Sleep like an elite athlete: 6 steps to optimum recovery

Sleep coach Nick Littlehales has worked with Team Sky cyclists and Liverpool FC to help them get the best quality sleep possible. Adopt some of his tips to help you sleep like an elite athlete. Better yet, follow them all...

6 steps for optimum sleep

Understand your circadian rhythms

A circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal cycle managed by your body clock. This clock of yours, deep within your brain, regulates internal systems such as sleeping and eating patterns, hormone production, temperature, alertness, mood and digestion. It does this in a 24-hour process evolved to work in harmony with the earth’s rotation.

Our body clocks are set by internal cues, chief among them being daylight, as well as things like temperature and eating times. It’s vital to understand that these rhythms are ingrained within us; the product of millions of years of evolution. A typical circadian rhythm describes what your body wants to do naturally at various points throughout the day.

Keep your circadian rhythm on point by getting plenty of daylight – 2hrs minimum – during the day, going to bed when you feel tired, and avoiding blue light from screens in the evenings.

Know your chronotype

Your chronotype describes your sleeping characteristic – whether you’re a morning or evening person – but it doesn’t just determine the time you get up and go to bed, it indicates the times your body wants to perform the functions outlined in your circadian rhythms.

If you’re an AMer (morning person), your body clock is a bit fast. If you’re a PMer (evening person) your clock’s running slow. Chronotypes are a genetic trait and are usually easy to spot.

Do you like staying up and going to bed late? Do you need an alarm to get up for work in the morning? Are you partial to a nap in the daytime? Do you often sleep in on your days off? Then it’s likely that you’re a PMer.

AMers wake naturally, enjoy their breakfast and love the mornings. They tend not to need an alarm to wake them, are less likely to feel fatigued during the day and tend to go to bed reasonably early.

Once you know your chronotype, you can manage it in the following ways to become more productive:

(PMers) Daylight in the morning is vital if you want to set your body clock to play catch-up with the AMers. Get a dawn-wake stimulator, open the curtains and go outside. PMers should also cut out the lie-ins at the weekend, if you spend all week adjusting your body clock to the demands of your job, then let it all go at the weekend, your clock will drift back to its natural, slower state.

(AMers) Utilise daylight during the afternoon when you begin to struggle. A daylight lamp at your desk is a good investment. It’s useful to note that AMers are more alert during the mornings so try to schedule important meetings, work and physical training during the mornings.

Sleep in cycles, not hours

I developed the R90 Technique working with elite athletes. It simply means recovery in 90 minutes. 90 minutes is the length of time it takes a person under clinical conditions to go through the stages of sleep that constitute a cycle.

Sleep cycles are composed of four (sometimes five) distinct stages. Think about your passage through a cycle as a journey down a flight of stairs. When you turn the lights off and get into bed at night, you’re at the top of the stairs. Down at the bottom of the stairs is deep sleep, which is where you want to get to.

I talk about sleep in cycles per week, not hours per night. All of a sudden, one bad night out of seven doesn’t seem too bad. We immediately take the pressure off, because it isn’t an all-or-nothing eight hours per night you're aiming for. Everything isn’t riding on tonight.

Aim for 35 cycles per week. You should try to avoid three consecutive nights of fewer than five cycles. Look to follow a night or two of this with the ideal routine. If you can fit at least four nights a week of an ideal sleep routine into your schedule, you’re doing okay. Most importantly, you’re aware of how much sleep you’re getting.

It’s empowering to take control of your sleep like this. It’s even possible to start manipulating cycles in the short-term to free up more time for a specific event or period in your life as part of a controlled regime change.

Pre-and post-sleep routines

‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail,’ is a phrase that could have been conceived with pre- and post-sleep recovery in mind. What you do immediately before you go to bed has a direct consequence on the quality and duration of your sleep, while what you do after waking has significant consequences for the rest of your day (and the coming night).

Using my R90 Technique, we look at these pre- and post-sleep periods as being just as important as the time actually spent asleep. In fact, they’re more important, because you can exercise some direct control over them. It is here that we start looking at 90 minutes not just as segments of the time you spend asleep, but as portions of your waking day. Ideally, you would have a 90-minute period for pre-sleep and the same amount for post-sleep.

Your pre-sleep routine ensures you’re in the best state to sleep. It’s the work you do to put yourself in a position where you can start your first cycle and then move seamlessly through the subsequent cycles during the night, getting as much of the light, deep sleep and REM as you need.

A pre-sleep routine could include a technology shutdown, moving from a warm to a cool environment and light to dark environment, getting things ready for the following day and unloading by jotting down your thoughts or writing a to-do list.

If your pre-sleep routine is everything you do to prepare yourself to get the best quality of sleep, then your post-sleep routine ensures all of that work and the subsequent hours spent asleep have not been wasted. A good post-sleep routine will help you move from a sleep state to a fully awake state, so that you can manage your day positively, and it will even set you up in the best way possible for when you go to bed that night.

During your post-sleep routine you should avoid technology for as long as possible, eat breakfast, do some exercise and stimulate your brain through a gentle mental challenge such as a crossword, writing exercise, or reading.

Embrace naps

A significant personal performance enhancer for athletes, the power of a good nap cannot be ignored.

If you’re tired during the day, take a 30–90 minute nap between 1300–1500 or 1700-1900 if you can.

You should also take regular mind breaks, ideally every 90-minutes, to improve performance and reduce stress levels and stop you feeling so tired in the afternoon and early evening.

No time for a break? Make time. You’re going to be more efficient for having one, with refreshed levels of concentration as a result. It doesn’t have to be a major break.

Go and make a cup of tea, go to the toilet, pop outside for a couple of minutes, get up and talk to a colleague or make a phone call. It doesn’t really matter – the point is that you’re moving away from the environment and mental state you work in to give your mind a little recovery window.

Create the perfect sleeping environment

Your bedroom must become a sleep sanctuary – a mental and physical recovery room.

Paint your bedroom white and keep the walls uncluttered. You don’t want any potential stimulus in the room, just a simple, clean and neutral décor.

Next, look at controlling one of the key bedroom prompts for your circadian rhythms – light – with your curtains or blinds. You produce melatonin in darkness, so need your recovery rooms to be free of ambient light such as streetlights. Total blackout is the most effective method, which can be achieved by using blackout roller blinds or even taping your curtains shut.

You need daylight in the morning, so once you wake up it’s essential to get the blinds or curtains open immediately and flick that internal switch to get you producing serotonin.

Temperature is the next most important factor to get right so you can best work with your circadian rhythms and fall into a sleep state. Our bodies want to move into a cooler, not cold, environment, so keeping the room at an optimal 16 to 18 degrees centigrade will allow this natural process to occur.

You should only have the essentials in your bedroom and if you’re a home worker who has your desk in the bedroom, try to work at the kitchen table or out of the room if possible, so your mind doesn’t make the associations between the recovery room and work. Try to avoid having any technology in your room and keep your room free from clutter.