Key Takeaways

  1. Getting sufficient sleep improves your life in nearly every way, from your body composition to your athletic performance to your mood.
  2. Although simply getting to bed on time is half the battle, there are many other evidence-based strategies you can use to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.
  3. Keep reading to learn the five best strategies for falling asleep faster, staying asleep longer, and sleeping more soundly!

Sleep isn’t the sexiest of fitness topics. 

It isn’t as gratifying as setting your macronutrient targets, estimating your body fat percentage, or measuring how much muscle you can build naturally.

And it isn’t as fun as learning about training methods like blood flow restriction training, periodization, and supersets.

One of the reasons sleep seems so humdrum is you already do it every day, and aside from getting to bed on time, there’s not much you can do to optimize your sleep habits (or so you think). 

The truth, though, is that sleep is one of the most effective ways to improve your workout recovery, gain muscle and strength, and even increase fat loss while cutting. What’s more, there are scientifically-proven steps you can take to fall asleep faster, sleep more soundly, and wake up feeling more refreshed and invigorated.

With the majority of the world still under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, now is also the perfect time to burnish your sleep habits.

If you’re already doing home workouts and cooking macro-friendly meals, improving your sleep is one of the next best things you can do to boost your fitness, health, and vitality.

So, why is sleep so important, and what can you do to sleep more soundly? 

In this article, you’re going to learn five evidence-based strategies you can implement right away for getting better sleep.

If you want to recover from your workouts faster, build more muscle, and lose more fat, you want to start using these techniques. 


How Sleep Improves Your Health, Fitness, and Body Composition

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Whether or not you realize it, sleep has a profound impact on your mental and physical health.

Research conducted by scientists at Stanford Medicine Outpatient Center, Jichi Medical University, Sultan Qaboos University, the University of Alabama, and the University of Pennsylvania shows that getting insufficient sleep increases the risk of all cause mortality, as well as a long list of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity

What’s more, being under-rested is linked with a slew of potentially calamitous “human errors” such as road accidents, workplace injuries, and medical mishaps.

Not catching enough Z’s can wreak havoc on your fitness goals, too.

For example, research from The University of Chicago and National Center of Medicine and Science in Sports shows that insufficient sleep slows down weight loss, increases muscle loss, decreases performance, and reduces testosterone levels. 

Basically the polar opposite of what you want if your goal is to get fit.

Now for the good news: sleeping well is like following a good exercise plan—it improves your life in almost every conceivable way.

The benefits of getting adequate sleep include:

Before I explain how to get better sleep, though, I want to take a moment to answer a question you’re probably wondering: 

Why talk about sleep now?

Summary: Not getting enough sleep is linked with many chronic diseases and costly “human errors,” and can make reaching your fitness goals considerably more difficult. Getting adequate sleep, however, improves your life in almost every way.  

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Why Is Now the Time to Talk About Sleep?

With every fitness blogger, Youtuber, and Influencer™ on the Internet publishing articles on how to work out from home during the COVID-19 lockdown, this might seem like a strange time to talk about the benefits of sleep. 

In reality, though, this is the perfect time to think about sleep.

If you’re like most people, you’re probably working from home, which means you don’t have to commute, get dressed, pack a lunch, etc., which means you have more time to focus on other aspects of your fitness, like sleep.

Another reason it’s worth working on your sleep right now is that it can reinvigorate your sense of forward momentum. When you can’t follow your normal workout routine, you can still make progress in other areas of your life, like your sleep habits.

Summary: Now is the perfect time to improve your sleep habits because you have more time and, since you can’t follow your normal workout routine, it gives you another fitness goal to pursue.

5 Sleep Strategies That Will Improve Your Performance in the Gym

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Now that we know the perils of not sleeping well and the benefits you can look forward to by getting enough sleep, it’s time to look at what science says are the best ways to improve your sleep now.

Sleep Strategy 1: Practice the Basics of Good Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene refers to your pre-bedtime habits and rituals. 

Good sleep hygiene helps you unwind, feel tired, and promotes long and restful sleep. Bad sleep hygiene has the opposite effect.

Research shows that implementing the following sleep hygiene strategies into your bedtime routine may help improve sleep quality and reduce fatigue, which can lead to feelings of increased vigour, and importantly for us fitness folk, improved athletic performance. 

The basic principles of good sleep hygiene are:

Avoid coffee, nicotine, and alcohol four to six hours before sleep.

Caffeine is particularly detrimental for sleep, because it can stay in the body for up to seven hours depending on individual differences in sensitivity, metabolism, and how much you drink. This can make falling asleep more difficult, and can disrupt your sleep once you finally nod off. If you already abstain from caffeine for at least six hours before bedtime, and you still struggle to fall asleep, try quitting it entirely for a few weeks.

