Simple Ways to Improve your Sleep for Athletic Performance

The quality of our sleep has huge implications for athletic performance. Sleep is essentially the time when physical and mental recovery occurs. With good cognitive function and physical readiness being required for us to perform at our peak, it is obvious to see how it is important that we have good quality sleep to perform at our best.

Start listening to our circadian rhythms

“We are the supremely arrogant species; we feel we can abandon four billion years of evolution and ignore the fact that we have evolved under a light-dark cycle. What we do as a species, perhaps uniquely, is override the clock. And long-term acting against the clock can lead to serious health problems”

Professor Russell Foster

Our sleep patterns our guided by circadian rhythms, which essentially act as our body clock and determine the appropriate time for hormone release, which in the case of sleep is melatonin. With the invention of the light bulb and screens has come the ability to overcome this natural body clock. The presence of blue light reduces the secretion of melatonin, increasing alertness and keeping us awake. This delays the onset of sleep and reduces the amount of time that we spend asleep. By cutting out screens as you prepare to go to sleep you can ensure that your onset of sleep is faster and thus your time in bed is more efficient.

Think in cycles not hours

“Eight hours sleep is an average amount of sleep people get per night, and it somehow seems to have become a recommended amount – for everyone. The resultant pressure put on getting this is incredibly damaging and counterproductive to getting the right amount of sleep that we individually need”

Nick Littlehales

To maximise the quality of our sleep we should quantify sleep in terms of cycles, not hours. One sleep cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes and hence if we can time our sleep to wake up at the end of a cycle we can wake up at the lightest point of our sleep and feel refreshed and ready to start the day.

We should also not be too concerned about the amount of sleep we get each day but instead over the whole week. In his book “Sleep”, Littlehales suggests that we should be getting 35 cycles per week, averaging 5 cycles a day, which works out as 7 hours 30 minutes. This approach is much more achievable than consistently hitting 8 hours which can be quite pressuring and stressful and a cycle approach is reflective of how we actually sleep. Littlehales says that this approach reduces the stress hormones released from struggling to sleep and allows us to get effective rest and recovery.

Apps like Sleep Cycle ensure that your alarm wakes you up at the lightest point of sleep possible meaning that you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to start the day.

Be more consistent

Our body adapts to the time we fall asleep and thus by being more consistent, we can fall asleep quicker and ensure the time that we spent in bed is efficient. Not only is our sleep more efficient when we are consistent, but we also get more slow-wave and REM sleep – the times when physical and mental recovery occurs respectively. This allows us to maximise the benefits of training and perform at our best. 

Laura Kline, Rewire Athlete, tells us that by developing a consistent routine she has been able to ensure she gets adequate sleep. “By 8:00 I have my magnesium drink and try to limit my screen time. I aim to be in bed by 9:30 – I find that following a set schedule makes a difference as my body knows it’s time to shut down.” Laura says that by doing this she can typically fall asleep within minutes and on the inevitable days that she can’t follow her routine she notices a difference the next day. 

Optimising our sleep is not necessarily about getting more sleep, but about making the time that we spend in bed as efficient as possible. Only by working to improve the way that we sleep can we truly allow for sufficient recovery to develop our athletic performance.

Further Reading:

Blue light from light-emitting diodes elicits a dose dependent suppression of melatonin in humans
West et al.
Journal of Applied Physiology, 2011

Sleep: Change the way you sleep with this 90 minute read
Nick Littlehales

New Feature: Sleep Consistency – Why We Track it, How Do You Compare?
Whoop

‘Arrogance’ of ignoring need for sleep
James Gallagher

The Science Behind Mental Toughness

Mental toughness can be defined as a personal capacity to produce consistently high levels of subjective or objective performance despite everyday challenges and stressors as well as significant adversities. (Gucciardi et al., 2015)

Clearly, mental toughness is a beneficial quality to have, it allows you to push past inevitable setbacks to achieve success. But how do we become more mentally tough?

In a study by Jones et al., 2002, athletes ranked 12 attributes of mental toughness in order of importance. Numerous studies, including this one, show that the most important attribute of mental toughness is self-belief in your ability to achieve goals. Self-belief in yourself can be developed through vicarious experiences – by watching others who have embarked on a similar path and have achieved success, you can develop the belief that you can achieve that same success yourself. What you believe about yourself and tell yourself are crucial to mental toughness, Rewire has integrated self-talk mantras to help develop this and in turn, build your mental toughness.

“This record was in my mind for a long time, I’m so happy to have made it reality today.”

Geoffrey Kamworor – On his Half Marathon World Record (2019)
Integrated Self-Talk Mantras in the Rewire app.

In this same study, athletes ranked ‘bouncing back from performance set-backs as a result of increased determination to succeed’ as the second most important attribute of mental toughness. One of the athletes involved with the study was quoted as saying ‘Nobody’s rise to the top is completely smooth, there are always little hiccups or turns in the road.’ Negative results provide increased determination as no one ever wants to be known as a ‘failure’. This increased determination coming from failure is a key part of mental toughness, it differentiates those who will never give up from those who will.

The third most important attribute of mental toughness was a self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents. Rewire is all about developing qualities that set you apart from your competition by providing mental training so that you can develop your mental endurance above that of your competitors, allowing you to have that self-belief that you are better than your opponents.

