You don’t need me telling you that sleep is important. It’s been a hot topic for the past decade. Sleep comes up in any discussion of high performance. I’ve been tracking my sleep with industry leading technology. After combining what I’ve learned through personal experimentation with research I’ve studied, I have a new perspective into how to sleep for better performance.
Experiment With Variety To Sleep For Better Performance
The first big idea in sleeping better to perform better, is that it’s dependent on the individual.
This makes sleep improvements hard to communicate with others. A recommendation for one person is unlikely to have the same effect for another. You must experiment yourself and reflect to discover what truly works for you.
This is true throughout the health fields, including the fitness industry. General recommendations can be given, but they are basically an average of the results from studies. An average hides the variety, but variation is the norm of nature, especially health, If you have ever followed “recommendations” but didn’t experience progress, then this is why.
Basics of Sleep For Better Performance
If you want to sleep for better performance, then you must understand the importance of REM and Deep sleep.
Sleep has several stages. These stages are measured by how “deep” of sleep it is. You tend to start in a shallow stage and as your body relaxes more, you enter into deeper stages. The important stages for our discussion are the REM and Deep stages.
REM (Rapid Eye Movement), is the stage where you dream. Your mind is busy flushing out the byproducts from the previous day’s calculating/thinking. If you get woken up mid-dream or have a poor night’s sleep, you may have noticed your can’t think as clearly. This is known as “brain fog”, and it is because you didn’t have enough REM sleep.
REM sleep generally happens in the later hours of sleep, so unless you get a good 7-8 hours of sleep, you won’t be getting as much REM as you could. When you hear “REM sleep”, think brain refreshing.
The act of thinking uses energy. There are waste products produced as a result, these accumulate in the brain. REM sleep is when these byproducts are flushed out. If you have pulled “all-nighters”, you may be familiar with brain fog. This feeling comes from all the waste that has built up in your mind that hasn’t been cleared. Just like trash in a sewer line, things get backed up if you don’t flush them out and performance suffers. Thinking is impaired.
Deep sleep is about physical restoration. Being able to move around and have physical energy to fight off predators or to hunt is important for survival. For this reason, deep sleep happens earlier on in the night, it is a high priority.
Sleep quantity isn’t as important as sleep quality. If you find that sleeping for 4 hours, waking for 20 minutes, then sleeping for another 3 hours gives you better quality sleep than a full 8 hours, then that is fine. The actual amount of time doesn’t matter too much, as long as the following are satisfied:
- 1-2 hours of Deep sleep
- I get a lot of deep sleep. This could be because of my activity levels.
- General recommendations are 1-2 hours of deep sleep, or about 15-20% of total sleep time.
- 1-3 hours of REM sleep
- REM sleep comes harder for me.
- I find anything less than 1 hour leaves my brain performing subpar, I’m also more irritable.
- General recommendations are 2-3 hours of REM sleep, or about 20-25% of total sleep time, but I find I’m fine with 1 hour.
Again, actual amounts vary and require you to experiment. Get some sort of accurate sleep tracker. This investment in optimizing your sleep will improve your physical and mental well being. Rest (sleep), movement (exercise), and nutrition are non-negotiable necessities of any living creating. It’s as if nature said “you want to live, okay, but you must keep these three things in check, or else you’ll suffer”. It’s the cost of doing business as a living organism.
One of the most accurate sleep trackers available on the market is the Oura ring. This is what I use to improve my sleep for better performance.
If you want to improve your sleep quality, then the emphasis should be on ways to make your body more efficient at sleep. The more used to the sleep schedule your body can get, the more habitual and efficient it can make the cleaning processes that go on.
You will find the theme of efficiency repeating itself below. The body can best optimize that which is repeated routinely. This principle also provides insight into how you can improve your fitness. “The best workout is the one you’re currently not doing”. Building muscle or improving endurance are adaptations that the body makes because you have shown the body it is necessary for proper functioning. However, sleep is something we want to be efficient, so variety should only be used during experimentation.