Like caffeine, nicotine promotes wakefulness, and is associated with increased time to fall asleep, decreased total sleep time, frequent early morning awakening, and repression of rapid eye movement (REM) and deep sleep—two of the most restorative phases of sleep. 

Alcohol can help you fall asleep quickly, which might encourage you to have a drink before bed if you struggle to get to sleep. However, not long after it helps you drift off, alcohol starts to act as a stimulant, and has been shown to interfere with the deep, quality sleep you need to feel rested. 

Thus, it’s also generally a good idea to avoid alcohol before sleep.

Stop looking at electronics like TVs, phones, tablets, and laptops at least 30 minutes before you sleep.

Research conducted at Penn State Hershey College of Medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Columbia University shows this can significantly decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and improve the quality of your sleep.

The LED and OLED screens used for most modern devices emit a type of light known as “blue light.” This bright, blue light tells your body it’s still daytime, which encourages your body to suppress melatonin production. Melatonin is the hormone that tells your brain it’s time to sleep.

Thus, more blue light = less melatonin = a harder time falling asleep.

If you have to work on the computer, phone, or tablet late in the evening, you can minimize its negative effects by using the app f.lux, which reduces the amount of blue light emitted from your screen.

If you still have trouble falling asleep despite avoiding screens 30 minutes before bedtime and using f.lux, consider avoiding screens at least 60 minutes before bed.

Make your bedroom as dark as possible using blackout blinds, or by using an eye mask.

Making your room as close to “pitch black” as possible is important because even dim light emitted from smart devices, televisions, and street lights shining through windows can decrease your sleep quality and quantity.

Make your bedroom as quiet as possible.

Research shows environmental noise, like that caused by traffic on nearby roads, can  wake you up at levels as low as 48 decibels (dB)—about as loud as your voice during a normal conversation. Not only can this decrease the total amount of time you spend sleeping, it can reduce the amount of time you spend in REM and deep sleep. 

Keep your bedroom cool but not cold (research shows that between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, or 16 and 19 degrees Celsius, is ideal).

Research shows this is the ideal ambient temperature range for helping your body lower its core temperature for sleep.

There are metabolic benefits to sleeping in colder environments as well. Studies show that it can increase brown fat stores, which may increase your basal metabolic rate.

Don’t eat or drink too much before bed.

Research conducted by scientists at the Federal University of São Paulo shows that eating between 30 and 60 minutes before going to bed makes falling asleep take longer. What’s more, fatty meals before bed were shown to lessen the amount of REM sleep the participants got during the night.

Create a relaxing pre-bed routine that might include things like reading, stretching, or bathing.

Since one of the main goals of sleep hygiene is to make you feel relaxed so you can easily fall asleep at bedtime, doing some stress-reducing activities prior to going to bed is a good idea.

If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something quiet and relaxing until you feel the urge to fall asleep, like reading, listening to music, or solving puzzles. Once you feel sleepy, go back to bed.

By getting out of bed when you can’t fall asleep, you accomplish two important things: 

  1. You train your brain to associate bed with sleep and nothing else (reading in bed, scrolling through Instagram, etc.).
  2. You give yourself time to work through bothersome thoughts that might be interfering with your sleep.

Go to bed at the same time every night.

Just as you tend to get hungry at the same times you normally eat, you also tend to get tired at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. 

Many people throw a monkey wrench into this process, though, by going to bed and waking up at different times from day to day, and this can make it very difficult to establish a consistent sleep schedule.

By going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning, you can train your brain to fall asleep and wake up like clockwork. What’s more, maintaining a regular sleep schedule can help you stay asleep longer and reduces the amount of times you wake up during the night.

Only use your bedroom for two things: sleep and sex.

If you work from home and think it’ll be a good idea to set up your office in the comfort of your bed, think again. Not only will it encourage you to work long into the evening, all the while staring at a screen, but it will likely make you associate that space with the stresses of work—both of which should be avoided.

Your bedroom should be a place to sleep, have sex, and nothing else. Research shows those who have sex before they sleep get to sleep faster and report better quality sleep. 

Whew! That’s a lot of stuff to remember. 

If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed right now, try just adding one or two of these techniques to your nightly routine. 

For example, choose two strategies from the list above and do them every day for a week. The next week, implement two more, and so on and so forth until you’re happy with your sleep quality.

So long as you practice these habits now and keep them in place when you get back to the gym, improvements in performance, health, and body composition won’t be far behind.

Summary: If you want to significantly improve your sleep quality and quantity, implement these ten tenets of good sleep hygiene before doing anything else. 

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Strategy 2: Sleep Longer

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Most of us have heard we should sleep somewhere between seven and nine hours every night.

While this number is fine for most people just looking to stay healthy, those of us looking to maximize our athletic performance should consider sleeping even longer.

