We know the importance of good hygiene, right? We’re runners! Showers, clean socks, an extra shirt on hand…. All good. But do you know enough about “sleep hygiene”? Simply put, sleep hygiene is what you do to give yourself a good night’s rest.
We don’t have to tell you the importance of sleep to athletes, either — sleep is when our brains unwind and our bodies repair themselves. The National Institutes of Health recommend 7-9 hours of sleep each night for healthy adults. A well-rested body and mind are more alert, perform at a higher level, and have a lower risk of injury.
We went over some basics last summer with our Novant Health Family and Sports Medicine Physician Dr. Karan Shukla. These include shutting down technology early, keeping your bedroom cooler, limiting late snacks (an NO caffeine after 2 p.m.), keeping a sleep journal if you’re struggling, and limiting the use of your bed to just sleeping (and one other thing, *ahem*).
“One night of bad sleep is going to put you at risk of injury,” Dr. Shukla reminded us, “but if you are losing over 10% of your sleep over a couple of weeks, that can lead to performance declines and hinder you from reaching your goals.” Youth and collegiate athletes are most at risk of injury from lack of sleep; adding just one hour per night made a huge difference.
So for a follow-up, we dug a little deeper into 5 additional tips that can really make a difference in your sleep cycle. Even if you fall asleep easily, waking up at 3 a.m. and staring at the ceiling about that thing you just realized you need to worry about can be a sleep killer.
1. Turn down the lights and sounds. We’ve talked about your laptop and your phone, but what about the lamp by your bed or the light over your couch in the TV room?
“Darkness causes your brain to release melatonin for a calming, sleepy effect,” advises the Mayo Clinic. So dim the lights for an hour before bed — maybe use a book light or 15 watt bulb — and turn down the music. If you can hear the smallest noises in your house or outside (new parents, you’re tuned in to this!), try using a ceiling fan, noise generator, or ear plugs (unless you still have that newborn baby in the house.)
2. Exercise earlier. Hitting the road or the treadmill is good, because your body needs that workout to de-stress and get your blood pumping. But don’t jump off the treadmill, into the shower, and right into bed.
“Exercise boosts the effect of natural sleep hormones such as melatonin,” Dr. Karen Carlson, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told Harvard Health Publishing. Here’s the catch, though: Exercise also causes your body to secrete the stress-inducing hormone cortisol, which activates your “fight or flight” instinct. “Exercising too close to bedtime can be stimulating,” says Dr. Carlson. Finish your routine at least 3 hours before bed, or move it to the mornings for the best results.
3. Set a routine. You did it as a kid — take a bath, brush your teeth, read a story, get into bed — usually around the same time each night. It will work now that you’re all grown up, too. Shower, meditate, read a little, lay out your clothes. Most importantly, go to bed and get up at the same time each day — even on weekends! Your body will get in a natural rhythm to help your sleep be sleepy, and your wakeful hours be alert.
Setting a routine can also help you reduce stress by letting your brain know you are in control of the little things. Preparing for the next day, outlining a to do list, and visualizing success can all lead to a more restful night’s sleep.
4. Set your pillows. If you’ve ever been on the search for the “perfect” pillow, you know it makes a difference in whether you wake up rested or with a sore neck. Don’t get one that’s too fluffy or too thin. It should “support the natural curve of your neck when you’re resting on your back,” according to WebMD. (This tip was reviewed by a doctor.) If you sleep on your side, “line your nose up with the center of your body.” Don’t sleep on your stomach, either, if you want to wake up refreshed.
And if you’re prone to a sore back, try putting a small pillow under your knees or the small of your back. It can take the pressure off and keep the spine aligned.
5. No naps! Taking long naps in the middle of the day – especially after 3 p.m. – will make you less likely to fall asleep at bedtime. Any nap during the day, if you really need one, should be less than 20 minutes.
If you feel like you’re dragging, and the couch is tempting you, get up, take a walk, get some sunshine. Sunlight will wake you up and vitamin D will keep your sleep steady.
BONUS TIP: If you’re prone to waking up in the middle of the night (Hi 3 a.m.!), hide your clock. Seriously, put it in a drawer or turn it face down, and resist the urge to look at it. Knowing the time won’t help you get back to sleep, and the light from it might actually keep you more awake.
Another fun fact: You may think a glass of wine helps you fall asleep, but in reality, you’ll wake up when it wears off. What then? Avoid alcohol and nicotine too close to bedtime. Both are actually stimulants.
Good luck finding some zzz’s as we head into winter. One other thing going for you: it’s getting dark sooner, which will help you wind down.