[Week 11 of 12 Weeks to a Healthy New Year]
Napping like the Kenyans?
Apparently, many of the best Kenyan runners take a nap every afternoon. They also physically rest a lot between workouts, even when not sleeping. I have always known sleep was important, but reading specifics about this in Running With Kenyans a few years ago made me think about it on a new level.
Most exercise or running guides mention that “good” rest is important, but they don’t elaborate. I think some elaboration can be very useful, because if we skim past it, we risk missing what it really means. We risk not really applying the idea in important ways.
I want to talk about
- What is good sleep
- How to fall asleep
- How good sleep makes exercise better
- How good exercise makes sleep better
What is good sleep?
Good sleep could probably be defined as sleep that is sufficient for rejuvenation. Subjectively, this feels like we are refreshed, at least after the initial fuzzy morning mind. Objectively, it has allowed for body parts to recover from and adapt to stressors, as well as for the mind to engage in some still mysterious processing.
The more physical effort you put out during the day, the more sleep you need. This needs to be compared to your own personal sleep needs. One mistake people make is to compare their sleep needs to other people’s.
Don’t treat sleep like a competition to see who can function on the least amount of sleep. This is like having a competition to see who can grow the tallest. A person can stand up straight or slouch, but he can’t really change his height.
It is thought a person can maximize their sleep potential. If you have regular sleep habits and habits that help you sleep well, you may sleep more efficiently. However, each person’s body seems to have a set time range for necessary sleep and this cannot be overridden.
There are other reasons not to compare your sleep life to another person’s claims about sleep. There are likely unmentioned factors about another person’s life that are affecting their sleep patterns. Also, what people report about their habits is not always reliable.
What is good sleep for you? Good sleep would be sleep that you wake up from naturally. This is your body’s way of saying the tank is full. We should probably all try adjusting our sleep routine to a time frame that allows natural waking.
Here is an interesting article about how much sleep people need: The People Who Need Very Little Sleep. The author makes the mistake of calling natural variations among people “mutations,” but it otherwise a thoughtful review of how little we can control our sleep needs.
How to fall asleep
What do you think is your biggest barrier to falling asleep? Are you remembering that:
- Light affects our ability to sleep and wake up
- Regular habits cue the body to prepare
- Regular habits and schedule may make sleep more efficient
You might read Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep for a review of what scientists think they know about sleep. Some of it seems intuitive. I mean, everyone knew without a scientific study that significant sleep deprivation reduces our ability to function.
Suggestions about how to fall asleep are just suggestions. You may need to experiment and be honest with yourself. You may need to think about what helps you relax at the end of the day.
For instance, it really helps me to write down the next day’s schedule before bed. This relieves my mind because things are planned. Other people may need to avoid bedtime scheduling, as it gets their brains engaged differently.
I also find that playing my flute, studying Chinese, or crocheting relax me. Playing my flute because it is a mode of expression and deep breathing. Chinese because I relax better when I have accomplished goals. Crochet because it is a combination of a project and a soothing, repetitive motion.
Contrary to the suggestions in the above article, a bit of wine is a great sleep aid for me. Also, laying in bed is sometimes just what I need, because I need to let my physical body slow down. The right kind of audiobook helps, too.
Even the suggestion about exercising too close to bedtime might need to be tweaked. Intense or vigorous exercise is certainly stimulating, both physically and mentally. Anyone who has worked the swing shift knows it can take some time to unwind. However, an easy walk might be just what you need to unwind if you haven’t exercised that day or have been sitting down a lot.
How good sleep makes exercise better
When your body feels like it has gotten enough sleep, it performs more easily. When you are tired, you have to try harder to reach the same goals. It becomes more like work and less like play.
When you are already tired, your body cannot react as well. You are not as light on your feet. You tend to plod more.
For comparison, think about how you feel at the end of a hard workout versus at the beginning. At the beginning, you are more likely to feel you can run forever. At the end, there is much less spring in your step. While muscle fatigue is definitely a factor, there is also general tiredness.
Being tired makes you less mentally alert. This means you don’t problem solve as well or mentally react as quickly. You won’t be able to concentrate on a moving ball or the ground moving beneath you nearly as easily.
If you want your exercise or physical activities to be more fun and less likely to lead to injury, you should make sure you are getting enough sleep on a regular basis.
How good exercise makes sleep better
Being physically tired is different than being sleepy. However, being physically tired often makes it easier to sleep. There is something about having been physically active that helps the body relax and sleep more deeply.
As mentioned, you probably don’t want to exercise too near bedtime. Your systems need time to cool down before they can enter stasis. They need time to deal with all of the physiological processes of the post exercise phase.
Once cool down has been achieved, the well exercised body will be glad to go to sleep for a time of rejuvenation. But remember that exercise is like wind is to a plant. A moderate amount of wind stresses the stem so that it can grow better. It causes the plant to develop strength.
Too much wind can flatten the plant, just like exercise beyond a body’s current capabilities are more destructive than helpful. If you break yourself, you won’t sleep as well. So don’t push yourself excessively thinking it will help you sleep better.
The synergy between your sleep and your exercise
Just sleeping well or just exercising regularly will bring you some benefits. Figuring out how to do both well will increase your positive results much more. You will feel better physically and you will feel happier. Never feel guilty for getting enough sleep.