For example, a good example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists from Stanford University, which had a group of 11 varsity basketball players increase their time in bed each night from around 7 hours to 10+ hours for 5 to 7 weeks. On average, the players slept two hours longer during the study than they did before.

How did this impact their performance?

Not only did their average sprint time decrease from 16.2 seconds to 15.5 seconds, their free throw and three-point shooting accuracy increased by around 9 percent each, their reaction time and subjective mood significantly improved, and their subjective fatigue decreased by more than 80 percent. 

Other studies have found similar results.

For instance, a similar study that looked at varsity tennis players had participants get at least nine hours of sleep every night for a week. Again, as you might expect, subjective ratings of sleepiness decreased. More interestingly for us, however, is that serving accuracy increased by an average of 14.3 percent. 

Finally, another recent study of netball teams found the teams that finish at the top of tournament standings tend to sleep more and report better sleep quality during competitions than teams that finish at the bottom of tournament standings.

So, how many hours of sleep should you be looking to get if you want to increase your performance?

Ideally around 9 or 10 hours, especially for the weeks leading up to a competition, important game, or one-rep max (1RM) testing week.

But what if sleeping 10 hours a night simply isn’t possible?

Read on for another solution …

Summary: If you want to maximize your athletic performance, try to sleep at least 9 to 10 hours per night, especially in the weeks leading up to an important athletic competition.

Strategy 3: If You Can’t Sleep Longer at Night, Nap During the Day

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Spending more time asleep might be a great way to improve athletic performance, but what if it simply isn’t feasible?

Enter napping.

Athletes have used naps for years to squeeze more sleep into their busy schedules, but a recent study conducted by scientists from Sfax University helps shed light on the ideal napping strategy for maximizing performance. 

In this study, the researchers wanted to understand the effect of different nap times on cognitive and physical performance, and subjective ratings of muscle soreness, mood, fatigue, stress, and sleep quality. 

The 20 active male participants involved in the study were given the opportunity to nap for three different amounts of time: 25-, 35- or 45- minutes. There was also a control condition where they didn’t take naps. 

Each nap time was separated by 72 hours, during which time participants didn’t take naps, and the nap times were completed in a random order.

Although the participants were given ideal sleeping conditions in which to take their naps, whether the participants actually slept, or how long and well they slept, wasn’t measured. 

Following their nap times, the participants took part in tests such as a jump test, a digit cancellation task that measured things like focus and how fast they could process information, a rating of their mood, and a questionnaire that was used to gauge stress, sleep quality, fatigue, and muscle soreness on a scale from one to seven. 

At the end of the study the results were clear: the longer the participants were allowed to nap, the better they performed on every physical and mental task.

Many other studies conducted by scientists at Liverpool John Moores University, Normandie University, and KTH Royal Institute of Technology have found that naps can improve physical and cognitive performance and reduce levels of subjective fatigue and stress.

So, if you’re struggling to get enough sleep every night, give napping a shot.

Be careful when you decide to take naps, and how long you nap, though. 

Avoid taking naps after 3 p.m., and try not to nap for longer than between 30 and 45 minutes—doing so can make it harder to fall and stay asleep.

Summary: If your sleep is disrupted, or if you struggle to get between 9 and 10 hours of sleep per night, consider taking 30- to 45-minute naps in the late morning or early afternoon.

Strategy 4: Follow a High-Protein Diet

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Bodybuilders have extolled the benefits of eating protein before bed for years.

Eating some slow-digesting protein like casein prior to hitting the hay stops your muscles  breaking down during the night, or so the theory goes.

Truth be told, this isn’t exactly how things work—your body doesn’t go “catabolic” because you didn’t eat protein for a few hours—but that’s not to say the gym bros were completely wrong, either.

It turns out that eating protein may improve your sleep, but when you eat it isn’t as important as how much you eat.

For example, a review study conducted by scientists at the National University of Singapore found that when you eat different macronutrients throughout the day may affect sleep quality.

After reviewing nineteen studies, the researchers concluded that people who eat a high-protein diet are far more likely to be “good sleepers” than people who eat a low-protein diet.

So the bodybuilders were right, then?

Well, sort of, but maybe not for the reasons they thought.

Gym lore stipulates that eating a slow-digesting protein (like casein) before bed prevents excessive muscle breakdown during sleep. 

While the jury is still out on whether or not this is true, eating a high-protein diet may help you get lots of quality sleep, which does prevent muscle breakdown.

The main takeaway, then, is if you’re having trouble sleeping, or if you want to maximize the quality of your sleep, make sure you’re eating a high-protein diet. 

For most people, this means getting around 30 percent of your daily calories from protein per day, or around one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.