Sleep Is to Recovery as Calories Are to Energy
This is a big idea. Sleep is about recovery, just like caloric intake is about energy. General recommendations are given, but they are not individualized. There is a base line, the amount necessary to keep you functioning well, and there is too much and too little.
So, how do you sleep for better performance? Start by tracking your sleep. Get curious about how well you are sleeping now and what factors influence a good night’s rest the most. Here are some ideas to experiment with. It is ordered from what I’ve found most useful to least, as I’ve personally experimented with.
Factors to Experiment With To Sleep For Better Performance
1. Tape your mouth shut
I won’t go into detail here. But improving my breathing has been the single most important factor that has contributed to my cognitive and physical ability. My last marathon, I ran the entire thing, non-stop, breathing through my nose. Respiratory-wise I could have kept going for another marathon.
Nasal breathing is one of the most important factors in improving your breathing. There is hardly any other animal that breaths through its mouth, those that do, such as dogs, do so only when need to cool off or after intense activity. Mouth breathing is bad for you. The body becomes very inefficient at utilizing oxygen. I’ll save the details of this for another time, the focus now is on sleep. Breathing through your nose at all times, except for high intense exercise, is highly recommended.
Using surgical tape over my mouth (or tape specifically designed for the mouth), has improved my sleep more than anything else. This requires a few days to get used to, but once you adapt, you will never want to go back. Snoring is cured, and most forms of sleep apnea are cured, immediately.
Note: the urge for more air will improve over time as your body adapts. This adaptation is a GREAT sign, your body is becoming more effient at using oxygen. From this, you’ll find that your fitness levels improve as well. You will be able to run for longer with less effort. Your muscles will receive a higher level of oxygen and thus perform better.
Let me tell you this, it is an awe-striking experience to exert physical effort and maintain a calm breathing pattern. Nasal breathing during a run through mountains in an early morning has become one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve every had. Lifting heavy weights and showing aggression while keeping the breath calm is a feeling of power that is hard to explain. I refer to this concept as “calm aggression”. When breathing becomes chaotic, a signal is sent to the brain that things are going bad. The brain will respond with fight/flight behavior. Anxiety, panic, depression, and so many other physical and mental issues are greatly improved through better breathing.
Alright, enough ranting about nasal breathing.
For more information on breathing and sleep check out this article: Mouth Taping: The Cheapest Life Hack for Better Sleep.
For further reading on breathing and how it relates to sleep, I highly recommend these authors:
- Anders Olsson
- Emphasizes a lot of key points of improving your breathing
- Patrick Mckeown
- I’ve read just about everything this man has written. He is on to something big.
My mental and physical performance has increased the most and the quickest as a result of nasal breathing at all times. If you want to sleep for better performance, I highly recommend researching it further.
2. Try fasting
Fasting has been the single quickest way I’ve improved my sleep. This is similar to not eating before bed. When I’ve fasted for 24-48 hours, my sleep efficiency is 10-20% higher than usual. My deep sleep is high and my REM sleep is through the roof! On some occasions, my REM sleep improves as much as 100%.
Fasting also improves my ability to find inner stillness. My mental chatter is the most reduced and my thoughts are the easiest to tame when I am in a fasted state. This is huge when you want to sleep for better performance.
4. Pre-Sleep Ritual
Have a wind-down routine. This involves relaxing activities that prepare your body for sleep.
For me, a moderate intensity exercise session 3 hours before bed followed by a cold/hot contrast shower works well. The exercise gets my heart rate up a bit. The cold water then changes my mental state. I follow that with warm water to relax in. Then I finish the shower with another burst of cold water. I spend the next 1-2 hours reading something technical (e.g. programming, health, or psychology related) and then the final 30 minutes reading a piece of fiction. Right before I get into bed I stretch for 2-3 minutes. The emphasis during the stretching is to relax and loosen my body.
