Whether you’re a trail runner, hiker, road runner, or endurance cyclist, you’re most likely aware of the benefits that a good night’s sleep and having healthy sleep habits and routines can have for you. Good quality sleep is especially beneficial when it comes to feeling fresh and rested in the morning, and helping your muscles recover quicker from exercise and endurance workouts.
But healthy sleep habits are not always that easily attained. So many people find it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep through the night, or have difficulty waking up feeling well-rested. In this post we’re sharing some top tips on how to get better sleep and improve sleep quality, as well as some ideas for sleep aids you can consider to help overcome issues you may have with falling asleep, waking up well-rested, and recovering well.
The suggestions in this post are based on our own research and personal experience and so this is not an exhaustive list or a substitute for any expert advice you may wish to seek out for your own personal sleep aid or training recovery needs.
Table of Contents
- The relationship between sleep and recovery
- How to develop a good sleep routine
- How to go to sleep earlier
- How long should you sleep for?
- 15 tips to fall asleep more easily and sleep through the night
- What to do if you can’t sleep
- Other non-medicinal sleep aids to try
The relationship between sleep and recovery
The relation between sleep and exercise recovery – including muscle repair and recovery, is well-documented. Sleep is known to be key in helping your body release the hormones necessary for muscle growth and repair.
How does lack of sleep affect the risk of injury? Well, as endurance athletes we know that if we don’t feel rested or allow our muscles to adequately recover from training, races, or long intensive workouts then we are putting ourselves at more risk of injury, as well as the effects of over-training, which is described by the NASM as being where an athlete experiences a form of burnout and declining performance or fatigue.
There’s a lot more information on the signs and remedies for overtraining on their website – with getting more, better quality sleep, and resting more, being one of the top areas to consider.
Ok, so we’re convinced that getting more, better quality sleep is important for our post-exercise recovery, as well as supporting us in having a healthy, well-balanced life in general, but how do you sleep better? Read on…
How to develop a good sleep routine
One of the first healthy sleep habits to dial in when it comes to sleeping better is having a good sleep routine. The US CDC also refers to having a consistent, adequate sleep schedule or routine as practicing ‘good sleep hygiene.
Here are some steps for developing a good sleep routine:
- Count backwards from your wake-up alarm time
- Determine how long you want to sleep for, eg. 7.5 hours (learn more about that precise sleep time below)
- Make a note of when you would need to be in bed, eg. by 10pm
- Allow yourself the necessary time to get ready for bed, for example, you may need 30 minutes to finish household tasks and get yourself ready, which brings you to 9.30pm.
So based on the example above, 9.30pm is pretty early! But that is the time when I’ve found it helpful to stop doing certain things (listed below), in order to fall asleep more easily later:
- Avoid intensive exercise too close to bedtime
- Avoid too much screen time by turning off the TV and trying to avoid looking at phones/laptops
- Lower the lighting in your home, and/or change the light color to a ‘warmer’ tone, which can be achieved by having warm white lightbulbs (as opposed to bright or neutral ‘cold’ light), or looking into getting smart lightbulbs like Hue, which you can change via an app to whatever tone or color you wish as a specific time in the evening. Hue lights can even be set to gradually fade up, starting 30 minutes before your alarm to act as a natural light effect in the winters for example. We love our Philips Hue lighting setup at home, can you tell?
How to go to sleep earlier
If you want to consistently go to sleep earlier than your current routine, then it helps to have a couple of days of earlier alarms (and correspondingly earlier bedtimes). It’s easiest not to drastically change your sleep schedule frequently as this can throw off your body clock (circadian rhythm) and be the cause of difficulty falling asleep when you’re not quite tired enough, or over-tired and bizarrely too tired to sleep.
Investing in good natural sleep aids will also help if you’re still struggling to fall asleep even when you’re tired – more on that below.
It’s also particularly helpful – especially in the darker winter months – to consider getting a natural light alarm clock with a light like the Hatch Restore, that is designed to emulate natural daylight – this is going to be especially beneficial for those who are susceptible to Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), like ourselves.
This can REALLY help motivate you to get out of bed when it’s dark and early in the morning because the gradual fading up of the light tricks your body clock into thinking it’s time to wake up and start the day.
How long should you sleep for?
There is much debate around how much is enough hours sleep per night, and ultimately this is going to vary by individual. According to an interview quoted in this article, tennis star Roger Federer claims to sleep 12 hours a day! For me, personally, I’ve found that depending on how tired I am, I generally benefit from getting around 7.5 hours or 9 hours of sleep a night – plus life’s too short to be sleeping 12 hours a day! 🙂
Side note – A sleep app I used in the past informed me that we tend to sleep in cycles lasting around 90 minutes, where the depth of your sleep cycles from being almost awake to being in a very deep sleep, and back again, and so it’s best to plan to wake up in around 1.5-hour intervals from the time you went to sleep, to avoid that ‘groggy’ feeling you get when you’ve been awoken from a deep sleep.
