In addition to proper nutrition, hydration and recovery days, sleep can be one of the top factors that can make or break your fitness performance.
In a recent study looking at sleep quality and athletes, researchers noted that people who are in training tend to experience more sleep issues than non-athletes, due to training load and stress. The study also suggests athletes require more sleep than those who don’t work out because they have higher recovery needs.
But knowing that you should sleep and getting that sleep can be two very different things. When dreamtime proves elusive, there tends to be a slew of common sense strategies people use — yet it’s possible that, for some, those allegedly proven tactics are actually making the problem worse. Here are some habits you might be putting in place that are keeping you from getting enough shuteye:
1. TAKING MELATONIN AT THE WRONG TIME
Around sunset, your brain produces melatonin, a hormone designed to start a cascade of sleep-inducing reactions. But if you’re frazzled or anxious, the hormone might not be as abundant as you’d like. Because of that, many people turn to taking a melatonin supplement.
But they often pop it like a sleeping pill right before bed, thinking it’ll take effect immediately, according to W. Christopher Winter, MD, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. Melatonin in the body tends to take around 3–4 hours, so if you’re taking it at 9 p.m., you might not sense any effects until about 1 a.m. — by then, you could be so frustrated by insomnia that you’re up watching TV instead, which will lower that melatonin back down.
2. GOING TO BED ONLY WHEN YOU’RE SLEEPY
Schedules become variable especially as seasons change — you stay out later on those bright summer nights, for example — and that can lead to hitting the sack when you’re tired. But too much variability can leave your body unsure about when to actually sleep, according to Mia Finkelston, MD, family practice physician.
“We can handle some changes to our usual routine, but not as much as you might think,” she says. “When you go to bed only when you’re tired, you’re introducing too much unpredictability into your sleep schedule. And that can catch up with you.”
3. COUNTING SHEEP (OR ANYTHING)
Some yoga and meditation breathing techniques rely on counting each inhale and exhale, so it makes sense that you might try to import that to your sleep routine. But Winter says some people find counting to be an anxiety-provoking exercise, instead of the de-stressor it’s meant to be.
“Maybe you get anxious if you hit double digits and you’re not asleep yet,” he says. “Or, you might have fallen asleep around 30 the night before but now you’re nearly at 50 and still counting. Then you might wonder if you’re doing something wrong.”
When that happens, it can sabotage your sleep efforts. Instead of counting, he recommends visualizing a well-known process that’s calming to you. For example, one of his patients “bakes” every night — she envisions getting out the measuring cups, chopping up ingredients, arranging the bowls for flour and sugar — and has found the process so effective, she jokes that nothing ever makes it into her imagined oven.
4. CHECKING THE CLOCK
Although it might seem like it would be a relief to know you have five hours left until you have to get up, looking at the clock is a bad habit, says Finkelston. It can be so counterproductive that she’s even advised some patients to put their alarm clocks in another room or the closet.
“To recognize how much time you have left to sleep, you have to wake up to a certain degree,” she says. “That might be just enough to kick you out of your cycle and cause some insomnia.”
READ MORE > HOW BAD SLEEP SABOTAGES YOUR FITNESS GOALS
BETTER HABITS, BETTER SLEEP
In general, it helps to play around with different strategies to see what works for you, says Winter. If melatonin is your jam and it’s working, that’s great. But if you’ve tried it for week or so and you’re still staring at the ceiling for an hour, then try switching it up instead.
“The last thing you want to do is try to force something to work, because then you’ll be agitated when it doesn’t,” he says. That can increase levels of cortisol — the hormone responsible for your stress response — and you’ll be back where you started.
Instead, try implementing good sleep practices, where consistency is key. Limit screen time before bed, set a regular bedtime and get up at the same time every day (yes, even on the weekends, sorry). Winter suggests starting a “wind-down routine” about a half-hour before bed, which can help send a signal to your brain that it’s time to relax.