Welcome to the #RunPainFree Podcast! In today’s episode, Coach Jessica Marie Rose Leggio speaks with leading elite sport sleep coach Nick Littlehales. It sounds like a unique professional title, well, that’s because he invented it!
Nick’s career spans over 20 years. He has been a true innovator in bridging the divide between sleep science and creating actionable steps that athletes can implement to improve their rest and recovery. He is also the author of the international bestselling book “Sleep: The Myth of 8 hours, the Power of Naps, and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind.”
In this episode, he shares his knowledge and techniques underpinning his R90 Technique to increase your rest and performance. If you have been basing your recovery on the adage of getting eight hours every night, this episode is going to give you something to sleep on.
Step 1: Circadian rhythms
The first thing you need to do to improve your sleep is developing your understanding of circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. Like animals and plants, we humans (yes, it turns out we are animals after all!) also respond to changes in daylight.
Our melatonin increases in darkness and is suppressed in daylight, whereas serotonin rises during the daytime. Melatonin is most known for its role as a sleep hormone, and serotonin is the “feel good” hormone.
So, in the world of COVID lockdowns, make sure you get outdoors every day; it will do more for you than slamming another coffee. In the evening, getting off your phone and computer and avoiding blue light will help you sleep.
Step 2: Chronotypes
Chronotypes relate to your natural inclination to sleep at a particular time. Optimizing your approach to sleep relates to understanding your chronotype. So, the question is, are you an early bird or a night owl?
While you can’t deliberately change your chronotype, it is good to be aware of your pattern and know that it shifts over your lifetime. That’s why that lazy teenager who can’t get out of bed in the morning ends up waking up at the crack of dawn in their 80s. If you want to achieve prime performance, base your sleep on your body’s natural rhythm.
Step 3: Think about sleep in cycles rather than hours.
Alert! This information is the golden nugget of Nick’s R90 Technique.
Start thinking about your sleep in terms of the number of cycles throughout the week instead of just getting eight hours a night. If you don’t achieve optimum sleep one night, that okay; like one day rolls into the other, you too can move your recovery into the next.
The eight hours a night idea is an outcome of the modern world. Before that, humans slept several times throughout 24 hours or were polyphasic sleepers rather than monophasic.
On any day, you want to aim to hit five 90 minute cycles. Your sleep cycle includes: dosing off, light sleep, deep sleep, and REM – you need all of these to gain the restorative powers of sleep.
How you split that up can be determined by you. If you are someone who crashes mid-afternoon, take that nap, it all counts. Nick’s book highlights that naps are magical for your wellbeing. But the key is to hit 90 minutes, as this completes an entire sleep cycle.
Step 4: Pre and post-sleep routines.
To aid your ability to dose off into neverland and hit the day running, Nick emphasizes the importance of pre and post-sleep routines. You are developing a standard time to go to bed, and waking up will help in this regard. But don’t beat yourself up if you have a sleep-in after a long week; you’re human after all.
Pre-sleep routines may include:
- Getting off your phone.
- Lowering the temperature in your bedroom.
- Dimming the lights.
- Writing down your to-do list for the next day.
Post-sleep routines can include: avoiding technology, aka don’t look at your phone first thing and freak out over a work email because your cortisol levels are already high enough in the morning. Instead, do some light exercise and a brief mental challenge such as reading the news, sudoku, or a podcast.
Step 5: Balanced activity and recovery.
Recovery doesn’t just mean you should be sleeping or doing nothing. Throughout the day, you will have periods of intense physical and mental activity. So it is important to incorporate rest throughout the day. As Nick highlights, it’s a simple as, ‘pointing your brain in a different direction, and visualizing something different.”
Nick discusses how looking at the horizon on the sea can be restorative. But if you don’t have that option available, getting up from your computer and gazing out your window will also do the trick.
Step 6: Environment.
Improving your sleep environment is far more helpful than tracking your hours of sleep. Ideally, you want to create your bedroom in a way that is only associated with rest. Okay, we know what you are thinking; there are exceptions; you are human after all. Aim to minimize bright lights and leave your phone outside your bedroom.
Step 7: Products.
People trying to improve their sleep quality typically reach for a product; Whether it be a new mattress, eye masks, a sleep tracker, white noise machines, or blue lights. Nick deliberately puts products in the final position in his R90 Technique; while helpful, they have the most negligible impact overall.
If you are in the market of replacing your mattress, Nick says the key is to have a bed that adequately supports your neck, hips, and spine while sleeping in the fetal position. His website has further information on selecting a suitable mattress.
Take away lesson.
Sleep should be considered an intrinsic part of the way you approach running. Running is intensive, and as you ramp up miles, you also need to ramp up your recovery. Performance gains won’t just occur as a result of pushing harder during your training. A massive chunk of your performance relates to the way you approach to sleep and recovery. Particularly for our marathoners, if you have done a long run on the weekend, factor in having a nap afterward; you’ve earned it.
00:32 – Introduction and biography
02:37 – Nick’s unlikely career journey
16:09 – How Nick developed the R90 sleep technique
19:17 – Five 90 minute cycles vs. 8 hours sleep per day
22:21 – Circadian rhythms and chronotypes
25:34 – Shortcomings of sleep products
KEY LEARNING POINTS
- Aim to achieve five 90 minute cycles a day instead of 8 hours per night
- Napping has a powerful effect on your recovery, memory, performance, and overall mood
- Develop pre and post-sleep routines
- Optimize your sleeping environment by eliminating bright light
Marathon Training Summit: MarathonTrainingSummit.com
Get an Assessment With Jessica: https://www.runpainfreenow.com.
Resources & Programs To Run Injury-Free: https://www.runpainfreeacademy.com
#RunPainFree Bootcamp: https://www.runpainfreebootcamp.com/
Get a copy of Nick Littlehale’s book, Sleep: The Myth of 8 hours the power of Naps and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind: https://www.sportsleepcoach.com/collections/sleep-by-nick-littlehales/products/sleep-by-nick-littlehales.
Thanks so much for tuning in this week! It was great to have Nick on the show and share his knowledge on optimizing sleep for athletes. We know sleep is something people often struggle with, but we hope that Nick’s practical advice helps you get a good night’s rest so you can hit the day running!
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