You gotta tip your hat to the brain. In terms of muscles, it’s the hardest working person in the office. Reigning employee of the month. Working overdrive from the moment it punches in. If your body were actually an office, it’d probably be the volunteer fire-safety monitor, too.
But, like most things with top-notch work ethics, the brain is a little bit of a try-hard. It just doesn’t want to stop working — and that’s a problem. You need your brain to punch out for the night in order to get a good night’s sleep.
If you’re someone who struggles with sleepless nights, it’s most likely because you’re having trouble putting your mind to rest. This is a legitimate problem for athletes, who maintain extremely high levels of activity during the day and then have to abruptly shut it down at night so they can be well rested for the next one.
“All of us have busy schedules, and we’re so busy doing stuff all the time, sometimes we can get worked up in our mind, which doesn’t allow us to sleep,” says Tom Brady.
Even if you’re not getting ready to lead your team into a grueling January playoff schedule, knowing how to put your mind at ease is essential to achieving the sleep you need to do well at your job, and get the most out of your workouts on a daily basis.
We consulted top athletes and identified several sleep issues they face on a daily (and nightly) basis. Below, see how they convince their brains that it’s OK to take the night off.
WHAT TIME SHOULD I GO TO SLEEP AND WAKE UP?
Going to sleep and waking up at consistent times each day are extremely valuable for training your mind to know when it’s time to shut it down. Under Armour Data Engineering and Science analyzed over 1 million nights of sleep in an October 2016 UA Band Sleep Study and revealed that sleeping in late leads to lower-quality sleep the following night, in some cases by as much as 20%. This means staying consistent, even on the weekends. In fact, if you have a key meeting or something important on Monday morning, the study recommends not sleeping in on Sunday morning because it will reduce your sleep quality on Sunday night.
Want more proof? Take some notes from notoriously prodigious sleeper Michael Phelps (he’s also good at swimming). Phelps’ long-time trainer, Keenan Robinson, says that Phelps’ “sleep training is as hall of fame as his water training… he’s asleep at the same time and wakes up at the same time every day. This keeps his circadian rhythm consistent, which in turn allows his body to work in the most efficient manner.”
Phelps takes his sleep very seriously, and he doesn’t allow his substantial professional commitments to interrupt that routine. Consider this anecdote from Robinson about Phelps’ sleep routine leading up to this year’s Olympics:
“He never swayed off his schedule…one time he flew from the east coast in the morning to do a sponsorship appearance in the early evening in LA, with a flight back to Phoenix late at night, and he still got up at the same time the next day and came in for morning practice. The advantage of training from 9-11 every morning, was that he would wake up in sunny Phoenix naturally and his body was immediately producing serotonin which naturally ‘woke him up.’”
It might sound silly, but sleeping is a skill that the world’s best athletes possess and work extremely hard at to maintain. For Phelps, it’s on par with perfecting another stroke in the pool.
SHOULD I READ OR WATCH STUFF ON MY PHONE BEFORE BED?
It’s perhaps the most common sleep-related question 21st century athletes ask themselves: “Should I really not look at my phone before bed?”
Many professional athletes have an even more increased need, either for professional or relaxation purposes, to be close to their phones or other devices. What most do to mitigate screen light’s effect on their sleep is create a smart buffer between setting their phone aside and calling it a night. Ballerina Misty Copeland shuts all devices off well prior to hitting the hay, while Jordan Spieth allows himself to text, email and check Instagram about 15 minutes before enabling the “do not disturb” setting. An hour before bed, Phelps allows himself to watch sports or a television series, and he even plays card games on his phone.
As we’re all so connected, we all battle the urge to check in with our devices, and athletes are no exception. For most it’s the only time to catch up. Just know that you’re delaying that sweet, sweet slumber.
Sleeping well is just another form of training yourself — to deal with combatting sleeplessness. The key is understanding the relationship between your brain and sleep. And according to track star Natasha Hastings, the most important truth is to “turn all devices off, including your mind.”
Through routine and monitoring your screen time, you can find what the right mix is for you and make an informed decision. And maybe finally tell that hard-working brain of yours that it deserves a good night’s sleep, too.