Can’t Fall Asleep At Night

The other day I got a question on Twitter from someone asking about stretching routines because they can’t fall asleep at night after games. I’ve written quite a bit about stretching and stretching routines in the past, so I’d refer you to the below articles if you’re interested in reading on the topic and/or just stealing some good stretches:

  1. Stretching For Hockey
  2. Hip Active Isolated Stretching for Hockey Players
  3. Dispelling the Stretching Myths
  4. Three Hockey Stretches to Keep Your Hips Loose

Some of the above articles address the concept of stretching in general, while others present specific stretches. you can also use many of the exercises/positions in this video as stretches:

I don’t believe, however, that stretching in itself is the answer to this gentleman’s question. In fact, while I think there is definitely some benefit to the rhythmic fluid movement associated with a full body stretching routine, I think the primary benefit of stretching within the context of “dimming the lights” after a game is simply the relaxation effect of going through a basic routine and breathing calmly for 5-10 minutes. With that in mind, I think it’s worth addressing WHY someone may have trouble falling asleep instead of just posting a stretch routine.

Sympathetic Stimulation

In the minutes leading up to and during a game, there should be an up-regulation of your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is your “fight or flight” system that is responsible for mobilizing resources (e.g. hormones, blood, etc. ) and altering other systems (e.g. breathing rate) to give the body the energy and focus it needs to be successful in fight or flight situations. This system is incredibly important for high performance and should be up-regulated during most training sessions, practices, and games.

One of the major problems our modern day society faces is an over-utilization of this system and a failure to shift out of a sympathetic-dominant state. There are many things that can trigger an up-regulated sympathetic state (poor dietary choices, environmental toxins, loud sounds, bright lights, etc.), but one of the major ones is psychological stress from school, work, and/or relationships. Think of your “SNS Resources” as a 5-gallon jug of water. Because you have a limited capacity, you want to save it for when you REALLY need it; for training, practices, and games. Utilizing, say, 4 gallons during these scenarios will allow you to perform the best, and recover optimally. If, however, you don’t sleep well at night, are worried about mid-terms, forgot to pack a lunch so you opt for chicken nuggets and tater tots, and are coming off a game where your coach yelled at you so you are stressed about making a better impression at practice later in the day, you’re basically starting off with a jug only 4-gallons full (because of poor sleep), and slow leaking that supply throughout the day so that when practice time comes around, you’re left with only 1.5 gallons left. This will not only impair your performance that night, but it will have a residual effect on your performance and recovery over the next few days, and if not addressed, weeks and months.

Here’s the kicker, even if you nail all of those things, many players have a very difficult time coming down from their “game high” for two major reasons:

  1. They used some sort of caffeinated energy drink or supplement before the game
  2. They have no strategy to shut their mind off afterward

If you’re in the first group, it’s important to recognize that you’re fighting physiology. I read several years ago that the half-life of a unit of caffeine, on average, is around 4 hours, meaning it will have around an 8-hour influence on your body. There is quite a bit of variation in an individual’s response to caffeine based on specific genetic and enzymatic profiles, but if you’re taking caffeine later in the day and having trouble falling asleep, that may be a sign that you need a new strategy.

In regard to the second group, shifting OUT of a sympathetic state into a more parasympathetic (the “rest and digest” system) is more easily accomplished if you have a better developed aerobic system. While diving into various methods to improve this goes well-beyond the scope of this article, if you’re playing adult-league hockey and aren’t doing much on top of that, doing some Tempo Runs or Bike Rides for 12-20 rounds of 15s on at 80% maximum effort and 45s of walking/light pedaling would be an appropriate starting place. On a more short-term basis, using specific breathing strategies can be an extremely effective method to drive this transition. There are a lot of variations of how you can implement this concept, but to get you started:

  1. Like on your back with your feet on the wall or resting on a chair so that your hips and knees are bent 90-degrees.
  2. Breathe in through your nose fully, but calmly for 3-5s.
  3. Exhale through your mouth fully, but calmly for 5-8s.
  4. Pause for a few seconds, and repeat for 2 minutes.
  5. If you are aware of tension anywhere in your body, think of letting it go.
  6. If a thought pops into your head, acknowledge it and then let it go. The goal is to focus only on your breathing.

Following this sequence can be a very powerful tool to shift the body into a more parasympathetic state, and to stop the mind from racing. If you’re having trouble falling asleep after practices or games and you aren’t crushing caffeine before hand, start here. Modified versions of this (you don’t always need to lay down, or do this for several minutes) can be a great tool to help ease nerves or shift into a more rested state throughout the day. A few calm, slow, purposeful breaths while shutting down outside thoughts can do wonders to help keep those that are going through stressful times a little more even keeled and can even be an effective strategy after a hard shift or play to decrease heart rate and breathing rate closer to baseline levels, essentially serving to conserve resources.

It’s also worth looking into magnesium supplements. The majority of the population (at least in our country) has some degree of magnesium deficiency anyway, but more relevant to this discussion, magnesium is known to have a calming effect on the nervous system. Over the last year, I’ve introduced Poliquin’s Zen Mag Px Liquid to our staff and many of our clients and it’s gotten rave reviews. We joke that it’s like a bear tranquilizer because it’s so effective at helping us sleep. The breathing sequence above is good to include for a variety of reasons anyway, but if it isn’t doing the trick to help you fall asleep, it may be worth grabbing some of this magnesium!

Zen Mag Px Liquid
Best. Supplement. Ever.
To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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