Yesterday was the start of Daylight Savings – time to check the smoke alarm batteries and get an extra hour of sleep. If you’re lucky.
I really believe good sleep is a runner’s best training tool, more so than food, strength training, tempo runs…even yoga. And like other tools that are part of a good regimen, cultivating good sleep habits can take thought and effort.
I say this with a degree of confidence because I may be one of the worst sleepers on the planet. Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration, but it is certainly a thought that has occurred to me more than once. Usually around 3:00 am when I’m awakened by the sound of a leaf touching the side of the house. The other side of the house.
And although this isn’t something new, it has become more pronounced the older I get. Being a chronic worrier doesn’t help my condition, but it seems even when I’m not worrying about something, my brain has a difficult time turning off. If 7-9 hours of quality sleep is what’s recommended for adults, I’m in a lifetime deficit. Now I know what the federal government feels like.
However, with a lot of time – usually in the middle of the night – to contemplate what helps and what hinders, I’ve come up with a list of eight of the most obvious factors in my battle with insomnia. So, if this helps one person to improve their running (and everything else), great! Conversely, if you just find this really boring, maybe read it before bed to help you fall asleep…
- Food and Drink – Tops for me for sure. I have to watch what I eat and drink and when. The older I get, the more pronounced the impact of things like coffee in the afternoon and/or alcohol too close to bed can have. Memories of a younger version of me can persuade the real me that it’s okay to have a double espresso and chocolate while out for dinner. And ice cream gives me extremely vivid dreams. Great if I’m wanting to see a movie when I sleep but otherwise something to enjoy earlier in the day.
- Exercise – But not too close to bedtime. My best sleep aid is definitely exercise. A run in the woods mid- to late-afternoon sets me up nicely, both physically and mentally, for a better night. However, I have also discovered that if I leave exercise too close to bedtime (because I couldn’t fit it in earlier in the day), then falling asleep can be a challenge.
- Naps – My dad was a huge fan of afternoon naps, so I get that from him. However, whereas his naps could be two hours, if I nap more than 30 minutes, then it can make my nocturnal sleep pattern even worse, not better. I do find that, when my nighttime sleeping pattern (if I can call it that) is off, a nap can help reset things. Not to mention, there’s something really indulgent about curling up on the couch or bed for a mid-day siesta.
- Keeping to a schedule – I do really well getting up at the same time (about 5:45 am), but I’m not as good going to bed at the same time every night. However, I notice when I am more disciplined with getting to bed at a good time (ideally around 9:30 pm), then the chance of getting a good night sleep increases.
- Limiting screen time – It’s amazing how many screen distractions there are – from “just one more” YouTube video about how to fix something to the “I had better check email/social media one more time in case I’ve missed something really important (another cute dog video, anyone?).” The common recommendation of no screen time at least 30 minutes before bed is a good one for me. And no phones in the bedroom. I plug my phone in to charge in the kitchen before bed and use the annoying alarm on my phone (and the promise of good coffee) to force me to get up in the morning.
- Clearing the brain at bedtime – In conjunction with limiting screen time, I really like the transitional escape a good book of fiction can provide to send me off to sleep thinking about things other than work, to-do lists, finances, kids living in a different city, etc. Other aids I use less often but have also worked include meditation and a gratitude journal.
- Natural remedies – Over-the-counter sleep aids terrify me. I’ve only tried them a few times in my life, but I have always felt worse in the morning than if I hadn’t taken anything at all. However, natural products containing magnesium, melatonin or passion flower seem to work for me. Valerian, on the other hand, seems to work against me, even though I know it is a proven sleep aid and works for many people.
- Keeping the room clean, dark and cool – It’s hard to believe the brain can know in the middle of the night, when the room is dark (blackout blinds are a must), that there’s stuff on the dresser that shouldn’t be there. But it does. An uncluttered room is almost as important as a cool room. Some of my best nights have been followed by checking to make sure my nose doesn’t have frostbite and wondering if, in fact, it’s colder in the house than outside. Even in January.
Happy Trails (and Dreams)!