Thought PiecesApril 23 2021

Athletic Thinking: Developing resilience, keeping healthy and maintaining high performance

8 mins read

Written by Athletic Thinking

Next week, on Wednesday 28th April, ‘World Day for Safety and Health at Work’ is celebrated internationally. Given the circumstances of the past year, the topic of occupational health has been high on the agenda for businesses, with both physical and mental health being vital. As April is also host to ‘Stress Awareness Month’, we have teamed up with Athletic Thinking, a business dedicated to delivering high performance business support programmes to businesses in order to define and deliver ‘the purpose behind human performance’. 

Through a series of blogs we will share insights from the experts at Athletic Performance on how to develop resilience, keep healthy and maintain high performance, all underpinned with a core purpose. As many countries begin to ease out of lockdowns, the journey begins for many on returning to work, socialising once again and trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle and high performance whilst balancing a busy schedule. 

Below we introduce the first blog on the most powerful and natural performance enhancer… Sleep. For more information on Athletic Thinking, see the bottom of this article or you can view their website by clicking here. 

The most powerful and natural performance enhancer… Sleep.

Sleep is possibly the most powerful performance enhancer. It is naturally occurring, and it is free! There are many plans out there telling you how to eat and train, but few explain how to make the most of sleep. Sleep is deemed so important that the Guinness Book of World Records will no longer accept attempts at the longest duration of wake time as it is seen as too big a risk to wellbeing. 

This article will help you make a start on improving your sleep; it will tell you what tools are available to help and point you towards other resources. As you are reading, start to think about what your sleep quality is like, how long you sleep for and the quality of your sleep environment. And remember, this is only the start – you must review your sleep habits and behaviours on a regular basis. 

Why is it so important to sleep?

In his book, ‘Why We Sleep’, Matthew Walker goes into detail about the importance of sleep. For all of us, regardless of age, sleep is the time our bodies use to make sense of the information we have gathered throughout the day. The early part of your night’s sleep is when your body is opening its internal filing cabinet and storing all the information in the right place. Your body is making important connections between what you have learnt and what you already know. The swing between a good sleep and a poor sleep is potentially 50% of what you have learnt. In his book, Walker reviews studies that show how the retention of new skills is 30% better after a full night’s sleep. By contrast, they are potentially 20% worse if followed by a poor sleep. Similar swings are shown in the amount of information we retain, hence the saying: ‘sleep on it’.

When should you be sleeping?

If we were all the same the answer to this question would be a lot more straightforward. We all have different requirements for how much sleep we need as well as when we find it best to sleep. The body has a natural circadian rhythm that generally sets our sleep and wake cycle, but this is influenced by different chronotypes. There are those of us that like to get up and enjoy the mornings (the classic ‘lark’) and those who find themselves wide awake in the evenings (the ‘night owl’).

When it comes to sleep it is important to remember that not all hours are equal. Going to sleep at 02:00 and still getting 8 hours is not the same as starting your sleep before midnight. The opportunity for your body to sort out what you have learnt comes in the deep sleep hours (Non-Rapid Eye Movement, NREM), which, in the circadian rhythm, are early in the night. If you go to sleep later these hours are missed and are not made up for in the early part of a sleep that begins after midnight. Conversely, the opportunity to learn from information you have absorbed during the day and to be creative in your thinking comes from sleep had during the early hours, between 04:00 and 06:00. If you are regularly awake during this time you are missing the chance to start the day full of ideas!

How are you sleeping?

A further factor to consider is how you are sleeping physically. This is impacted by being left or right-handed. The classic position for sleep is in the foetal position with our strong hand/side up. It is also important to have your own space and not have another person breathing on you in bed. In this case, the ideal scenario would be a left and right-handed partner sharing a bed so that each person can comfortably face the outside with their strong or dominant arm up. If we are really going for it, ‘larks’ and ‘owls’ also make good partners, as one person can take care of the morning tasks and one person can sort the evening jobs, but of course this often doesn’t work out to be the case!

Is sleep really broken into cycles?

We are often told that we need 8 hours of sleep and our modern lifestyles usually dictate that we stay awake for the entire day. In his book, ‘Sleep’, Nick Littlehales goes into much greater detail about how much sleep we should be getting and when, as well as what the make-up of a ‘good’ night’s sleep is.

Sleep happens in 90-minute cycles, starting from the point we enter a sleep state. Each cycle consists of a pattern during which we go into deep sleep, followed by an upward trajectory towards wakefulness. As we go through the night the deepness of each cycle is gradually reduced until we wake. This point comes at the end of 5 full cycles or 7.5 hours of sleep. This means that over the course of 7 days we should be aiming for 35 sleep cycles. The common misconception however is that all these cycles must be gained at night. It is only in modern society that sleep has become something that must be done during the night-time and which is followed by a long period of wakefulness.So, how do you make the most of your sleep…?

We are often told that we need 8 hours of sleep and our modern lifestyles usually dictate that we stay awake for the entire day. In his book, ‘Sleep’, Nick Littlehales goes into much greater detail about how much sleep we should be getting and when, as well as what the make-up of a ‘good’ night’s sleep is.

