A Triathlete’s Guide To Better Sleep

Treating sleep with the same priority as other obligations in your day can help you become a happier, healthier and more resilient athlete.

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Sleep may be the key to unlocking your best performance.

For many age-group athletes, 24 hours each day isn’t enough to accomplish a full agenda of work, family and training obligations. It’s no wonder, then, that so many try to manufacture extra hours in the day by forgoing sleep.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans get six hours or less of nightly sleep—leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to describe sleep deprivation as a “public health problem.” Even intermittent sleep deprivation has been linked to increased risk of heart attacks and mental health problems.

For athletes, the consequences continue. Sleep affects recovery, metabolism, hormonal balance and the rate at which injuries heal. Though some may perceive sleep as a time of stagnation and unproductivity, the reality is far from it—while catching ZZ’s, the body repairs damage from the physical and psychological stresses placed on it during waking hours. In other words, your performance on race day may not necessarily rely just on how hard you work, but also on how well you sleep.

“If I could advise athletes to only do one thing, it would be to set a consistent bedtime and resist the temptation to keep working or watch that TV show for another 20 minutes,” says sleep researcher Kelly Glazer Baron of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Treating sleep with the same priority as all the other obligations in your day can help you become a happier, healthier and more resilient athlete.

How Much?

Throughout the night, a normal adult cycles through various stages of sleep. Approximately 50 percent of total sleep time is spent in stage 2, or light sleep, which has limited healing function; 30 percent is spent in stage 3, or deep sleep, where blood flow is directed toward the muscles to repair physiological damages of the previous day; 20 percent of sleep time is spent in REM sleep, where mental processes are reconditioned. To allow your body enough time in stage 3 and REM sleep, the National Sleep Foundation recommends most adults get a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night. For athletes, who especially require the restorative properties of sleep, the minimum jumps to nine hours of sleep per night.

If such a long snooze simply isn’t possible in your jam-packed schedule, at least shoot for more sleep than what you’re currently getting. Studies from the Stanford University Sleep Disorders Clinic discovered that any increase in sleep quantity can boost athletic performance. Athletes who added an extra hour of sleep time per night for five weeks improved their physical performance, mood and alertness.

The key is to create a consistent, long-term pattern of solid sleep—“catching up” by logging 10-hour nights the week before your race will not cancel out the deficit created from months of heavy training and insufficient sleep.

RELATED: The Importance Of Sleep

Countdown to ZZZ

What you do in the hours and minutes leading up to bedtime can have a massive impact on the quality of sleep.

8 hours before bed:
Check off your hardest workout of the day by lunchtime. Intense exercise too late in the day can elevate body temperature and heart rate, making it difficult to fall asleep.

7 hours before bed: Switch from caffeinated beverages to water, juices and herbal teas. Caffeine is a stimulant that can take several hours to exit the bloodstream. Drinking even one cup of coffee in the afternoon can steal away an hour of sleep.

6 hours before bed: Check off your hardest workout of the day by lunchtime. Intense exercise too late in the day can elevate body temperature and heart rate, making it difficult to fall asleep.

3 hours before bed:
Sit down for supper. Eating a heavy meal too close to bedtime increases blood sugar and insulin, which makes it harder to fall asleep.

90 minutes before bed: Consume a light snack of sleep-inducing foods or beverages (see “Eat to Sleep”).

1 hour before bed: Close the laptop, put the phone away and turn off the TV. Lights emitted from electronics trick your body into thinking it’s daytime, so turning off as many lights as possible signals a trip to dreamland.

30 minutes before bed: Adjust the thermostat to your ideal sleep temperature.

20 minutes before bed: Brush your teeth and wash your face. Place a warm, damp washcloth over your eyes and inhale the soothing steam.

15 minutes before bed: Stretch using a bedtime-centric yoga routine.

5 minutes before bed: Get under the sheets, turn off your lamp and relax your brain and body.

RELATED: How Anxiety-Induced Insomnia Can Affect Performance

Cool Off To Doze Off

If insomnia is a problem, check your thermostat. When you hit the hay, your internal body temperature naturally drops approximately 2 degrees, creating optimal conditions for stage 3 and REM sleep. If external factors (such as bedding or ambient temperature) make the body too hot or too cold, your most restorative sleep can be hard to achieve.

Most sleep experts suggest setting the thermostat at 65 degrees. For some athletes, especially those who burn hot with a higher metabolic rate, a 62-degree room may be more comfortable.

