“Get more sleep.” An often-lauded recommendation to improve not just your running but your entire life, and it sounds SO SIMPLE except … how? And how much? And, um, can we go back to how?
I’ve concluded that I cannot, in fact, add an extra couple hours to my day just for sleeping. And there are only so many to-dos we can cut out of our days to increase the amount of time available for sleeping. But what we CAN do is improve our quality of sleep. That’s what researchers call “sleep hygiene,” and it encompasses all the habits and routines around your bedtime as well as your sleeping environment.
Here’s my top tips for improving your overall sleep situation. Is this going to work every night? Probably not, especially if you have kids or animals. But making a few small adjustments can make a big difference.
Figure out how much sleep you need
Don’t fall into a trap of thinking you have to get exactly 8 hours every night. Every individual is different; 7-9 is common for adults and less than 6 normally causes health issues. I’m a fan of letting your body naturally reset over vacations or any time you can go 3 or more days without an alarm clock, just letting your body do its own thing. (Without an alarm clock I will hit about 9.25 hours every night and wake up right after the sun comes up. Every. Single. Time.)
But, well, that’s easier said than done. So, tracking your sleep and correlating that to how you feel is one way to start figuring out what works for you. Make notes in a journal, training log or anywhere else to keep track over a few weeks of how much sleep you got, how you felt when you woke up, how you felt throughout the day and how you felt running.
If you wear a Garmin or other tracker to bed, you may already have great sleep data. If you don’t, I recommend the app Sleep Time by Azumio (iOS and Google), which will record a lot of the same info using your phone. You can also look at this to see if you’re waking up frequently — a clear indicator that your sleep quality isn’t great and a sign you may need to make changes in your sleeping environment.
Schedule for sleep
Once you’ve got a sense of how much sleep you need, you have to figure out how to get it. Research has found consistent bedtime and wake up times to be important to overall sleep quality.
I suggest using a bedtime timer. The Sleep Time app has one; so does the clock app on your iPhone. Regardless, you want something where you put in your bedtime and your wake-up time. In my head I can know that 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. is only six hours of sleep, but once I put it into the app, I think, “Oh yeah, we’re going to have to change something here.” That visual makes a difference! And, most apps will have an option to alert you a specified amount of time before your scheduled bedtime.
Second, plan your schedule with sleeping in mind. Consider it another piece of your weekly calendar or your training plan. (It will surprise almost nobody who has talked to me for more than 15 minutes that I’m suggesting this.) My system is to sit down on Sunday and map all my workouts onto my calendar; you can do this whenever it suits you as long as you’re planning at least 4-10 days in advance. As I block those runs and other cross-training times onto my calendar, I look at my entire day and make note of which days I have to run early and therefore lose out on sleep (running before work normally means getting up 90 minutes earlier). Then, I figure out which days I can get adequate sleep or even a little extra to make up for the short days. Monday and Tuesday I usually run after work; Thursday and Friday I normally run early. I try to not skimp on sleep more than a couple of days in a row, and I factor weekend schedules in, too. Looking at it holistically provides more balance.
Develop a pre-bedtime routine
Researchers have found maintaining a consistent bedtime to be an important part of good sleep quality, so try to stick with the same time even on weekends. Build your routine backwards from there.
- Cut caffeine — varies by person but be careful about those late afternoon pick-me-up coffees.
- Try to finish your workout at least 3 hours before bedtime (this one is tough for me!).
- If you are prone to acid reflux or other GI issues, be mindful about what you’re eating for dinner (also me!).
- Avoid blue light! The light waves emitted by electronics can impact your sleep. Eliminate them if you can, of course, but … Use the night settings on your devices (phone, e-reader) if available. Buy a pair of blue-blocker glasses, with or without prescription (I get mine from EyeBuyDirect).
- Try melatonin and/or CBD; consume an hour before bedtime. Melatonin is a hormone produced by your body; darkness increases your body’s production of melatonin and signals to your body that it’s bedtime. It doesn’t put you to sleep, but it can help you establish your sleep cycle. I rely on it more in the summer when it doesn’t get dark until 9 p.m. Some studies have shown CBD to be similarly helpful; research also shows CBD may help with anxiety and/or pain, which can both inhibit quality sleep. I take it nightly. (I get both CBD and REM Caps from Hammer Nutrition.)
Prepare your environment
Okay, it’s bedtime — my favorite time of the day! Your sleeping environment plays a big role in your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Temperature: research finds 60º to 67º ideal. We use a Nest to kick the temperature down at 10 p.m. and raise it when we wake up.
- DARKNESS MY OLD FRIEND. Get. It. Dark. Blinds, blackout curtains, eye shades, whatever it takes. Try to get rid of any annoying LEDs — I hide hotel alarm clocks in the nightstand because I can’t stand them.
- Get some white noise, either via a ceiling fan, a humidifier/dehumidifier or an app on your phone. Experiment — I love fans and such; can’t stand storm sounds or waves or any of that. Especially not chirpy birds. NO CHIRPY BIRDS.
- Try meditation! Do you lay down and suddenly your brain is full of to-dos and worries? Meditation apps can help you effectively turn your brain off for the night. Simple Habit is my go-to but there are a lot of options out there. There’s a specific session that I typically use that can take me from “bundle of nerves” to “completely knocked out” before the 10 minute meditation ends.
- Weighted blankets — very trendy right now and, while I’m not typically one to jump on a trend, it has made it so much easier to get your hands on one affordably. For my whole life, I’ve enjoyed having the lead blanket on me for X-rays, and a few years ago when I borrowed a friend’s Normatech boots for a couple of weeks, I fell asleep every time I used them. It’s a technique known as deep pressure therapy (or stimulation). Like me, your first experience with DPT might be either with children or with dogs — a ThunderCoat applies the same principle. If you feel anxious at night, or if you’ve had similar reactions to things like lead blankets or Normatech boots, a weighted blanket might be worth a try. You want it to be about 10% of your body weight, and if you share a bed with someone, just get one big enough for yourself and get two blankets if needed. I have this one, and I do suggest a removable duvet cover so you can skip washing the blanket as often. That will also protect it from snags and tears — mine is full of glass beads, and while it’s segmented into squares, I’m waiting for the day my dog rips a hole in it jumping on the bed.
- Grab a can of paint — don’t forget that the color of your room can impact your sleep. Go for soothing, calming colors. Avoid reds and yellows that typically stimulate the senses. (The yellow in the first photo has since been repainted Dovetail Gray by Sherwin-Williams!)
Of course, these are tips that may improve your sleep quality, but they can’t make up for a variety of health issues that can impede your sleep — please consult a medical professional!
Have your own tricks? Share them in the comments!