Part 2 of the Sleep and Sports Performance series will dive into specific recommendations to improve your sleep quality, including a cool trick to make your brain think you’re tired, and a few effective supplements you’ve never heard of. If you missed Part 1, you can check it out here: Sleep and Sports Performance: Part 1

The Foundation of Quality Sleep

Improving your sleep quality is a lot like improving your diet. The best strategy is master the basics, and then use more advanced strategies to troubleshoot individual deficiencies. With this in mind, these are the biggest “bang for your buck” strategies to immediately improve your sleep:

  • Make sure your room is completely black (e.g. no internal or external light at all) and cool
  • Stop using electronics, including TVs, computers, and cell phones ~30-60 minutes before bedtime
  • Put your phone on silent and turn it face down on your nightstand so it doesn’t make sound, vibrate or light up while you’re sleeping. “Do Not Disturb” mode will keep the phone quiet, but will still allow your alarm to go off.
  • Attempt to go to sleep and wake up within an hour of the same time each night.

Of these, the minimal electronic use is likely the recommendation that will be met with the most resistance. Your body naturally produces melatonin, a hormone that most people are familiar with as a sleep supplement, in anticipation of darkness. When you expose your eyes to light, particularly blue light from electronics, it inhibits melatonin release and essentially signals to your body that you need to stay awake.

            “I SnapChat because I can’t sleep. And I can’t sleep because I SnapChat.”

Further, electronics that require interaction (e.g. everything except TV) lead to difficulties falling asleep and less refreshing sleep (Gradisar, Wolfson, Harvey, Hale, Rosenberg, & Czeisller, 2013).

Just as you can tell whether the lights in a room are on or off even with your eyes closed, your eyes perceive light even while you sleep. Even if your phone is on silent, if it lights up on your bedstand, it will still have a stimulatory effect and pull you out of deeper levels of sleep. Naturally, the same is true of lights coming through the window or from alarm clocks. Complete darkness is essential for optimal sleep.

Hacking Your Sleep

If you follow the above recommendations and are still struggling to get restful sleep, these are effective strategies worth the time and financial investment to try.

1) Take a nap

A complete sleep cycle lasts ~90 minutes. However, Thun et al. (2015) point out that 30-minute naps are effective at restoring performance to a higher level compared to a no-nap condition. From a practical standpoint, this means that naps should be ~20-30 minutes or ~90 minutes. Waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle is why many people feel groggy when they wake up; avoid the 45-75 minutes time zones.

2) Take a quick warm shower before bed

It is easier to fall asleep when your core temperature is low (Waterhouse, Fukuda, & Morita, 2012). Intuitively, you might think jumping in a cold tub would help facilitate this process. However, Rattray et al. (2015) commented that cold-water immersion had no effect on sleep measures, but increasing skin temperature did. This may be a combination of heat having a soothing/calming effect on the body and the fact that after heat, the body’s temperature needs to drop to restore homeostasis. This falls into the “try both and see what you like better” category.

3) Change your diet

According to Halson (2014), eating a meal with carbohydrates ~1-4 hours before bedtime can decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, increase REM sleep, and decrease light sleep, and low protein diets impair Deep Sleep. There are a lot of considerations in optimizing your diet, but for sleep purposes it appears that making sure you get sufficient quality food throughout the day and eating a small carbohydrate-based meal for dinner (or post-game) will help optimize your sleep quality. This isn’t a free pass to punish a box of cereal right before you brush your teeth; food quality still matters. A “carbohydrate-based meal” may just mean a small chicken breast along with a sweet potato, and large serving of vegetables.

4) Fall asleep faster with brain “entrainment”

Sleep zones, and all states of being, are associated with different frequencies of brain wave activity. For example, Deep Sleep is characterized by “delta frequencies” at 0.5-2.0 Hz. Brain activity within certain bands can be stimulated through auditory stimulation. This simply involves playing two sounds at different frequencies in each headphone, such that the difference in their frequencies falls within the range of the target brain activity. In other words, if we wanted to stimulate 2.0 Hz activity, we could put a 6.0 Hz tune in one ear, and a 4.0 Hz tune in the other. 6.0-4.0= 2.0.