‘Every quarterback can throw a ball; every running back can run; every receiver is fast; but that mental toughness that you talk about translates into competitiveness.’

Tom Brady

The fourth attribute, and the final one we will discuss, is the ability to remain fully focused on tasks in the face of competition-specific distractions. Numerous distractions can occur in competitions, causing your mind to be taken off the task at hand reducing your performance. Using Rewire helps to develop your mental focus. You are ranked on mental focus after every training workout, with the ability to track it over time.

The metrics available in the Rewire app.
The metrics available in the rewire app including Mental Focus.

Laura Kline, Rewire Athlete and Former World Duathlon Champion, tells us: ‘It’s not letting your mind wander and your legs slow down as it [Rewire] keeps you focused the entire time.’

To summarize, mental toughness is universally accepted as a key part of athletic performance, as Eliud Kipchoge says: “If you don’t rule your mind, your mind will rule you”. Mental toughness allows you to achieve high levels of performance even in the face of setbacks. It’s time we started to work on it….

‘If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it.’

Michael Jordan

Studies Covered in Article for Further Reading

‘What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers’
Jones G; Hanton S; Connaughton D.
JOURNAL OF APPLIED SPORT PSYCHOLOGY
Copyright © 2002 by the Association for Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology

‘The Concept of Mental Toughness: Tests of Dimensionality, Nomological Network, and Traitness’
Gucciardi F; Hanton S; Gordan S; Mallett C; Temby P
Journal of Personality 2015
© 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

How to use Self-Talk Mantras to Effectively Increase Performance

Does talking to yourself really help increase your performance? Yes! According to numerous studies, including this one from 2013, using self-talk significantly reduced an athlete’s rating of perceived exertion (RPE) – essentially how hard you feel you are working. This in turn led to a significant increase in time to exhaustion (TTE) meaning that the athletes could continue to work at the same intensity for longer (Blanchfield et al., 2013). In essence this means that by using self-talk techniques, you can increase your performance in endurance activities (or at least make it feel easier!).

So how can you use self-talk effectively to improve your performance? Pick four mantras, either from the list (below) or ones that you have created yourself. They need to be meaningful to you, so take your time to think about which resonate with you the most. 

Pick another two for the late stages of the race or training session suited for times when you can feel the lactic acid moving round in your legs and all you need to do is keep pushing and take your mind off the immense pain. Kline, the former World Duathlon Champion, says: “I might start a race with a mantra in my head ‘Calm and focused.’ And then I’ll reach a point where there’s going to be a lot of climbing and I’ll say ‘Consistent climbing’ over and over in my head. Then I’ll get to a point in the race where it’s go time… I’ll say ‘Bring it home’.”

Early Stage

  • ’Calm and Focused.’ – Laura Kline, Former World Duathlon Champion and Rewire Athlete
  • ’You’re doing great’ – Ryan Hall, Olympian in the marathon
  • ’Stay relaxed’ – Tyler Pennel, Former U.S. National Marathon Champion
  • ’Calm Confidence’ – Annie Bersagel, Former U.S. National Marathon Champion
  • ’Swift and smooth’
  • ’Steady forward momentum’
  • ’Your race. Your pace.’
  • ’Keep this up’
  • ’One step at a time’
  • ’You’ve got this!’
  • ’Feeling good’
  • ’Going strong’

Late Stage

  • ‘Bring it Home’ – Laura Kline, Former World Duathlon Champion and Rewire Athlete
  • ’Tough times don’t last, but tough people do’ – Ellie Greenwood, Western States Record Holder
  • ‘Just keep pushing’ – Ian Sharman, Former Winner of the Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run
  • ‘Whatever it takes’ – Ryan Vail, Former USA Cross Country Team
  • ’Never give up’ – Chrissie Wellington, Ironman World Champion (2007-2009)
  • ’Fortunate, Fearless and Fast’ – Payson McElveen, Professional Mountain Biker
  • Go faster. Push harder. Today, define yourself.’ – Deena Kastor, Olympic Marathon and Long Distance Runner
  • ’Beast mode on’
  • ’Breathe in Strength. Breathe out weakness.’ – Amy Cragg, Olympic Marathon and Long Distance Runner
  • ’Shut up legs!’ – Jens Voigt, Previous holder of the Hour Cycling Record
  • ’Push through this’
  • ’Consistent Climbing’ – Laura Kline, Former World Duathlon Champion and Rewire Athlete

The mantras that you have picked should be meaningful enough to you that you can remember them without any problem. However, you might wish to have an extra reminder. Write them on your hands or fingers if you need, or even engrave them onto the handlebars of your bike. The good news is with the Rewire system you can program your personal mantras right into the training app and they will appear during the most challenging points in your workout automatically. Throughout exercise use the phrases as and when you need, repeating them over and over, taking your mind off the pain.

Using mantras in the Rewire app

By using these mantras, your perception of how hard you are working will be lower and this will allow you to push yourself beyond the previous limit set by psychological factors, thus enhancing your endurance performance.

After a few sessions you will have become accustomed to using self-talk and will likely have naturally selected the mantra which fits the best for each part of the race, those being the ones that you repeat the most since they mean the most to you.

Keep pushing!

Talking Yourself Out of Exhaustion: The Effects of Self-talk on Endurance Performance
by Blanchfield AW, Hardy J, De Morree HM, Staiano W, Marcora SM
Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2013