Sleep Hacks: How Pro Athletes Manage Their Cycles (And You Can Too)


, by Nick Littlehales

Photography by: New Africa

There are countless ways we try to guarantee a good sleep at night, such as not eating too late, spraying lavender fragrances on our pillows, or taking sleeping aid pills.

Unfortunately, for most people these things don't work because our brains are too wired from our busy, stressful lives – and they have not been getting enough human-centric recovery throughout the day (i.e. exposure to natural sunlight, a break from smart devices, etc).

For athletes fighting for the smallest increments of improvement in their personal best, this can mean the difference between racing for a medal, or not being part of the 'first team'. This is why so many of them have started using sleep cycles, or 'sleep hacks' if you will.

RELATED: How Sleep Affects Performance... And Everyday Life

In contrast to most people, professional athletes have the space and freedom to decide how to break up their day, at least for the most part. You, too, should start with not trying to squeeze sleep into a busy schedule - making do with the time that is left over after career, family, friends, and hobbies. Instead, ask yourself the following question:

What would my day look like if I had full control over my time?

Establishing your routine

The first step is to find out what your chronotype is. In general terms, your chronotype defines whether you are a morning or a night person – or an in-betweener who doesn’t prioritize one or the other. If you have a clear preference, build your daily routine around that. Equally, if you have to be in an office (or on the training ground) on certain days, make this the defining ARP (anchor reset point): set your alarm early enough for you to get up and have sufficient time for a healthy morning routine.

Adopting a daily five-cycle approach to sleep will give you 35 cycles over the course of a week. This is a realistic ambition for most people.

For the purposes of this article, let’s say your alarm is set for 06:30 in the morning - that is your ARP in this rolling 24-hour plan to optimize mental and physical recovery. From there, you break your day up into 16 x 90-minute cycles, for example when it comes to sleep:

  • 6x 90-minute Cycles from 21:30 into 06.30 = 9 Hours

  • 5x 90-minute Cycles from 23:00 into 06.30 = 7.5 Hours

  • 4x 90-minute Cycles from 00:330 into 06.30 = 6 Hours

Adopting a daily five-cycle approach to sleep will give you 35 cycles over the course of a week. This is a realistic ambition for most people. If, for any reason, you have to have a later cycle on certain days it is possible to adapt with a short 30-minute CRP (controlled recovery period - a.k.a a nap) halfway through the day.

RELATED: Understanding and Managing Your Sleep Cycles

Managing your cycles

Once you have established the sleep cycles that work for you, start overlaying your work and lifestyle schedule on this cycle. Pay extra attention to what you do during the first cycle after waking up. For some athletes, this is more significant than what they do last thing in the evening.

Hydrate sufficiently first, then look for a source of bright light. Normal lights won’t do, it has to either be natural sunlight or a daylight simulation lamp. Eat something and do some light exercise. The point here is to let your inner clock - your circadian rhythm - ‘know’ your plan for the day as well.

Professional athletes will usually schedule their ARP anchor point based on the first training session of the day. Individual training sessions, physio, cryo sessions, and equivalents will then be planned into suitable cycles throughout the day.

Photography by: baranq

Plan in short recovery periods throughout the day, but don’t make it too complicated. Use what comes naturally to you. If you enjoy meditation, make time to do that. Equally, take a short walk or even a nap.

RELATED: The Role of Sleep in Athletic Recovery

Some athletes I know have turned to a newer approach called NSDR (Non-sleep deep rest). I’ll write in more detail in the final installment of this series.

And finally, the evening routine. This has been widely covered in the media, but one word of advice: if you get the rest of your day right, watching a film in the evening is not going to have that much of a negative impact. However, avoid screen time directly before switching off the light. If you can, dim down the lights in the house in the last cycle to facilitate the production of melatonin, your sleep hormone, in your system.

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