SLEEP TIGHT, SWIM FAST: BUILDING GOOD SLEEP HABITS


The best way to approach sleep problems that occur anywhere is to pay attention to, and modify if necessary, your sleep habits at home. If you have good sleep habits at home, re-creating those habits while you are away from home will increase the likelihood that you will have better sleep in any situation. If you have bad sleep habits at home, now is the time to fix them, before you travel or get stressed.

The term many people use for sleep habits is “Sleep Hygiene.” Good sleep hygiene means you DECREASE the behaviors and thoughts that keep you up, and INCREASE the behaviors and thoughts that encourage sleepiness. Sleep is what your body naturally wants, so if you can create an environment that encourages it, sleep will happen.

What to DECREASE when you find you have trouble sleeping:
  • Decrease Naps – If you nap and you are having trouble falling asleep at night, then drop the nap. While a nap may be good during the heaviest part of training, as you approach a taper and decrease energy spent in practice, you do not need to nap.
  • Decrease Sleeping in – one of the best habits for good sleep is to get up and go to bed at the same time every day. Don’t sleep in (much) on the one day you don’t have early practice.
  • Decrease Caffeine (cut down or eliminate, no caffeine after breakfast)
  • Decrease Liquids later in the evening to eliminate the need to urinate during the night.
  • Decrease Light exposure in the evening (more light = less melatonin production– sleep hormone that is created by the brain).
    • TV and Computer Screens make blue light that lowers melatonin production – TV may make you feel “zoned out” and ready for sleep, but it also can make it harder to fall asleep once you turn it off.
    • If you want to read or do puzzles before bed, use a low watt (15 watt) light bulb in your bedside light.
  • Decrease Alcohol Use (alcohol may make you feel sleepy, but can cause night waking. Alcohol can be a stimulant for some people but it disturbs the balance of the sleep cycle, frequently decreasing the deep sleep phase).
  • Decrease Worries – don’t take your problems to bed. Writing them down before bed is a good way to “park” them for the night.
  • Decrease Stimulating activity in the evening – a hard workout in the evening can create a lot of energy and make it hard to fall asleep. However, a very light workout may be helpful. Stimulating activity can also include getting together with a bunch of friends later in the evening or working on a big project.
  • Don’t TRY to fall asleep. If sleep does not come naturally after about 15 minutes, get out of bed and do something relaxing for a while – meditate, take a warm shower, listen to some quiet music, read, do a puzzle. Don’t get back into bed until you feel sleepy.
  • Don’t watch the clock. In fact, hiding it is not a bad idea. Staring at the clock will only create more worry about not sleeping.
  • Don’t worry if you wake in the middle of the night. Night-waking is actually very common – when dealt with by decreasing stimulation and increasing sleep-producing behaviors, your remaining sleep will be sufficient.
  • You just may not be tired when you go to bed. Cut down on your sleep for a night or two (sleep restriction) and natural sleepiness may just set in.
  • YOU DO NOT NEED TO “MAKE” YOURSELF SLEEP. Your body will do it naturally when the conditions are right.
INCREASE:
  • Increase Bedroom Comfort – freedom from light and noise, comfortable temperature. Coolness and darkness increase melatonin production.
  • Increase Physical Comfort – don’t go to bed hungry or over-full. A light snack before bed is OK if you are feeling hungry. Protein and some carbohydrates are the best mix to promote sleep (like toast with peanut butter, plain yogurt with some fruit, even warm milk).
  • Create “winding down rituals” – meditate, read, do a puzzle, listen to quiet music, take a warm shower. These activities relax the mind and help you “let go” of the busy mental activity that can keep you awake.
  • If you don’t have any regular winding-down activities established, try deep-breathing. Take deep breaths (you should be able to feel your diaphragm or stomach area rising with each intake of breath), at a natural pace. Try to slow down the pace a little, but not so much that you feel that it is difficult or you are not getting enough air. Focus on the breath and the worries will drop off.
  • Increase white noise – if you are particularly sensitive to noises (“things that go bump in the night”), think about adding a white noise generator to your bedroom. It will cancel out the odd nighttime noise and help you sleep.
Following the above tips should eliminate any regular (nightly or almost nightly) sleep problems.

Everyone has occasional problems sleeping. When you are in training, sleep comes easily because of exhaustion. When you are rested, it may take longer to fall asleep – 10-20 minutes is not uncommon and not a sign of insomnia or inability to fall asleep. If you have regular sleep problems – at least three nights per week for a period of time, as well as daytime distress or poor functioning – consult a physician. A sleep study can find biological causes for poor sleep. Primary insomnia (persistent trouble with sleep without a medical cause) can be treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy and does not require medication.

If your physician recommends the use of sleep medication, remember to consult with the USADA web site prior to use to make sure that your medication is allowed. Additionally, consider the potential side effects of sleep medications, and risks of long term use.

JENNY G STADLER, PHD, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST
USA SWIMMING SPORTS MEDICINE TASK FORCE

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