How to Magically Get Better Sleep
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Sleep, to swimmers, is the magic elixir that transforms us from half-eyed, slow-walking, food-craving zombies into real, actual people. Sleep, to swimmers, is like water to someone stranded in the Sahara: It gives hope.
But, like that rare, Sahara water-filled puddle, there are different qualities of sleep. There is that tossing-turning-agonizing sleep, that kind of sleep when you wake at 3am and fret about morning practice, splits, races, and times. On the other hand, then there is that deep, blissful, REM-producing sleep, where all the world’s woes disappear into a black hole of forgetful nothingness.
How can you acquire this blissful, magical version of sleep? To the time-strained, always-hectic swimmer, where a few free minutes is as rare as a Michael Phelps 100m butterfly upset, eight hours a day for sleep could seem impossible. So, instead of attempting to squeeze extra sleep time where there may not be any available, focus on quality over quantity. Six wonderfully blissful hours of high-quality sleep is better than eight hours of tossing and turning and getting up in the middle of the night.
Here are some tricks swimmers can utilize to get better, more high-quality sleep:
1. No screens before bed.
Humans were not intended to jam bright, blue-light emitting devices up to their eyes minutes before sleep. You think staring at your bright cell phone or retina-screen iPad seconds before closing your eyes for black-hole restfulness is, evolutionarily speaking, healthy for high quality sleep? In my own life, I’ve noticed a huge difference between tapping away on my laptop just before sleep, and reading a good old-fashioned paper book near a lamp. When I power down those screens, I fall asleep sooner, and my sleep quality better.
2. Eat at least two hours before bed.
Swimmers do not not-eat. They are always eating. Always consuming. Like cows on a pasture, it is rare to see a swimmer never chewing. However, jamming your stomach full of food immediately before bedtime is on par with staring at a screen seconds before closing your eyes. The digestion process in your body requires tons of energy. If your body is attempting to digest those 8,000 calories of gummy bears you consumed five minutes before bedtime, your body won’t sleep as well as it should.
3. Try to get to bed earlier — even if that means you have to wake earlier.
Everyone has a “point of no return” when it comes to sleep. For me, this time is usually around 12:45am. If I’m awake past 12:45am, it won’t matter how much sleep I get that night. No matter what, I’ll be waking up the next day with half-groggy eyelids, bumping into things, constantly tired, yawning, anxiously awaiting the next night’s sleep. An old swim coach once told us that humans sleep the best between 10pm and 2am, which makes sense, when you consider the sun’s natural rise and fall. For me, I’d try to sleep before 10pm, even if that meant I had to wake up at 4:30am to do homework. Try it. Better sleep is better sleep.
4. If you’re a pre-sleep mind-racer, meditate.
If you’re as neurotic as most swimmers I know, constantly thinking about race strategies and practices and split times, whenever you hit bed, your mind suddenly accelerates from 0 to 80mph. Your thoughts churn and cycle and spin, and before you know it, it’s 3am, you’re pacing around the bedroom, stressed out about being stressed out. If you, too, suffer from scattered, nervous thoughts and an anxious pre-bed mind, try meditating before sleeping. Find a cozy corner and focus on your breathing for 10 or 20 minutes just before bedtime. At the end of a stressful day, the mind’s thoughts are like a giant knot. Meditating can help unwind those knots. (Sort of like counting sheep, but focusing on your breathing.) I’ve read studies that have shown pre-bed meditation can improve sleep quality.
5. As soon as you wake up, get outside.
Good sleep starts, ironically, as soon as you wake up in the morning. If you have no morning practice, and you wake and lay in your dark room until 2pm, when you venture outside or look out the window, your body will, slightly, re-calibrate its circadian rhythm. You know how older people always wake up at the crack of dawn because they’ve been doing that for 50 years and they walk around the house singing songs at 5am, and you silently curse them because why are they so happy? This is because their circadian rhythms have been hard-wired throughout the generations to do this. When you wake up in the morning, get out of bed. Take a five or ten minute walk outside. Get your eyes and skin exposed to some morning sun. Your circadian rhythm will stay more normalized, and you’ll feel more tired at the end of the day (compared to staying in your bed all Sunday watching Netflix with the lights off).
Magic sleep is possible, friends. Swimmers may not have nine hours a day to nap in bed, but with these few tricks, the few hours of sleep we do get can be better quality and more restful, allowing a better morning wake-up, recovery, and practice.