As I’m writing this, I’m enjoying a Sunday afternoon relaxing with my girlfriend and my dog. And as much as we concentrate on exercise and nutrition, rest is often what makes the difference between success and failure in our fitness efforts. I’ve always had trouble relaxing and hitting the “off” switch (which my parent’s dog Sadie, to the right, has no problem doing), but as I learn to make better use of my rest time, my recovery has dramatically improved, leading to consistently better workouts.
We can lift and sprint all we want and eat kale til we turn green, but if we aren’t getting quality sleep, we won’t make the gains we fight so hard to make. We have to strive to sleep more and sleep better if we want to optimize health and performance.
Easier said than done, right?
Work, school, friends, TV, parties, kids, chores, money… all these things create stress that hurts our sleep quality in two ways:
- Cutting into our actual sleep time (keeping us up later and waking us up earlier)
- Decreasing the quality of the sleep we actually get
So just like exercise and nutrition, we have to approach our sleep efforts with a plan. Here are eight ways to get a better night’s sleep.
1. FOAM ROLL BEFORE BED
We all should foam roll our sore, tight muscles to improve recovery. So what if foam rolling could doubly help recovery by making you sleep better?
Foam rolling and other forms of massage activate our parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” one), which helps us calm down and relax. This kickstarts the sleep process and is a great addition to a pre-bed routine. Choose one tight muscle group and hit it for five minutes before hopping in bed.
2. EAT CARBS BEFORE BED
Do you still believe that old urban legend that eating carbs before bed will turn you into a jiggling blob of fat overnight? Thank goodness the works of Jason Ferruggia, Layne Norton and Dr. Kiefer have put that myth to bed (see what I did there?).
Not only is nighttime a great time to eat carbs for maximum muscle gain (assuming you’ve eaten low-carb early in the day and hit an intense weight training session prior to the carb feast), but eating carbs releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Serotonin helps regulate sleep (it’s derived from the amino acid tryptophan, that stuff in turkey that’s notorious for putting us to sleep before halftime on Thanksgiving day), so crushing a high-carb dinner can help send us off to never-never land.
3. WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN
Dale Carnegie writes, “If you can’t sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there and worrying. It’s the worry that gets you, not the loss of sleep.”
I know when I can’t sleep, it’s usually because my mind is racing and I’m thinking about all the things I need to do or want to do. Instead of letting the thoughts of tomorrow keep you awake tonight, write down everything you need to do the next day. Get it out of your head and onto the paper so you can sleep worry-free.
4. USE DEEP BREATHING DRILLS
Breathing drills are all the rage in the strength and conditioning world right now, and with good reason. Proper breathing mechanics can greatly improve core strength and unlock hidden range of motion, as shown by my barbell brother Miguel Aragoncillo.
While breathing drills undoubtedly improve mobility and increase core activation, I’m still not sold on using them as part of a warmup. Why, you ask? Because they make you relax too much! The last thing I want before I get ready to squat or deadlift big weights is to relax. That said, what better way to cool down from a workout or get ready for bed? Dim the lights, hit some breathing drills and feel yourself melt into a state of pre-sleep relaxation.
5. SLEEP ON YOUR SIDE
If you’re sleeping for seven or eight hours like you should be, you’d better spend that time in a position that won’t wreck your spine, hips and shoulders. Sleeping on your back or your belly invites all kinds of weird things to happen at those delicate joints. You wouldn’t spend eight waking hours with your lower back cranked into hyperextension, your hands behind your head or your hips twisted in opposite directions, would you?
Sleeping on your side is the most mechanically-sound way to sleep for breathing mechanics (if you snore like a chainsaw, you probably sleep on your back) and the longterm health of your big-time power joints (shoulders, hips, low back). Check out this video from Kelly Starrett about the implications of sleeping on your back:
6. SUPPLEMENT WITH L-THEANINE
L-Theanine is an amino acid that has a relaxing effect and works synergistically with caffeine to reduce the jittery effects some people experience when they take caffeine. According to Examine.com, it won’t directly help you sleep, but if you train later at night and use caffeine pre-workout, definitely give L-theanine a try. It may prevent that evening caffeine fix from keeping you up all night.
7. GET MORE MAGNESIUM IN YOUR DIET
A deficiency in magnesium, an important electrolyte, may leave you antsy and make it hard to sleep. Nuts and green leafy vegetables are great sources of magnesium, so eat a big salad or some sauteed greens for dinner and a handful of almonds or cashews as a pre-bed snack.
8. SLEEP IN A COOL, DARK ROOM
How hard is it to sleep during a hot, humid summer night? How mad do you get when a blinding ray of sun sneaks through your blinds at 5 a.m.? A cool, pitch-black room is the ideal chamber for a restful night’s sleep.
If you have a temperature control unit in your room, set it to 68 degrees or cooler or run a fan if you enjoy the white noise. Invest in some heavy curtains to block out the light and cover any phones, alarm clocks or other lights to get the room as dark as possible.
YOU SNOOZE, YOU… WIN!
A good night’s sleep is your most powerful weapon in the fight for fitness supremacy. They say you can’t out-train a bad diet, but you can’t out-train or out-diet poor sleep habits. Use these eight tips to sleep better tonight and wake up stronger tomorrow.