Do you often lie awake at night wondering why you just can’t get a full nights sleep?
Or you’re in the middle of a big regatta, and you just can’t switch your mind off and fall asleep? That was me for years. I would often sleep for only 4-5 hours just to rely on coffee to get through the next day of racing.
Over the years I tried so many different things to try and get a full night’s sleep. Meditation, sleep music, melatonin, the list goes on. None of them seemed to help. It’s only recently that I started doing these three things and I’ve found myself waking up fresher, recovering better and more importantly, sleeping through the whole night. And I’m not about to try and sell you some magic sleep medication. These are three simple habits you can get in which tap in to your body’s natural processes to help you sleep better.
As it turns out, our bodies have become pretty used to the fact that the sun rises and sets every 24 hours. In fact, our bodies have even developed their own clock to remind the rest of our cells that the sun is doing its thing. These are called our Circadian Rhythms.
They determine the schedule of nearly every function in our body, including when we feel tired and when we feel awake. This occurs through the release of a substance called Melatonin - a hormone whose job it is to make us feel sleepy.
The release of melatonin in our body is particularly sensitive to the light we are exposed to. Viewing bright light is known to supress the release of melatonin - and make us less tired.
Light Exposure and Sleep Quality
In order to manage our melatonin production, and ensure our body is in the right phase to get to sleep, we need to selectively choose when and what type of light we expose ourselves to.
With the advent of modern lighting, devices and general busyness, our light viewing habits have become pretty screwed up. To appropriately regulate melatonin levels, we should be aiming to expose ourselves to light as soon as possible after waking up, and avoid light as much as possible in the hours prior to going to bed.
Further, our body is particularly fond of the wavelengths of light experienced during sunrise and sunset. That's why every morning, I try to get outside for a 5-10 minute walk as soon as the sun is up, with the aim of exposing myself to as much sunlight as possible (that also means no sunglasses).
As sailors, we generally get plenty of sunlight during daylight hours (which is beneficial), but we then need to be careful with the light we consume after sunset.
I'm sure you would have already heard how bluelight from screens is one of the worst types of light when it comes to inhibiting our melatonin production. I've recently begun using a pair of blue light blocking glasses, and these work wonders when I need to do any work after sunset. I know you're probably thinking, "but my phone/laptop already has a blue light filter". I've found these not to be 100% effective, and when I've got the glasses on, I can feel myself getitng sleepier.
But it's not just blue light which can be harmful. In general, all bright light after sunset is going to have an impact on our melatonin levels. I try to dim all lights after sunset, and make them darker and darker as I get closer to going to bed.
If sunlight and light exposure is the most important factor in regulating our body's clock, the timing of our meals is probably the second most important. When we're in a regatta, it can often be hard to determine when we get to eat, particularly if there are postponements or long race days.
However, there is quite a large amount of research to show that eating late at night has a negative effect on sleep quality. Before finding that out, I would eat dinner whenever it was ready. If it took longer to cook, I would sometimes eat at 8, and try and go to bed at 9:30.
Nowadays, I try to eat no later than 3 hours before I want to go to bed. Following this routine, I've found that I'm waking up less in the middle of the night, and I don't go to bed with a full, bloated feeling in my stomach.
Racing Minds (pun intended)
During regattas, there's a lot of emotion and stress and I would often spend a lot of time ruminating on the events on the race course once racing was over. What I could have done better, whether I should have protested someone, that big mistake I made - I'm sure you've been there too.
I would often find that trying to process all of these thoughts (alongside regular everyday affairs) would lead to me waking up in the middle of the night, with my brain not quite wanting to sleep.
To try and ease my mind, I've gotten in to the habit of journalling before going to bed. But I don't just have one journal, I've found it so helpful that I've got two separate journals. One where I record all of my random ideas and thoughts, and once which is more of a diary, and I note all the things I want to get done the next day.
Not only does this help me sleep better, but having a list of all my tasks also helps me stay more productive during the day.
Don't Sleep on It
We all know how important sleep is in getting the best of ourselves, and performing in training and racing. Many of our modern habits have led to poor sleep hygiene, and these are some of the things I have found help me get a full night's rest. If you found any of these tips helpful, comment below and let me know– I'd love to hear what strategies you've been using when it comes to getting good quality sleep!