Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps... and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind
Nick Littlehales

Ended: March 29, 2018

As children, we tend to exist as AMers, rising early for the day and usually going to bed long before the adults. When we reach adolescence, however, our body clocks switch to run much slower. We have the urge to go to bed later and sleep in longer. Teenagers get a bad press, but they’re often just doing what their bodies want them to. As we pass the peak of our late-running clocks, at about the age of twenty, our rhythms revert to their genetic type, and they continue to creep earlier as we get older.
No one is suggesting you can’t have that great cup of coffee you crave – the legions of Lycra-clad cyclists sipping espresso outside cafés up and down the land are testament to that – but why not get a measure on how much you are consuming, and use it strategically. If you have a meeting you need to be sharp for, or a piece of work that requires the very best of your concentration and focus, why not save it for this? Use caffeine as a performance enhancer, instead of simply to get yourself to a position from which you can perform.
For the PMer, daylight on a morning is vital if you want to set your body clock to play catch-up with the AMers. Get a dawn-wake simulator, which recreates a sunrise in your bedroom to wake you up, from a reputable brand such as Lumie or Philips; open the curtains, go outside.
The really bad news for PMers is that you should cut out the lie-ins at the weekend too. If you spend all week adjusting your body clock to the demands of your job, then let it all go at the weekend, your clock will drift back towards its natural, slower state, and you’ll be starting over come Monday. The symptoms of your social jet lag will be so much worse.
In fact, setting a constant wake time is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal when looking to improve the quality of our recovery. Our bodies love it, with our circadian rhythms, set by the rise and fall of the sun, working around a consistent point, and our minds love it, because through this constant wake time we can build the confidence to be more flexible in other aspects of our lives.
Picking a constant wake time requires a little thought, and no little effort too, because you should get up at this time too. It’s advisable to look back over the previous two or three months of your life, factoring in your work and personal life, and choose the earliest time you have to get up. The time should be one that is achievable every day and there should be nothing in your life that requires you to be up earlier except for special circumstances, such as an early flight.
We try to avoid three consecutive nights of fewer than five cycles. Instead, we’d look to follow a night or two of this with the ideal routine. If we can get at least four nights in a week of an ideal routine in our schedules then we’re doing OK.
If I arrived home some time around 11 p.m. – my ideal sleep time to get five cycles in before my constant wake time of 6.30 a.m. – I would not come in, brush my teeth and jump straight into bed. Instead, I would wait for the next slot, at 12.30 a.m., and I would be in for a four-cycle night. How else would I fit my pre-sleep routine in?
What you do immediately before you go to bed has a direct consequence on the quality and duration of your sleep, while what you do after waking has significant consequences for the rest of your day (and the coming night).
With the emphasis of your pre-sleep routine being on moving away from using televisions, smartphones and laptops, it’s possible you might be wondering, What does that leave me with to do? This is a good time to declutter. I’m not talking about emptying your house out as part of a fashionable lifestyle craze, but rather to take some positive actions in your environment so that once you’re either asleep or preparing to go to sleep, your mind can be free of little niggling thoughts about packing your bag in the morning, remembering to take your dry cleaning with you to work – or the sudden realization that you’re out of tea bags. It’s incredible what can pop into our minds at night.
find it helpful to take a piece of paper and a pencil and simply write down a ‘what’s on my mind’ list, addressing any thoughts I have and anything that has worried or concerned me during that day. It’s not my actual ‘to-do list’, which is safely saved on my calendar in the cloud, but something more personal.
In his excellent book The Oxygen Advantage, something of a bible on nose-breathing, Patrick McKeown writes, ‘Breathing through the mouth has been proven to significantly increase the number of occurrences of snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea … As any child is aware, the nose is made for breathing, the mouth for eating.’
If you’ve ever seen cyclists or runners with what looks like a plaster on their nose, then you’ve seen the answer. As part of our pre-sleep routine, we can put a Breathe Right nasal strip on our nose which dilates our nasal passage and encourages us to continue breathing through our nose. More advanced products, such as the Turbine or Mute by Rhinomed, have taken over. They go inside the nose and open up the airways that way, and are used by a growing number of elite athletes. It is personal preference as to which you might use to sleep with. It’s advisable to put them on and breathe through them for a period before you go to bed to get used to the product, and you can practise with them any time – while travelling to work, at your desk, in the gym and at any opportunity to make nose-breathing natural for you.
Patrick McKeown goes one step further: he wears a Breathe Right strip and tapes his mouth shut with a light, hypoallergenic medical tape to ensure that he breathes through his nose at night. Patrick’s quality of sleep improved immeasurably when he adopted this method, and it is one he recommends to his clients – once they’ve been assured that they won’t suffocate in their sleep, of course. (It’s perfectly safe.) A product called SleepQ+, a lip-seal gel innovated by Rob Davies of Rispiracorp, which lightly seals the mouth to promote nose-breathing at night, promises to revolutionize this practice.
So ideally keep your phone out of your room overnight. Have a standard alarm clock, or better yet, a dawn-wake simulator, to wake you up, so that the first thing you do on a morning is in keeping with your circadian rhythms.
