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How do I get a good night’s sleep before a big ride?

Science of sleep
Michael Donlevy
11 Dec 2020

Feel fresh and energised for a long day in the saddle. Sleep coach Nick Littlehales explains how

Sleep influences everything we are and everything we do – from mood and resilience to decision-making and focus – so rest and recovery are key to performing on and off the bike.

Sleep deprivation and poor-quality sleep have a huge impact on mental and physical performance, and they also increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol so you may find it harder to stay calm in challenging situations.

Worrying about sleep is the key disruptor and it can lead people down the wrong path. We may consider a new mattress or pillow, supplements or sleeping tablets, caffeine or alcohol, changing our diet or using a sleep tracker or app.

The list of variables is endless. But used randomly and in isolation these interventions can have counterproductive side effects and even promote insomnia.

A far more effective and proven approach is to improve our understanding of sleep. During my time as an advisor to British Cycling and Team Sky from 2008 through to 2012 the focus was on practical and achievable routine changes to help unlock greater performance.

So what about you? Let’s start with your circadian rhythm. This 24-hour cycle is part of your body’s internal clock that regulates its functions, and it’s sensitive to light – daylight makes us more alert, while sunset initiates the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep. A properly aligned circadian rhythm helps us sleep.

Then identify your personal chronotype. Are you an owl (a night person) or a lark (a morning person)? Knowing this will stop you adopting routines counterproductive to your natural human characteristic. You can ignore or override it but it’s far better to work with it.

The brain goes through 90-minute cycles of light sleep and deep sleep, known as REM and non-REM, which is when physical and mental recovery takes place.

Your ideal amount of sleep is five 90-minute cycles totalling 7.5 hours in any 24-hour period. It’s more natural for humans to be active or to sleep in a polyphasic manner – for a shorter amount of time but more often – rather than just one nocturnal block.

The key is consistency, so you need to wake up at the same time every day. This helps keep your circadian rhythm aligned.

What you do during the day also matters. Focus on the first 90 minutes after you wake up and try not to rush as darkness becomes daylight, but do expose yourself to light to trigger your natural hormones – another boost for your circadian rhythm.

Take plenty of short breaks to empty your brain and grab a 20 or 30-minute ‘controlled recovery period’ at around midday or late afternoon. This is commonly known as a nap, and the rest will do you good.

Wherever you sleep should be free from stimulus – uncluttered, quiet and cool. Try to make it reflective of the natural world. There should be no ambient lights, which keep the brain in alert mode.

Oh, and there is some bad news. We’re not actually designed to sleep with other humans so the ideal size for two adults is a superking – basically two single bed-sized sleeping areas.

The ideal sleeping position is foetal on the opposite side to your dominant side. Lying on your front or back can lead to a dry mouth, heavy breathing, snorting and snoring, and that doesn’t help anyone sleep.

The expert: Nick Littlehales has been a sport sleep coach since 1998 and has worked with a huge number of sports clubs and organisations including British Cycling and Team Sky. He is also the author of SLEEP. More info at sportsleepcoach.com.

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