm, improve sleep quality and aid in relaxation in the evening before bed.

Wearing them for 60-90 mins before bed blocks out 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 – Manage Your Stress

A common factor for people struggling to sleep, is that of having thoughts running through their head, or analysing conversations from the day and subsequently worrying about them. In the run up to sleep, our goal should be to unwind and stimulate the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system [responsible for resting and digesting] there are number of simple ways in which 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 runs a free ten day course for ten minutes a day [you can repeat is as often as you’d like].
    • Breathing – spend time practicing quality deep breaths where you aim to fill the belly with air. 50 quality breaths (3 sec inhale, 3 sec hold, 3 sec exhale, 3 sec hold) DAILY is good practice and the evening is an ideal time to perform these.
    • Dry skin brushing – this provides a multitude of benefits, with a parasympathetic stimulus being just one. Start out with a soft natural fibre 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, creating a todo list can be a powerful tool to ‘empty’ them from your brain. I write them out on paper then put them on an app called ‘Todoist’ in the morning to avoid using a device at night.

Learn the OPEX Basic Lifestyle Guidelines with the free Coach’s Toolkit.

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  1. It’s so nice article. I love to read such interesting articles. I have been using Himalayan salt lamps from saltean for long time period. These salt lamps not only improve my sleeping habits, but also make me feel calm and relaxed. I would also suggest you all to try it once.

  2. Hi, Great Tips! I have recently read on one post that caffeine also causes problems in sleep. I have made cut off on my caffeine intake from some time and it really helped me well.

    I hope this tip will help people.

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