Sleep happens in 90-minute cycles, starting from the point we enter a sleep state. Each cycle consists of a pattern during which we go into deep sleep, followed by an upward trajectory towards wakefulness. As we go through the night the deepness of each cycle is gradually reduced until we wake. This point comes at the end of 5 full cycles or 7.5 hours of sleep. This means that over the course of 7 days we should be aiming for 35 sleep cycles. The common misconception however is that all these cycles must be gained at night. It is only in modern society that sleep has become something that must be done during the night-time and which is followed by a long period of wakefulness.So, how do you make the most of your sleep…?

Constant wake time and when to go to sleep

If there is just one thing you change after reading this article, start setting a constant wake time that you use for most of your week. Decide on the earliest time you need to get up during the week and use that as the time you rise every day. This will help your body remain in a routine and not disrupt your sleep cycles. Work life balance, however, might mean you want a lie-in at the weekend.  If so, try moving your wake time by one full sleep cycle of 90 minutes. This avoids waking up mid cycle and feeling drowsier even though you have had more sleep.

Once you have your constant wake time, work back in 90-minute blocks for 5 cycles to get your sleep time. For example: 05:00 wake time – 5 x 90minute cycles (7hours 30minutes), Sleep time = 21:30.

The power of napping 

But let us say you have a demanding career and a 60-minute commute; you need time for dinner, time with your family and maybe even a social life. With that taken into consideration, we must accept that going to sleep at 21:30 may be less than realistic. 

The one thing we aim not to change, however, is your wake time, so we need to effectively adjust your sleep time. Whether part of a normal routine or for a short period during a heavy workload, you could move your sleep time back in 90-minute blocks.  So, using the above example we would target four sleep cycles with a sleep start time of 23:00.

This is where the power of napping comes in. Contrary to most modern lifestyles, if you can catch up by having a nap – for one full cycle or for a partial cycle – during the day, this will leave you mentally refreshed and prepared for effective work time. Taking account of your body’s natural circadian rhythm you have two opportunities for a nap: 12:00 – 15:00 for a full 90-minute cycle or 17:00 – 19:00 for a partial, 30-minute cycle. This explains why we all feel tired in that meeting straight after lunch; it is probably the worst time to have a meeting and modern business should sometimes take this into account when planning workdays. 

Cool down for and warm up from sleep

At Athletic Thinking we don’t only recommend warm-up and cool-down for exercise: it’s for sleep too. Start preparing for sleep each evening before it gets to bedtime. Aim to use the 60 minutes prior to sleep to make the most of those precious hours of shut eye. Clear your mind from the day by unloading any thoughts onto a piece of paper or wherever you keep your notes, reduce the number of choices you have to make the following morning by getting your clothes ready the night before and start turning down the lights, ideally using wall lights or lamps for a warm glow. These small steps signal to your body that you are ready to sleep.

The same level of preparation should be taken in the morning to help you wake up. Aim to hydrate well with water before any other drink. Get some natural light into your system for a minimum of 15 minutes. Finally, aim to fuel well for the day with a breakfast that will underpin the rest of your nutrition.

Real World Example

With the changing nature of business during and post pandemic more people are now communicating across time zones with many offices on a call at one time.

To achieve a time that suits all locations, inevitably someone will have a late video call.

Plan for this:

  • Take a nap (<30 minutes) or get 15 minutes of natural light in the mid-afternoon.
  • Hydrate well in the early evening; if you are going to have a caffeinated drink, make it before 17:00.
  • Shift you sleep time back by one full sleep cycle (23:00 in the napping example).
  • Get up at your constant wake time the following day.
  • Aim for 5 full sleep cycles the following night.

If you or your team want to improve how you prepare for work, perform at work and recover from work please get in touch at: info@athleticthinking.com.

If you are interested in further support for your sleep, please review the programme options from Athletic Performance and sign up for the appropriate package.

You can also obtain the books referenced in this article:

‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker 

‘Sleep: The Myth of 8 hours, The Power of Naps and The New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind’ by Nick Littlehales

Athletic Thinking – Their Story and Methodology

Athletic Thinking offer bespoke performance solutions to organisations looking to keep themselves at the forefront of high performance, improve productivity and ensure optimal employee health.

Athletic Thinking is made up of a highly experienced group of performance coaches with a proven track record of developing individuals and winning trophies. Having spent the last 20 years thinking differently to their competitors in elite sport, the team now work as independent external consultants within both the elite sport and the corporate sector.

Since 2017, the team have a worked with businesses imparting the many learnings that can be taken from elite sport into business in general, as well as working with schools and directly with individuals who want to develop the best version of themselves every single day. Their method of providing an external helicopter view that positively encourages ‘challenging best’ on a daily basis, the team act as a critical thinking partner, whilst simultaneously promoting growth and innovation through the introduction of world-class high-performance systems and processes that are designed to improve the individual, the team and the wider organisation.