In a recent post, I shared that sleep is one of the “big rocks” you need to put in place if you want to improve your recovery. In this week’s article, I’ll go into more detail about how exactly you can avoid the common pitfalls that might be sabotaging your slumber and short-circuiting your training gains. You’ll also learn some proactive techniques to get your sleep-wake cycle back in balance.
When clients talk to our TD Athletes Edge team about sleep, they often believe that this tracker or that new supplement will be a cure-all for their acute or chronic sleep issues. Given the amount of marketing dollars directed toward such products, it’s no wonder that they might have this impression. But while gizmos, pills, and potions might be beneficial in some way, before I’d recommend any of them, I’d first want to do a little detective work and see what’s going on behind the scenes. If someone is persistently struggling to fall and stay asleep or is waking up feeling destroyed, then we need to see if their lifestyle habits are helping or hindering their nighttime rest.
The Story of How Sleep Slipped
Often it’s the latter. Before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, our forebears’ sleep-wake cycles were governed by natural light and dark. They’d usually rise with the sun (maybe with some low-tech assistance of a rooster crowing or, in urban areas, a city rumbling to life in the wee hours of the morning), work hard all day, and then start to wind down when the sun set. When the economy was primarily agricultural, people were outside most of the time.
With the advent of the lightbulb and a widespread rural-to-urban migration spurred by job growth in manufacturing, this natural cycle was disrupted forever. Now that artificial light was a thing (thanks, Thomas Edison), people could work around the clock and rather than the workday being limited by sunlight, employees could now toil 24/7 in shifts, which further disrupted sleep patterns. More people than ever before started spending most of their waking hours indoors, eventually leading to the EPA declaring that the average American spends just seven percent of their time outside.
Indoor lifestyles led to a lack of exposure to the kind of blue light that used to wake people up in the morning, and also mitigated the release of melatonin prompted by the sun going down in the evening. As the modern age progressed, we started to stare at screens more and more for both work and entertainment, which exposed us to blue light when we least needed it and kept us away from the sun’s stimulating effects earlier in the day. The warm glow of Edison bulbs was replaced by brighter fluorescents, so that overhead lights in office buildings and homes contributed to the shakeup of the sleep-wake cycle on a society-wide scale.
The results? Over 70 million Americans suffering from at least one chronic sleep condition, which in turn increases the risk of injury, encourages us to eat more (by disrupting the balance of the hormones leptin and ghrelin), and contributes to an increased incidence of just about every major disease. On the subjective side, lack of sleep also makes us feel perpetually exhausted, emotionally unstable, and more irritable.
Sorting Out Your Sleep-Wake Cycle
Before you reach for the latest supplement you see at the grocery store or order a new, funky-shaped pillow online, there are a few simple yet effective ways you can try to restore your normal circadian rhythm. Here, habits trump technology almost every time. And if you’re able to combine positive behaviors into a consistent nighttime routine, I believe you’ll be well on the way to remedying your sleep issues. Let’s look at the rough timelines for a typical daily schedule. This assumes that you’re in the majority who can get up and fall asleep fairly early. If you’re more of a night owl, then feel free to shift each time block later as needed, while keeping the general principles the same.
6 AM to 7 AM Here’s when you should wake up if your schedule and chronotype allows. If you have time, try to drink your morning coffee outside or, even better, walk to your local coffee shop to add some early morning sunshine into the mix. A breakfast that’s high in fat and protein can also stoke the release of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and dopamine that promote wakefulness.
7 AM to Noon Exercise is another powerful signal to your body and brain that it’s time to wake up. So if you can fit in some movement during this window, all the better. The morning hours are also a great time to do work that involves deep focus and concentration.
Noon to 2 PM This is when the dreaded early afternoon slump often occurs. You can refill your coffee or tea mug now, but make sure you don’t go past a 2 PM watershed with caffeine. Unless you metabolize it very quickly, caffeinated drinks and foods like dark chocolate will adversely affect your first sleep cycle, per a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
2 PM to 4 PM When your schedule allows, try to build in some afternoon movement. You get bonus points if this is outside. Even a short walk will do the trick to get you more sunlight exposure and boost your circulation.
4 PM to 6 PM If you’re going to consume alcohol, happy hour is the best time to do it. This will give your body sufficient opportunity to process the booze and get it out of your system so that it doesn’t adversely impact your sleep duration or quality.
6 PM to 7 PM This is the optimal slot for dinnertime. This way, you can have a good meal without going to bed feeling bloated. Include plenty of lean protein and healthy fats, and if you’re going to consume carbs, try to make sure they’re coming from whole grain sources or fruit and vegetables. Too many refined carbs can overstimulate your nervous system.
7 PM to 9 PM Try to fit in some calming, screen-free activities like board games or reading solo or with your kids. Now is also a fine time to do some mobility/soft tissue work. Research conducted at the University of Texas at Austin concluded that taking a warm shower or bath 90 minutes before bedtime can also prime your body for sleep. Make sure your bedroom is between 60 and 65 degrees, is free of tech devices, and is as dark as possible. If you suspect that you might be disturbed by noise (see: your neighbor’s barking dog or cars zooming up and down your street), wear some noise-canceling earbuds. Try to turn in by 9 PM if possible. On those occasions when you have to work late, use blue-light-blocking glasses or a free program like f.lux, and if you must pick your phone up in the evening, use the Night Mode to reduce your blue light exposure.
It’s not going to work if you just try a routine like this once or for a couple of days. The key to achieving better sleep is consistency. So feel free to tweak what I’ve suggested here, to add other habits that will be a positive addition to your own evening routine, and to then resolve to follow through on this personalized plan. If you commit and stay consistent, you’ll start to feel and perform better, and those sleep issues you’ve been struggling with will likely become a thing of the past.
Check back soon for part two, in which we’ll explore the physical benefits of sleep, and part three, which will focus on the emotional and cognitive advantages of a good night’s rest.
 Christopher Drake et al, “Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours Before Going to Bed,” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, November 15, 2013, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3805807/.
 Shahab Haghayegh et al, “Before-Bedtime Passive Body Heating by Warm Shower or Bath to Improve Sleep: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Sleep Medicine Reviews, August 2019, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31102877/.
Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT spent 6 seasons as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and is the founder of TD Athletes Edge. He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.