You snooze, you win! 10 tips to get the ZZZ's you need

You have a training schedule to stick to and time is short. So, most days you steal an hour or two from what should be shut-eye time to squeeze in a long run or even more time at the office. You eat well and treat your body right, so you can get away with a little less sleep than most, right?

Wrong. Make the sleep tradeoff often enough and not only can it harm your overall health, it'll wreak havoc on your sports performance.

But let's clarify. We're talking about chronic sleep deprivation--that is, shortchanging yourself on sleep over the long term. It's common for pre-race jitters to keep you up the night before an event. But if you slept enough most of the days before, one night of sleeplessness shouldn't hurt your effort the next day. Which is even more reason to make good sleeping habits a training priority.

Chronic sleep deprivation causes significant reductions in alertness and performance. It impairs your memory and your ability to process information. Shortening your snooze time day after day can also hamper your body's ability to metabolize glucose efficiently, meaning your body will store less glycogen in the muscles and you'll have less energy to fuel your workouts.

And since the pituitary gland releases growth hormone during only the deep stages of sleep, limiting the duration of your shut-eye also limits the length of time this muscle-growing, bone-building, fat-burning hormone is fed into your body. Recent studies have even suggested that sleep plays an important role in the secretion of appetite-regulating hormones, as well. That is, chronic sleep deprivation may make you gain unnecessary weight.

In short, not only do we need sleep to stay sharp and meet the day's challenges head-on, it's critical for muscle recovery and increased muscle strength, both of which are vital to athletic performance.

And while the amount of sleep most people need is estimated at six to nine hours per night, Mike Nichols, M.D., a preventive health care specialist and medical director of the Tempus Clinic in Los Gatos, Calif., says active women may need as many as eight to 10 hours a night. "Active women are especially dependent on the healing phases of sleep," Dr. Nichols says. "Proper regulation of these cycles is essential to high physical energy and mental acuity."

If you suspect you need more ZZZ's, here are ten tips to help you get them:

  • Establish a schedule. Get up and go to bed at about the same time each day to regulate your inner clock.
  • Follow a bedtime routine. Whether it's taking a hot bath or sitting in a rocking chair and reading a book, adopt some relaxing habits before hitting the hay.
  • Get comfy. Make sure your sleeping conditions and attire are as comfortable as possible. Also, a slightly cool room is more conducive to sleeping than a warmer one. To stay warm use cozy blankets but keep the air temperature cool.
  • Two words: dark and quiet. If there's a streetlight shining into your bedroom or you work at night and need to sleep during the day, get some dark curtains. And try white noise such as a fan to drown out distracting background noise that can interrupt sleep.
  • Say no to a nightcap. While alcohol may help put you to sleep, you will likely experience periods of wakefulness.
  • Be pillow smart. Use your bed only for two purposes: sleep or sex. Avoiding reading, watching TV, eating or any other activities in bed.
  • Time your vices. Have caffeinated beverages and chocolate earlier in the day. If you use nicotine, avoid it two hours before bedtime.
  • Resist the temptation to nap. Daytime naps can fragment sleep at night. Try adding that extra 20 minutes to an hour of naptime to your night's rest instead of wedging it into the middle of the day. If you must nap, no snoozing after 3 p.m.
  • By all means, exercise! Daily exercise is a great way to ensure a restful night's sleep, but avoid rigorous exercise for at least three hours before bedtime, as it stimulates the body and may lead to restlessness.
  • Try natural sleep aids. T here's science behind that warm glass of milk: the tryptophan in it increases serotonin, a natural sleep enhancer. Dr. Nichols also suggests herbal treatments such as passion flower, valerian and kava kava, but use them only to help establish natural sleeping patterns, after which wean yourself off them.

Excerpts of this story were taken from "Choose to Snooze" by Joan Eglash in the January/February 2005 issue of Her Sports.

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