Sports sleep expert Nick Littlehales shares his winning tips to ensure we feel refreshed and raring to go
Rest and recovery is a vital part of training for athletes – but never more so than during the Olympics.
Sports sleep expert Nick Littlehales ( www.sportsleepcoach.com ) has worked with all the British Cycling team – including Bradley Wiggins, Victoria Pendleton and Sir Chris Hoy – to ensure they feel refreshed and raring to go when their big day dawns.
Here Nick shares his winning tips so we mere mortals can sleep like Olympians too:
1 Check your mattress, pillow and bedding is giving the right support. “Your mattress should take your body shape and weight easily – almost as if you don’t need a pillow,” says Nick. “Get someone to analyse you lying on the bare mattress, in a foetal position on your non-dominant side (so if you’re right handed, lie on your left side). This is the natural sleeping position. If there is a clear gap of five centimetres or more between your head and mattress, or you feel your head dropping on to the mattress, then it could be too firm. Head raised out of line? The mattress may be too soft.”
2 Choose bedding that’s breathable, comfortable and sleep-inducing. Nick makes up “sleep kits” for athletes with contouring, pressure sensitive mattress toppers, linen and temperature-sensitive duvets and pillows from The Fine Bedding Company ( www.finebedding.co.uk ).
3 Think of sleep in terms of 90-minute cycles rather than hours. During each 90-minute cycle, the body goes through five stages essential to overall recovery. These include “light sleep”, “deep sleep” and “REM sleep” (when we dream).
4 Plan to wake at the end of a cycle, rather than mid-cycle. Work backwards from the time you need to wake to find your optimum “turning in” time. So, if you need to wake at 6.30am your optimum turning-in time is 11pm. This includes 15 minutes to fall asleep and 15 minutes to wake – and five 90-minute cycles of refreshing sleep. Alternatively, you could go to bed at 9.30pm (for six cycles), 12.30am (four cycles) or 2am (three cycles). If you miss your ideal slot stay awake until the next one. Recover the next day by getting back into your original cycle. Don’t lie in at weekends to catch up. You will undo all your good work.
5 Take a nap Mid-afternoon is a natural sleep time for humans. Between 1pm and 4pm find a quiet place to sit or lie. Once relaxed and comfortable set an alarm to go off 20 minutes later, close your eyes, drift and let go. Even if you don’t fall asleep you’ll still reap the benefits.
6 Don’t allow yourself to get so tired that you fall asleep the moment that your head hits the pillow.
“This is counter-productive – you are skipping stages and going straight into deep sleep,” Nick says.
7 Like an athlete, make sure your day contains a balance of activity and recovery with “round-the-clock” 90-minute cycles. Ensure each cycle contains a five or ten-minute break. So for every 90 minutes at your desk, get up and walk around the office or grab some fresh air. These breaks will allow you to process your thoughts and stop worry affecting sleep time later.
8 Eat and drink well and get plenty of daylight.
9 Open the bed- room window to let fresh air in. Both the bed and bedroom need to be between 16C and 18C (the optimum temperature to ensure a good night’s sleep).
10 Eat your final meal three to four hours before turning in and any bedtime snacks at least 90 minutes before (so you don’t go to sleep on a full bowel or bladder).
11 Plan a 90-minute unwinding slot between 7.30pm and 9pm. Take a gentle 20-minute walk, or do some yoga, followed by 15 minutes of sitting quietly. Allow your brain to “download” your day and plan for tomorrow.
12 Take a techno break from emails and texts and write a “to do” list. De-cluttering your mind will boost deep sleep by 60%.
13 From 9pm-10.30pm prepare for sleep – pamper, relax, unwind. Candlelight triggers the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Ease stress and muscle tension with light stretches.
14 Visit the loo every 15 mins in the hour before going to bed – whether you need to or not – to stop nocturnal trips to the bathroom.
15 Don’t take water to bed – it’s a trigger to your body to wake for a drink. Waking up thirsty shows you’re not hydrated enough when you turn in or that you’re sleeping with your mouth open, so you’re not comfortable (see 1).
16 Fit blackout blinds to ensure total darkness.
17 However, you will need light to boost your internal body-clock and wake refreshed. Invest in a dawn simulator clock (from £59.95; www.lumie.com).
18 Avoid using the alarm on your phone or computer – they are communication tools! Stick to a functional alarm clock.
19 During cold weather don’t warm up the bed – ensure you are warmer than the bed, bedroom and bedding (a warm shower can do this). “A higher body temperature released into your cooler bedding induces a natural sleep state,” says Nick.
20 In warm weather focus on keeping the bedroom cool during the day. Drawing the curtains will help, too.
21 At your optimum sleep time get into bed, curl up into the foetal position on your non-dominant side and let go.
6.30am Wakey, wakey, rise and shine…and go win a medal!