I was skeptical about this but tried it and I definitely wake up feeling fresher if I sleep for 7.5 or 9 hours as opposed to the typical ‘8 hours sleep’ I was aiming for previously. It’s worth considering whether making this simple change can help you feel like you’ve had a better night’s sleep, too.
15 tips to fall asleep more easily and sleep through the night
In this section, I’m sharing a load of great tips which may be useful if you’re wondering how to fall asleep when you’re not tired, or simply have difficulty falling asleep and are looking for some natural sleep aids to help. These tips can also help improve the likelihood of you staying asleep so you sleep through the night.
These sleep tips fall into two categories – environmental, which is how you can create an environment that is good for sleep relaxation and should help you sleep, and behavioral, which are some things you can do during the day and when getting ready for bed that may help prepare your mind and body for rest.
All of these are what I consider to be natural sleep aids, with no medication.
Tips to create the right environment to help you fall asleep
1. Darken the room
Unless you’re incredibly tired, having a darker room encourages you to relax and helps promote sleep-related hormones to activate at the right time.
2. Get the room temperature right
The best room temperature for sleeping is going to depend on a number of factors, not least you individually but also what you’re wearing and the bed linen you’re using to sleep in.
According to Sleepfoundation.org, the best temperature to keep your room at is generally between 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 to 19.4 degrees Celsius). Incidentally, this is, in my opinion, the ideal comfortable temperature range for running or working out in 🙂
3. Block out noise
While you can’t necessarily control noises outside of your house, it helps you relax and not be awoken by noises if you can minimize their impact on you and the room you’re sleeping in.
If you need to block out noises and don’t want to wear earplugs, you could also consider a white noise machine, which, incidentally, we found invaluable when training our dog Kepler to relax and fall asleep in his crate, so he didn’t startle at noises going on in our outside of the house. For a fancier version, the Hatch Restore natural daylight alarm clock also offers a white noise function.
While we’re on the subject of noise, make sure your phone and other gadgets are set to the ‘do not disturb’ setting for the hours you intend to be asleep.
If you want to be available to emergency contacts in case there’s an emergency in the middle of the night, most smartphones will allow calls from specific contacts even with the ‘do not disturb’ function active.
4. Invest in a comfortable mattress
If you’re going to be lying (and not moving often) on a mattress for hours at a time, then it follows that it should be comfortable, yet supportive, for your body and sleep style (whether you prefer to lie on your side, back or front).
If you add up how many of your day’s 24 hours, you will spend in bed, then it’s around one-third of your time, every day! So it pays to invest in one that’s comfortable and will encourage you to fall asleep quickly, as well as waking up feeling fresh and rested, rather than achy and still tired.
One of the latest in innovative memory foam mattresses, this cost-effective option from Emma Sleep is definitely worth checking out – we particularly like that unlike other memory foam mattresses, which can get very hot when you lie on them, the Emma is constructed with breathable foam, including a chemical-free top foam layer and it comes with a 10-year guarantee.
5. Don’t forget the pillows
Don’t forget to also get the right pillow for your sleep style, and consider using pillows as bolsters if you sleep on your side especially, it can really help with sleep-inducing relaxation.
6. Sleep in quality, breathable bed linen
Bedsheets and covers that are comfortable and breathable are going to be much more enjoyable to sleep in than cheaper sheets that are not as soft, thick, or helpful when it comes to temperature and sweat regulation – especially in summer when the nights may be warmer.
There’s a whole lot of choice when it comes to good quality bedsheet sets – lookout for brands such as Brooklinen and Buffy, which offer luxe high thread count sheet sets that are comfortable and luxurious to sleep in.
It also helps, both from personal hygiene as well as sleep hygiene perspective, to help you fall asleep more easily, to make sure you regularly wash your bed linen and sleep on clean sheets.
7. Heated mattress pad
While a cooler room is generally more conducive to a good night’s sleep, a heated mattress pad can be really helpful in the colder winter months if you have difficulty falling asleep because you feel cold.
These heated pads sit underneath your bed sheet and you can pre-set them at a given temperature and set them to stay on in half-hour increments. So you can have a heated mattress pad on for the first hour in bed, to help encourage a warm, sleep-inducing environment even on cold nights. These are so nice for when your first get into bed as you don’t have to wait for your own body heat to heat up the trapped air beneath your duvet.
8. Fresh air
Make sure you have clean, fresh air in your bedroom environment. Waking up with a stuffy nose is no fun and probably not very good for you.
It pays to have your heating system checked to ensure the ducts are all clear and free from contaminants such as dust and mold, especially in older properties.
Also, consider an air purifier or humidifier to help get the air in your room to a more comfortable balance for your personal needs.
