Understanding and Managing Your Sleep Cycles


, by Nick Littlehales

Photography by: StockPhotoPro

By adopting a more considered approach to our daily 'cycles' we can optimize our sleep patterns, which in turn aids recovery, mental health and overall performance, as sleep expert Nick Littlehales explains.

Advances in technology, sports science, and real-time analysis have accelerated our knowledge of what it takes to win and continue to elevate performance targets and expectations. Without knowledge and structure underpinning any sleep-wake routine (SWR), our ability to adapt and maximize recovery is fast becoming a more serious problem than past generations ever faced.

Understanding the stages of sleep

But sleep is not simply just sleep, an off-or-on state with a switch – it’s a process, a series of four main stages, each serving a vital purpose. First, you drift off into a light sleep where you're still somewhat aware of your surroundings. Next, you enter a deeper sleep where your body starts to slow down. This is followed by the super-important “deep sleep” phase where your body repairs itself and builds muscle, bone, and a stronger immune system. Finally, there's REM sleep, known for vivid dreams, where your brain sorts, memories, solves problems, and boosts creativity.

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Managing your waking hours

However, the important bit is not what happens when you are asleep, but how you manage your waking hours. “Our brain is in control when we enter a sleep state, put it under pressure during your day, and guess what? Lower levels of sleep quality is what you get as a result.”

Of course, focusing too much on the potential health impact of poor sleep may in itself be counter-productive; it's not likely to help you improve your sleep by worrying about how to resolve it. As it turns out, worrying about sleep is actually the biggest disruptor. Let me repeat that:

Worrying about sleep is actually the biggest disruptor of sleep.

The problem is, over the course of a day, there are so many variables that affect your sleep both positively and negatively, from what you eat and drink, to exercise and mental challenges. But this also offers a chance for us to positively influence how we can make better use of this vital third of our everyday lives.

The R90 technique

After years of working with top athletes, I developed an approach I call the R90 technique. Research shows that our bodies naturally work in 90-minute sleep cycles, during which we move through the four stages of sleep. My technique turns that science into a whole new way of thinking about your day.

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Imagine your 24-hour day divided into 16 of these 90-minute cycles. Some of these cycles are for sleep, some are for being awake and active. The key is to sync your sleep needs with these natural cycles. Establishing your sleep time based on your desired wake time (by counting backward in 90-minute cycles) makes sure that you wake up during one of the lighter sleep cycles. That way, you'll wake up refreshed and energized, ready to conquer your day.

Research shows that our bodies naturally work in 90-minute sleep cycles, during which we move through the four stages of sleep.

Then it’s all about cracking on with your first period after waking, known as post-sleep, and include key activities you complete to reach a fully human active wake state. Emptying your bladder is normally the easy first step in this process. Exposing yourself to the ideal levels of daylight is not always so easy. It is, however, more important than you might think.

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Daylight triggers the release of serotonin, the hormone that unsuppresses bodily functions and makes you active. And it sets your internal clock, your circadian rhythm – which triggers a complex series of biological processes, ideally resulting in you getting tired at the right time for you to go to bed.

Your aim should be to take as much of an unhurried approach as possible, moving from darkness to daylight, hydrating, allowing time for the appetite to kick in and fuel up, completing some mental challenges, getting some exercise, and emptying the bowels. However you feel when you wake up in the morning, the key to overall sleep quality is what you do now, which sets you up to tackle your day with the confidence that you are in the best possible control of this natural process.

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