This ritual does wonders! It works even better when you pair it with other recommendations (e.g. lower the temperature of the bedroom, sleep time consistency, reducing artificial light, etc.)
Routines are a big idea for any performance related desires, but they are especially important if you wish to sleep for better performance.
3. Temperature of the bedroom
65-68 degrees, Fahrenheit, or 18.3-20 degrees Celsius, is a wonderful start.
I like the breeze from a fan. This helps lull me to sleep and adds an extra chill.
If you can’t get the temperature lower, then at least expose your feet and shoulders to the open air.
4. Consistent sleep and wake times
I’ve kept to a consistent sleep schedule for years now. It is my secret super power. I’m asleep by 8:40 PM and awake by 5 AM. This means that I wind down as the sun goes down, am asleep just before sunset, and I wake an hour or two before sunrise.
Inconsistent sleep schedules is where most people go wrong. This is especially true for weekend vs weekday sleep times.
And a consistent schedule is just as important, if for no other reason than the fact that sleep quality matters most. You’ll enhance sleep quality when the body gets efficient at sleep, this is done by winding down for the night (e.g. less light, lighter activity, relaxed, time etc.)
People who stay up late on weekends and go to bed earlier on weekdays attribute Monday to being a “crappy day” because they put their body through jetlag EVERY WEEKEND. Going to bed 2 hours earlier on Sunday than you did on Friday or Saturday is the equivalent of crossing 2 time zones. And 2 hours is a modest estimate, most people will stay up 4 hours later on the weekend! If they sleep at all.
5. Avoid artificial light 2-3 hours before bed.
“Blue-light” canceling glasses are great! I’ve found my REM sleep improves immensely. I also wake up far less during the night and my “sleep efficiency” (as measured by the Oura ring) increases as well.
Here’s my routine:
Uvex is what I use 2-3 hours before bed, before switching to Sundown Eyewear below.
Sundown Eyewear is what I use during the last hour or two before bed. These will block all of the blue light and even green light, which has an added boost to improving sleep quality.
I’ve noticed a significant decrease in sleep quality when I am exposed to light before bed. I can even feel my mind get clouded as if melatonin is being suppressed and other chemicals are flooding my brain (e.g. cortisol, which should rise during the morning but fall in the evening!)
My bests nights of sleep for better performance have been when I use Sundown Eyewear for at least an hour before bed and avoid screens all together. I only have a dim lamp for reading and writing.
6. Avoid high amounts of caffeine after 1-2 PM
Yes, I know that sounds early. I always thought of myself as a low responder to caffeine, but I’ve personally found caffeine to have a large impact to my sleep. I drink green tea up to 3 PM and do just fine. Coffee, however, has a more intense effect. The coffee I drink is dark (Lion’s Mane Mushrooms) and I don’t add that much (I brew my own, controlling exactly how much coffee I put in).
Caffeine can help give you a mental boost for performance, some of my best runs were after a small cup of dark mushroom coffee. But the body can build up tolerance fairly easy. Theacrine is a nice alternative to caffeine, it doesn’t have the issue of building tolerances. You can also use it synergistically with caffeine for a greater effect. I have 1 cup of coffee once a week and 1 green tea packet 2-4 days a week. I also restrain from any caffeine for at least 1-3 weeks a few times of the year.
Caffeine can be great, but to sleep for better performance you want to use this sparingly as a tool.
7. When you last ate and how large the meal was
Counter to popular belief, meals before bed disrupt sleep quality a lot. This is something I’ve experienced first hand. The body will be spending a lot of resources digesting food and not getting into a restorative mode. You’ll wake up sluggish, likely multiple times throughout the night.
8. Sun exposure
Expose yourself to sunlight in the early morning and a few hours before the sun goes down
A good night’s sleep starts the day before. Sleep happens in cycles, and that cycle is influence in a large part by light.
