Sleep is the foundation that your athletic performance is built on - and like every other aspect of athletic performance consistency is everything. Routinely getting high quality restorative sleep can dramatically improve your physical capabilities and cognitive function, turning you into a better athlete.
One Stanford study on sleep found basketball players who extended their sleep to 10 hours per night ran faster in both halves of games they played in and improved their shooting percentage by at least 9%. The benefits are undeniable.
Getting 10 hours of sleep every night, however, is unrealistic for a lot of us. So we wanted to explore a few quick lessons on sleep recovery you can implement immediately that will help you get more quality sleep when you need it most.
1 - Expose yourself to sunlight early to start your biological clock
When we wake up our body temperature starts to rise which triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol. We’ve covered cortisol in previous Recovery Club posts where we focussed on how to lower your cortisol levels, as having chronically high cortisol is highly detrimental to our physical performance - but, cortisol does serve a function in the body and provided it’s released at the right time.
We want cortisol levels to peak early in the day, this helps kickstart our metabolism, aid our immune system, it’s also going to help you focus mentally. Sunlight helps trigger this early release of cortisol, ideally exposure to the sun for about 10 minutes within the first 30 - 60 minutes of waking up will allow for this to happen.
The reason for this is that you have a intrinsically photosensitive melanopsin cells in your eye whose neurons respond best to bright light, and especially right after waking early in the day, they are best able to signal to a set of neurons that reside over the roof of your mouth called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. This is a cluster of neurons that then sends a huge number of other signals, electrical and chemical, out to your entire body that triggers that cortisol increase, providing a wake-up signal for your brain and body, and sets in motion a timer for you to fall asleep later that night.
So getting that early exposure to sunlight is the best way to start your day.
2 - Don’t use caffeine to make up for lost sleep - plan a strategic nap.
Lost sleep is something we all deal with on a weekly basis. When we pull a late one to get a project over the line or go out for a few drinks on the weekend and not get back in till 2am, it can be tempting to get a double espresso in the system and power through the next day. However, taking a strategically timed nap is a much more effective recovery method, helping maintain your sleep consistency and improve your physical and mental performance in the long term.
The data on caffeine is concrete - while it can be a great tool for firing up the nervous system, making you feel more focussed and alert it also disrupts our sleep, delaying our circadian clock while forcing our body into a state where it gets tired later on in the day and reduces our ability to fall into a deep sleep.
So instead of helping us get through the day, it can actually have an adverse effect further compounding the impact of your sleep loss into the next day. Instead, a well planned strategic nap can help you manage your sleep deficit.
The best nap you can take is less than 90 minutes and not too late in the day - optimally between 12 and 4pm. This will help you wake up feeling refreshed, and avoid feeling groggy while also not impacting your sleep later on in the day.
3 - Take a cold shower to increase your internal body temperature.
Getting under some cold water, whether that’s an ice bath or a cold shower is another great way to kick start your day. When we first wake up in the morning our body temperature is at its lowest so cold water exposure is always the most challenging when we’ve only just risen from sleep but getting colder for 1 - 3 minutes actually helps increase your body's internal temperature and get you moving for the day.
This is because the brain and body interact in a manner similar to a thermostat - simply put, when we are exposed to the cold our brain lights up a cluster of neurons called the medial preoptic area that tells the body ‘it’s cold, you need to warm up’.
So then when you get out of that cold water, your body temperature is increasing at a rate that's faster than it would otherwise and you're going to feel more alert. It also has the advantage of increasing dopamine, which is a molecule involved in motivation and focus. To add to this, cold water also triggers the release of adrenaline and epinephrine which also make you feel alert and focussed ready to start the day.