NeuroAthlete

Assuming you, like me, have no idea how to do this on your own, you can download an app called “Neuroathlete”, which allows you to select the desired outcome (in this case “Rest and Recover” and it will play the appropriate tunes for you. It also lets you superimpose “sounds of nature” tunes on top of the humming of the different frequencies. Abeln, Kleinert, STruder, & Schneider showed that this technology had a positive impact on the sleep patterns of youth soccer players (2014), and given the cost, it’s definitely worth trying. I’ve used this personally and had several athletes use it as well.

5) Supplement

Most sleep-related supplements receive mixed reviews. Tryptophan in doses as low as 1g has been shown to improve sleep quality (Halson, 2014). Magnesium supplementation, which has a relaxing effect on the nervous system, improves sleep time and sleep efficiency (the amount of time spent asleep while in bed; Abbasi et al., 2012). Valerian is an herb that has a similar calming effect on the nervous system, and results in improved self-reported sleep quality (Halson, 2014). Lastly, L-theanine is an amino acid that may help promote relaxation.

Some of these ingredients can be found combined together. For example, I really liked Poliquin’s UberMag Plus Px, which has magnesium and tryptophan.

UberMag Plus Px

The end of sleep trouble

6) Sleep More

Lastly, you may just need to sleep more. Two studies have shown that lengthening sleep duration have had significantly positive outcomes on speed and skill-related performances in basketball players (Mah, Mah, Kezirian, & Dement, 2012) and swimmers (Mah, 2008).

Wrap Up

Sleep can have a profound impact on your physical and mental performance. Use the sleep “hacks” in this article to help optimize your sleep, and troubleshoot issues as they arise.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld
HockeyTransformation.com
OptimizingMovement.com
UltimateHockeyTraining.com

References:

Abbasi, B., Kimiagar, M., Sadeaghniiat, K., Shirazi, M., Hedayati, M, & Rashidkhani, B. (2012). The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 17(12), 1161-1169.

Abeln, V., Kleinert, J., Struder, H., & Schneider, S. (2014). Brainwave entrainment for better sleep and post-sleep state of young elite soccer players – A pilot study. European Journal of Sport Science, 14(5), 393-402.

Czeisler, C. (2011). Impact of Sleepiness and Sleep Deficiency on Public Health – Utility of Biomarkers. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 7(5), S6-S8.

Gradisar, M., Wolfson, A., Harvey, A., Hale, L, Rosenberg, R. Czeisler, C. (2013). The Sleep and Technology Use of Americans: Findings from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Sleep in America Poll. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 9(12), 1291-1299.

Halson, S. (2014). Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep. Sports Medicine, 44, S13-S23.

Mah, C., Mah, K., Kezirian, E., & Dement, W. (2011). The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep, 34(7), 943-950.

Mah, C. (2008). Extended sleep and the effects on mood and athletic performance in collegiate swimmers. Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, June 9; Baltimore, MD.

Rattray, B., Argus, C, Martin, K., Northey, J., & Driller, M. (2015). Is it time to turn our attention toward central mechanisms for post-exertional recovery strategies and performance? Frontiers in Physiology, 6(79), 1-14.

Reyner, L, & Horne, J. (2013). Sleep restriction and serving accuracy in performance tennis players, and effects of caffeine. Physiology & Behavior, 120, 93-96.

Thun, E., Bjorvatn, B., Flo, E., Harris, A., & Pallesen, S. (2015). Sleep, circadian rhythms, and athletic performance. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 23, 1-9.

Waterhouse, J., Fukuda, Y., & Morita, T. (2012). Daily rhythms of the sleep-wake cycle. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 31, 5-18.

Wright, Jr., K., Drake, A., Frey, D., Fleshner, M., Desouza, C., Gronfier, C., Czeisler, C. (2015). Influence of sleep deprivation and circadian misalignment on cortisol inflammatory markers, and cytokine balance. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 47, 24-34.

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“…if you want to be the best, Kevin is the one you have to train with”
– Brijesh Patel, Head S&C Coach, Quinnipiac University

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
OptimizingMovement.com
UltimateHockeyTraining.com

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