9. Sleep position
Generally, you should aim to sleep on your left side. The right side is fine, but avoid it after eating. I’ve personally found that sleeping on my right side after a large meal, even 4 hours before bed, leads to frequent wake ups in the middle of the night and bloating.
Research shows that sleeping on the right side can cause heartburn.
I would not recommend sleeping on your back. It can cause your tongue to roll back in your throat. This causes sleep apnea because of poor breathing airways. This is when you go moments without air because of the blockage, causing you to wake up or at least move into a lighter sleep. I’ve experienced issues with this from bitting my cheek or tongue as I drift off to sleep, causing me to jolt awake.
Breathing rate is also the highest when you sleep on your back, since there is no restriction to breathing. Breathing too much air in will lead to the body being less efficient with the oxygen it gets. This causes poor physical and mental restoration.
Try out various sleep positions and see what works for you!
A sleep position like this leads to the highest sleep efficiency that I’ve seen.
This means fewer times waking up during the night.
10. Beware of napping after 2 PM
I’ve found use in 20 minute power naps as a great way to restore my cognitive functioning after a long period of problem solving. Anymore than this and if done after 2 PM, my sleep the next day suffers. An occasional lunch “siesta” is sufficient.
Note: The reason behind 20 minute power naps working so well, is because that amount of time isn’t enough to get into a deep sleep. Being woken up from a deep sleep is what makes people groggy. This is so restorative to my cognitive functioning because it is enough to relax the mind and have REM sleep. You may experience this yourself as you may experience hallucination like feelings as you go in and out of consciousness. You’ll read below that REM sleep is all about restoring cognitive functioning.
11. When you last exercised
Generally a good idea to exercise no later than 2-3 hours before bed.
The idea here is similar to that of not eating before bed. You want to keep your body temperature low, which naturally declines before you fall asleep. Whenever I am unusually warm I sleep the worst and have the hardest time falling asleep. Exercise raises your body temperature and keeps your breathing and heart rate higher, both of which need to decline before you can get restorative sleep.
Exercise, like blue light exposure and eating before bed, causes a rising in cortisol.
Cortisol is a hormone that should rise during the morning (to wake you up) and fall before going to sleep. It has an inverse relationship to melatonin.
To sleep for better performance, aim for exercise in the early morning and then once more mid-day.
12. Exercise intensity and duration over the past several days
It is a magnificent idea to have a week (or some other period) where you engage in intense activity. This is great for fitness and general wellbeing. But, the more intense the exercise, the longer the duration of rest should be, if recovery is your priority.
If you exercise intensely, you’ll need more sleep to recover, more deep sleep. This is because deep sleep is physically restoring.
If you do a lot of mentally demanding work, you’ll need more sleep to recover, more REM sleep. This is because REM sleep is mentally restoring.
13. Remain active throughout the day
Just getting up and stretching is sufficient. Leaving too much energy left over at the end of the day can keep you restless at night.
14. No alcohol
Alcohol is perceived by the body like a poison, but it is especially destructive to sleep. Sleep quality will suffer immensely, despite feeling like you fell asleep quickly. The “next morning hangover” is in part due to the lack of high quality sleep.
The one time I drank I can attest to this, otherwise, I haven’t drank much. That’s why it is at the bottom of this list. But, I’ve heard the same recommendation from dozens of sources.
Final Word on Recommendations
Note that I am very obsessed with high performance, productivity, and optimizing myself, so you can trust these recommendations to come from a lot of personal experience and research. With that said, for each of these, don’t stick to the recommendation. Instead, experiment within and outside of the range to learn how your body responds.
My aim is high performance, both mentally and physically. I highly recommend starting with this list and experiment. It will improve your sleep for better performance.
Also, the exact times will depend on when you go to sleep. I tend to be asleep by 8:30-8:45 PM and awake by 5 AM. So, recommendations such as no coffee after 1-2 PM, has come from experiments where I aim to be asleep by 8:30 PM.
Thank you for reading!
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