RELATED: Is Your Sleep Position Contributing To Your Injuries?

Savasana To Slumber

According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, those who incorporate yoga into their bedtime routine reported significant relief from sleep disturbances.

“Doing a couple restorative yoga poses with deep, mindful breathing before bed is a great way to relax the body and prepare for a restful night’s sleep,” says Laurenn Cutshaw of nationwide studio Yoga Six. “Certain postures initiate a relaxation response by activating the parasympathetic system.”

Before heading to bed, try Cutshaw’s simple yoga routine.

Head to Knee Forward Bend
Sit on the floor and extend your right leg in front (if you have tight hamstrings, sit on a pillow or block for support). Bend your left knee and place your left foot on your right inner thigh. With your hands on your hips, and take a full breath in as you lengthen your spine. Exhale and gently rotate your torso toward the right, aligning your belly button with your right knee. Take another deep breath in, then exhale and hinge from your hips as you fold forward with your chest over knee. Breathe mindfully in this position for 45–60 seconds. Exit the pose the same way you went in, then repeat on the other side.

Legs Up the Wall
Lie on the floor with your hips a few inches away from the wall. Extend your legs up the wall and allow your arms to rest along your sides, palms facing up. Take 6 to 8 deep breaths. Allow your breath to return to normal and relax, holding the pose for 2 to 4 minutes. To exit, draw your knees into your chest and roll onto your side.

Recline Bound Angle Pose

While lying on your back, bring the soles of your feet together. Allow the knees to naturally drop out toward the sides. Take 6 to 8 deep breaths, observing the expansion of your belly and chest cavity on the inhalation and gentle contraction on the exhalation. Return to normal breathing patterns while holding the pose for 2–4 minutes.

Supine Twist
Lie on your back and hug your knees into your chest. Take several deep and mindful breaths into your lower back. When you’re ready, extend your arms out to the sides, palms facing up to create a “T” shape with your body. Take a full breath in and exhale as you allow your legs to drop off to one side. Breathe deeply and hold this gentle twist for about a minute. Inhale to return your legs to center, pause for one breath and repeat on the opposite side.

RELATED: Restorative Yoga For Endurance Athletes

Eat To Sleep

Adding these foods to your diet can help promote successful slumber.

Tart cherry juice
Researchers from Louisiana State University discovered a twice-daily dose of tart cherry juice, a natural source of melatonin, can increase sleep by an average of 90 minutes a night.

Try calming chamomile, which can help you get into sleep mode. Avoid versions with caffeine, like green or black teas.

Low levels of vitamin B6 have been linked to insomnia. Fatty fish is rich in this critical element.


Eating foods rich in tryptophan 90 minutes before bed can help your body induce a state of sleepiness. Bonus: The protein punch aids in rebuilding tired muscles!

Though studies touting potassium as a sleep aid have mostly focused on supplements, many experts agree whole-food sources, including bananas, can be just as effective.

Warm and comforting, this breakfast favorite contains a plethora of nutrients beneficial for bedtime, including calcium and magnesium. Skip high-sugar varieties, as too much sugar before bed negates the calming effect.

RELATED: Foods To Help You Get A Better Night Sleep

Shut-eye Strategy #1

If you’re hypersensitive to noise or sleep beside a snoring partner, consider a pair of noise-cancelling earbuds. Hush earplugs ($150, Hush.technology) allow you to direct noise traffic by deciding which sounds you want to hear and which ones you don’t. The wireless, Bluetooth-enabled earplugs communicate with your phone to filter out background noise with soothing sounds while still allowing important things, like alarms and emergency phone calls, through.

Shut-eye Strategy #2

You log your miles, watts, and calories—why not your sleep data, too? The Beddit Sleep Monitor ($150, Misfit.com) a slim sensor placed on the mattress below your slumbering body, measures sleep cycles by tracking respiration, heart rate, snoring and movement throughout the night. In the morning, data is transmitted wirelessly to an app on your phone, where you can view statistics and graphs to help you gauge the quality of your sleep.

Shut-eye Strategy #3

The same moisture-wicking fabrics that keep your body cool on race day can benefit you during sleep. Unlike cotton sheets, which can trap body heat and cause night sweats, SHEEX performance sheets and pillowcases ($39 and up, Sheex.com) aid the body’s thermoregulation processes by allowing for heat and moisture transfer through evaporative cooling.

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