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Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Keep that nap to 30 minutes or less. Photo by Mary Reed.

It’s the night before your big running/biking/climbing/whatever event – you need to get up before dawn and it’s already 10 p.m. and you’re way too excited to sleep. How will you ever perform well tomorrow?

“As far as athletes are concerned, make sure sleep is part of (your) training program; don’t put sleep on the back burner,” says Jay McGuire, director of the University of Louisville Hospital Sleep Disorder Center. But worrying about sleep generally won’t help matters. Here’s what will:

Don’t sweat one night without enough sleep. “If it’s a single 24-hour event, if you lose some sleep the night before, studies show that won’t necessarily affect your performance adversely,” Jay says. He also points to a study where athletes got extra sleep prior to an event – as much as 12 hours a night leading up to the event – and the extra sleep enhanced their performance.

Do sweat extended periods of insufficient sleep. Jays says that when you don’t get enough sleep regularly, it adversely affects your performance. Studies show sleep deprivation leads to increased production of cortisol (a stress hormone) and decreased endurance. “When you’re losing sleep over a period of time, that can also affect your body’s ability to repair itself,” Jay adds. Can you make up for lost sleep later on? “You can make up sleep to a certain extent,” Jay says, “That’s provided that your sleep is adequate normally.”

Create an environment conducive to sleep. Jay advises the following things to maximize the quality of your sleep: maintain a consistent sleep schedule (say, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.), make sure you have a comfortable mattress and pillow, make sure your room is dark, and make sure it’s quiet – use something that produces low-level white noise like a fan if you need it.

Avoid things that harm quality sleep. Caffeine within six hours of your bedtime and nicotine (it’s a stimulant) are two of the things that are most harmful to a good night’s sleep.

Exercise helps sleep – except when it doesn’t. It seems obvious that today’s long outing will mean you sleep well tonight. Generally, that’s true – regular exercise is beneficial to good sleep. But Jay advises that heavy cardiovascular exercise within three to four hours of bedtime can be too stimulating and could keep you awake.

What about naps? Naps are the ultimate answer, right? Not so fast, advises Jay, because naps can cut into your regular nighttime sleep schedule, destabilizing your routine. “If you do nap, you want to make sure they’re short, typically 20 to 30 minutes at the most, just long enough to make sure you feel refreshed.”

How much sleep do you need? While eight hours is the norm, everybody’s body is different – some need more, some less. To learn how much sleep you need, try this experiment: Sleep as much as you possibly can – shoot for 12 hours a night – and if you’ve been sleep deprived, you’ll likely be able to do so. But soon enough, your body will normalize to your ideal – closer to eight hours.