If I had to choose the one, single factor that’s most important in training success, it would be hard work balanced with sufficient recovery. And if I had to pick one thing that made for sufficient recovery, it would be sleep. Sleep is crucial for everyone, especially athletes, and maybe most of all for strength and physique athletes. You break the body down when you train, and it heals bigger and stronger when you sleep. But if you don’t sleep, then all that work in the gym is really just wearing yourself out.
Most people recognize the importance of sleep, but sometimes, that only makes it harder to get quality rest. If you’ve ever had trouble falling asleep after a hard training session, you know what I’m talking about: you’re restless, mentally and physically, and rather than relax, you start thinking about how a sleepless night will hurt your training. Pretty soon, that’s all you can think about, and you’re stuck, tossing and turning and agonizing over the uncomfortable reality of the situation, instead of saving energy for an agonizing workout.
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Fortunately, unless you’ve got some genetic condition resulting in insomnia, there are some very effective strategies you can use to improve the quality of your sleep. Here are my recommendations:
Meditation is far and away the best method of dealing with obsessive or anxious thoughts that can keep you up at night. It won’t eliminate them, of course, but practicing meditation will help you to let them pass and eventually get to sleep. And if sleep doesn’t come, a regular meditation practice will also help you accept the fact that that’s okay.
Those are long-term benefits of meditation. In the short term, studies suggest that meditation induces a relaxation response in the body, lowering heart and respiration rates. In other words, taking ten minutes before bed to sit in silent meditation can help to unwind, to let go of the stress that accumulates during the day, and to ready your body for sleep.
In general, mental training is one of the most valuable things I see a lot of lifters omitting from their programs. If you’re having trouble getting started, this video can help:
Look, there are a million sleep supplements out there. There are a few I really like, but the truth is, everyone’s body is very different, and so everyone is going to respond differently to various supplements. Things like melatonin, magnesium, tryptophan, and many others very may well help you fall asleep – and they may not do a darned thing. So instead of wasting time harping on various sleep supplements, I’d rather explain when and how to use the products most effectively.
First, I don’t think it’s a great idea to rely on any sleep supplement on a daily basis. If you’ve got an actual deficiency that’s keeping you up at night, then I think it’s important to identify the cause of that deficiency and then address it directly, because it very may well be affecting other aspects of your life and training as well.
Second, I do think you should consider the timing of sleep supplements. For example, certain ones – especially over-the-counter sleep medication like Nyquil and Unisom – can leave you feeling groggy the next day, which can have a negative impact on performance inside and outside of the gym, so you should avoid taking these very late at night. Conversely, if you pop some melatonin at 9 PM and spend the next three hours playing video games or surfing BarBend.com before getting into bed, you’ve probably not done much for your sleep quality.
If you want my take on some other supplements, check out this video:
This is basically the “everything else” bucket. Stuff like:
- Keeping a regular schedule
- Avoiding bright lights from screens before bedtime
- Avoiding caffeine and other stimulants before bedtime
- Limiting naps
All of these are great ideas, but I’ll be honest: they don’t seem to make much difference in the quality of my own sleep.
I don’t know for sure why that’s the case, but my theory is this: after a hard training session, it’s very difficult to unwind enough to get to bed. The effort and intensity in the gym leaves my body feeling tight and maybe sore, and the physical effects of that are far more disruptive to sleep than a little coffee or the light from my iPhone.
So, for me, sleep hygiene mostly consists of listening to my body. If I had a tough session at the gym and I’m feeling restless, I won’t get in bed until I’m actually feeling tired. By doing so, I reinforce the idea that the bed is for sleep, not for tossing and turning – and I save myself a lot of frustration.
If all else fails, I strongly encourage you to reach out to a medical professional for advice. You’ll probably be asked to participate in a sleep study, which many people find inconvenient, but which can help to uncover serious health issues like sleep apnea. Sleep is important enough to both your training and overall well-being that it’s worth the time and effort to figure it out.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.