As for the theory of eating protein before bed, it’s probably not necessary, but there’s a chance it’ll help reduce muscle breakdown (especially when your total calorie intake is low, as when restricting your calories for fat loss). Since it’s a low-risk, low-cost, potentially low-reward strategy, there’s really no harm in implementing it.

However, if you do decide to eat some slow-digesting protein before bed, don’t make the mistake of eating a large meal with lots of calories from dietary fat, too (a grilled ribeye right before bed probably isn’t a good idea). 

Research shows that doing so is likely to have a negative effect on your sleep which, after all, is the thing you want to avoid above all else.

A small amount of dairy—maybe 30 to 40 grams of protein from Greek yogurt or cottage cheese—consumed before you sleep is unlikely to have any negative effect on your body composition or your health based on current evidence, and it may even help you sleep. 

Summary: Eating a high-protein diet may help improve your sleep, though eating large meals (even ones high in protein) before going to bed can interfere with sleep and should be avoided. 

Strategy 5: Exercise at the Right Time of Day for You

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One of the countless ways we humans differ from one another is our individual preference for what time we like to go to sleep and wake up, also known as our chronotype. 

At one end of the spectrum there are the “early birds” who like to wake up and go to bed early, and at the other end of the spectrum there are the “night owls” who like to stay up and wake up late.

The vast majority of us fall somewhere between these two extremes (waking up somewhere between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and going to sleep somewhere between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.).

Although you can train yourself to change your chronotype over time (learning to wake up early despite being a night owl and vice versa), some research shows that matching your chronotype to your daily exercise routine can improve your performance.

For example, research into elite athletes shows that athletes tend to pursue and excel in sports that match their chronotype. 

A study conducted by scientists at the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center showed that baseball players who were morning types had higher batting averages than evening types in early games (before 2 p.m.), while evening types had higher batting averages than morning types during evening games (after 8 p.m.).

What does this mean for you? 

If you find it easy to get up early in the morning and have the most energy before midday, you should probably stick to training in the morning—you’re likely to have your most productive training sessions between the time you get up, and the early afternoon.

If, however, you struggle to drag yourself out of bed in the morning but find you’re more awake later in the day, chances are you’re an evening type, and are more likely to hit new PRs in the evening.

But wait … didn’t someone once tell you that working out in the evening will interfere with your sleep? 

They might’ve, and not without good reason—older research on the impact of exercise on sleep suggested this was true.

However, many studies since then conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, Eötvös Loránd University, the University of Jyväskylä, the University of South Carolina, and Centro de Estudos em Psicobiologia e Exercício, São Paulo, Brazil have found no evidence that exercising late in the day disrupts sleep, even when vigorous exercise is done as little as 90 minutes before bedtime. 

So, if you’re a night owl, feel free to push for PRs late in the day without the fear of disrupting your sleep.

Likewise, if you’re an early bird but missed your normal morning workout and have to make do with some evening exercise, don’t fret—it might not be your most productive session ever, but it probably won’t mess with your sleep, either.

Summary: Try to work out at the time of day you feel most awake, energized, and strong, even if it’s in the hours before bedtime—research shows exercise doesn’t interfere with your sleep, regardless of when you do it.

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The Bottom Line on How to Optimize Your Sleep

With gyms closed and most of us working from home, now’s the perfect opportunity to improve our sleep habits.

Not only will this improve your productivity, health, and body composition now, it will also significantly boost your athletic performance once you get back into your normal exercise routine.

Here are the best ways to improve your sleep duration and quality: 

1. Practice the basics of good sleep hygiene.

This includes:

  • Avoiding caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol before bed
  • Avoiding looking at screens at least 30 minutes before bed
  • Making your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool
  • Not eating or drinking too much before bed
  • Creating a relaxing pre-bed routine
  • Getting up and doing something relaxing until you feel tired if you can’t fall asleep
  • Going to bed at the same time every night
  • Only using your bedroom for sleeping and having sex.

2. Sleep longer. 

Try to sleep a minimum of seven to nine hours per night, and try to sleep at least nine to ten hours per night if you want to maximize your athletic performance. 

3. If you can’t sleep longer at night, nap during the day. 

A 20 to 45 minute nap sometime before 3 p.m. can significantly boost your mental and physical performance. 

4. Follow a high-protein diet. 

Research shows eating a high-protein diet can improve your sleep duration and quality. While some people like to eat protein before bed, it’s your total daily protein intake that matters most. 

5. Exercise at the right time of day for you. 

If you feel most energetic in the morning, train in the morning. If you feel most energetic in the evening, train in the evening. 

Finally, don’t be discouraged by not being able to train the way you normally would because of the COVID-19  lockdown. 

Focus on the things you are able to change—like your sleep habits—and be happy in the knowledge that you’re setting yourself up for big improvements when you finally get back in the gym.

What’s your take on these sleep strategies? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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