This innovative purifier, for example, will get rid of a whole range of airborne contaminants, including dust mites, pet dander, black mold, and even the COVID-19 virus.
Behavioural tips to prepare your body to be ready for sleeping
9. Reduce your caffeine and alcohol intake
Many people don’t realize what an impact their caffeine consumption has on their ability to sleep and get good quality sleep! Some people are highly sensitive to caffeine, even many hours after consuming it. Our co-founder Helen, for example, cannot sleep if she has any coffee after midday that day.
Equally, in addition to the many short and long-term effects, it can have on you, alcohol is also known to affect your sleep. So cutting down on drinking is definitely worth considering if you think it could help you sleep better.
10. Drink post-workout recovery shakes
I make a point of having a protein recovery shake within 30-40 minutes of completing a tough workout or run. Recovery shakes, combined with an appropriate cool-down and stretching session, can make a huge difference between sleeping comfortably that night, or being kept awake or woken active by overly warm or twitchy post-workout legs!
Visit our list of the best plant-based protein powders if you’re in search of some new recovery shakes to help speed up your muscle recovery after exercise.
11. Keep your feet warm
Wearing warm wool or merino socks can also really help if you’re one of the many people out there who struggle to fall asleep if they have cold feet.
12. Stretch out before you go to bed
Address any discomfort the best you can before you get into bed. That could include some basic stretching, a few minutes of yoga, or rolling on a Chirp wheel to help stretch out your back after a long day.
Having a warm shower or bath can also really help your body relax before you go to bed, as well as get you more comfortable if you’ve been active all day and have sweat to wash off.
13. Wind down before going to sleep
Get into bed before ‘bedtime’ to help you relax in time for sleep. It helps to cut down on screen time at this point, too.
14. Consider whether your sleep quality is affected by your pets
Decide where your pets are going to sleep. I’ll admit, our cats definitely do interrupt my sleep pretty frequently. But I have made that choice to let them sleep with us so I choose to put up with the cat-related disruption! Yes, I’m a pushover when it comes to our pets.
If you’re really struggling with sleep, consider whether it may be better for you if your pets sleep in a different room.
15. Maximize daylight exposure
Get plenty of daylight during daylight hours, even if it’s just a brief walk at lunchtime, something is better than nothing. Exposure to daylight helps your body maintain your Circadian rhythm and regulate the production of Melatonin at the right time (Melatonin is an important hormone for telling your body when it’s time to sleep). This includes light absorbed through your eyes, so think about this the next time you find yourself religiously wearing sunglasses all day – consider taking them off for a bit to help restore your melatonin levels.
What to do if you can’t sleep
Usually, if I can’t sleep, it’s because of one of the factors above. Often it’s because I’ve had coffee or exercised too late in the day, or I’ve had a lot of screen time (blue light exposure). It helps to think about the reasons you can’t sleep because then you can work out how to stop it from happening again.
Another common reason you can’t sleep is that you may have lots of things on your mind. If that’s the case and you’re running through a to-do list or a difficult conversation or work problem in your head, for example, then a tried and tested way to prevent this from stopping you from sleeping that night is to get up and write it all down. Write that to-do list down, write down your thoughts or what you need to say or do the next day, and this will help you clear your mind enough that you can sleep, knowing that all that ‘stuff’ is documented and you can come back to it tomorrow.
My personal view on taking medications or supplements to aid with sleep is… don’t do it. In my experience, there are so many more natural sleep aid products out there that those, together with changing your sleeping environment and how you behave in the day and when getting ready for bed, should be helpful without resorting to things such as Melatonin supplements. But that’s just my opinion 🙂
Other non-medicinal sleep aids to try
Here are some other popular non-medicinal sleep aids that you could also try, instead of or as well as the suggestions listed above.
Some people swear by weighted blankets, like those made popular by Kickstarter hit Gravity. I have two cats so really I don’t need a blanket if I have them draped over me already, haha. But, these blankets are a great, natural sleep aid to try.
Blue light-blocking glasses
Yes, really. If you must have screen time in the two hours leading up to bedtime, then shifting the temperature of the light radiating from the screen can really help with sleep later. The ‘warmer’ the light temperature, the better.
This innovative wearable tech ring tracks your sleep and heart rate, among other things, and is a much more minimal and comfortable option than sleeping with a smartwatch to track your sleep patterns. Using the data you gather from wearing the ring, you can monitor your sleep quality and work out how to improve your sleep overall. I love that it tracks your body temperature and Blood Oxygen level as you sleep.
Drinking a non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic hot drink can be a natural sleep remedy in that it can help put your body in the right state to encourage sleep. Herbal teas, like these from Pique Teas, are a popular choice.
Finally, if you’re curious to learn more about sleep and developing healthy sleep habits, including the science behind it, you may want to check out the Masterclass series by sleep expert Matthew Walker – he is a true sleep genius and his Masterclass series is a really insightful and educational watch!