To really understand how to get the best quality sleep, it’s best to think of it in 90min cycles (‘R90’) rather than hours. These time periods are principally required for us to develop and experience the five sleep stages. An athlete can then plan ahead, identifying when they can confidently complete one nocturnal block of cycles and schedule one or more of the 90min cycles at less conventional times of the day, rather than just trying to get the typical ‘8hrs’ nocturnal sleep when it might not be practical. Even 30min periods can often be better than less-restful ‘long’ sleeps that may include distractions, such as waking up to go to the toilet. To get the hang of this, simply identify a constant wake time and work back in 90min periods, creating a series of timings back through your five sleep cycles.
Full-time athletes and age-group triathletes with jobs alike can adopt a best practice sleep approach, feel more in control of their sleep behaviours and recover confidently without feeling like they’re missing out by not having a full nocturnal sleep. While it’s possible to do this around your everyday life, it particularly applies to high pressure periods, events and games when everything is mentally building against being able to sleep at all.
These pressures can be prepared for using the R90 technique and ensures the athlete can plan to optimise recovery running into and out of the event. Applying the polyphasic tactic (i.e. multiple periods of sleep throughout the day) you’ll have more opportunities to recover, creating confidence that you don’t need to force yourself to sleep immediately before an event when you’re ‘wired’, as you put it. Simply completing the cycles at other points in the day is a good alternative and will ensure you’re actually better rested than a highly disturbed night’s sleep, where you may not complete any of your five sleep cycles.
Not sleeping because you’re adrenaline-wired can be worked around in this way, particularly for races. For your everyday life, if you find yourself wired in the evening, trying getting in a 90min cycle when you get back from work – even a 30min nap is better than nothing at all, providing it’s fully restful with no distractions. Consuming caffeine before the nap is a technique I use to ensure I wake feeling alert afterwards, as it takes 40mins to kick in.
After evening training sessions, yoga, meditation and mindspace tools can help you to relax. Tart Cherry supplements are also great for physical recovery. They’re full of potassium and magnesium, plus they produce melatonin, the hormone that helps you chill out and relax.
Nick Littlehales is regarded as the world’s leading elite sports sleep coach. His clients have included Team Sky, Manchester United FC, British Athletics, England Rugby and the British Olympic Association.