Post-sleep routines are more important for PMers because the AMers, whose last cycles of sleep before waking will be lighter, are at their best in the mornings anyway. Although it may sound counter-intuitive when it could mean more time in bed for them, the closer to ninety minutes that a PMer is able to dedicate to post-sleep, the better. Be aware of your colleagues with opposite chronotypes that may run you ragged in the morning and you them later, or vice versa. Get a daylight lamp on your desk to compensate.
If you’re partial to a lie-in on your days off, the constant wake time in the R90 program is likely to be the first thing you’ll sacrifice when you’re in the mood for a duvet day with a box set after a particularly tough week at work (or a late night out). But there’s no need – you can still incorporate these things into your life while maintaining some kind of harmony with your body clock. You should still set your alarm and get up at your constant wake time, and then do those aspects of your post-sleep routine you can muster. You will probably skip the exercise, but you can still go to the toilet on waking, get some daylight on you and have your breakfast. Then you can go back to bed. This way you’re doing what you can to be in tune with your circadian rhythms, while also doing what you want to do – you’re not making great sacrifices or depriving yourself of enjoyment to stick to the R90 program.
It is important to try to associate only recovery activities with our bedroom as much as possible.
The benefits can be summed up in one word: efficiency. Our pre-sleep routine gets us prepared to enter our sleep cycles, so we can get the very best quality of recovery during our time in bed – even if that time is truncated through our lifestyle. It gives us the flexibility and freedom to go to bed later when needed, confident that we can download our day and do our best to dispel any lingering unhelpful thoughts so that we won’t waste our valuable time on not sleeping.
Don’t be put off if you’re not a napper. Napping as you know it is part of the old-school approach to sleep. We don’t call them naps in sport – we call them Controlled Recovery Periods (CRP). We don’t nod off indiscriminately. We take ownership of these opportunities during the day and extract the maximum benefits from them. Just like the CEOs of leading corporations and some of the most successful figures in the arts and entertainment do. Just like you can, even if you think you can’t sleep during the day, because anyone can learn to use a Controlled Recovery Period, and it’s something everyone should learn to do.
Daylight, as always, is our friend when it comes to giving us a boost, and it is the reason why, if you work in an office, you should not spend your entire lunch break eating at your desk. If you do eat at your desk, try to get outside for some daylight and fresh air instead of just ‘working through’. If you can’t manage this, you (or your company) could invest in a daylight lamp to give you a boost at your desk, or you could use a product such as Valkee’s Human Charger, which, to the casual observer, will look like you’re listening to your tunes on your headphones as you work. In fact, it delivers light therapy to your pineal gland through your ears.
In other words, if you want to learn from the elite, it’s time to learn to take a break and recover. It is time for corporations to redefine their culture and take these periods seriously: minimize meetings during the post-lunch slump, and make it a legitimate opportunity for staff to get away from their work; promote regular breaks; provide the facilities and encouragement for staff to take a Controlled Recovery Period.
Take a leaf out of the book of tech giants like Google, whose flexible working hours and culture allow them to talk so boldly of their working philosophy: ‘To create the happiest, most productive workforce in the world.’ Start taking these breaks seriously, because companies will enjoy the benefits of increased productivity and happiness in the long term – and so will you.
When the athletes I coach go to bed at night, they get into the foetal position on their non-dominant side, because this is the less used and therefore less sensitive side. In other words, if you’re right-handed you sleep on your left side, and vice versa.
Despite what their labelling claims, bed retailers only sell one genuine double bed. It’s called a super king – so branded to make it sound a suitably decadent purchase – and it measures in at six feet wide (180cm), exactly double the width of a single bed. If you’re serious about sleep, serious about your relationship and you have the room for it, this is the minimum-sized mattress you should be considering.
Our bodies want to move into a cooler, but not cold, environment, just as we did around our fire in Chapter 1, so keeping the room at an optimal 16 to 18 degrees centigrade will allow this natural process to occur. Of course, we all have different sensitivities to temperature – 18 degrees might sound a little too close to sleeping outside with nature for some – so find a temperature that works for you (and your partner) that is cooler than the environment in the rest of the house.
bottle of water may seem like a fairly standard and innocuous item to bring into the room at night, but why do you need it? If you wake with a dry mouth during the night it’s likely to be caused by you breathing through your mouth rather than your nose, and if you get up during the night to go to the bathroom, it’s possible that you have been overhydrating in the lead-up to sleep. Putting a bottle of water by your bedside plants the idea of drinking it in your mind.
Your recovery room needs an alarm clock – ideally a dawn-wake simulator – which isn’t your phone. No other technology is necessary. A dawn-wake simulator will wake you up gradually with artificial daylight, starting thirty minutes before your alarm time. They are devices not just for those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but for anyone who wants to replicate the rising of the sun so that they wake more naturally. Dawn-wake simulators can improve alertness, cognitive and physical performance, mood and wellbeing.1 In winter, they can be the difference between getting straight out of your sleep kit or hitting the snooze button – and in a blacked-out room they are the most effective way to get you up so you can then open the blinds and let natural light in.
You should aim to eat your final meal of the day two cycles (three hours) before your targeted sleep time, and any last light snack ninety minutes before, at the beginning of your pre-sleep routine. Eating ‘too late’ simply means eating too close to your targeted sleep time. If
When people I work with tell me they wake up and get up during the night, that’s an immediate red flag. It doesn’t matter whether it’s for five minutes or an hour – I don’t want you waking up at all during the night.
You are likely to feel more fatigued in the dark evenings when you get home from work, so use the early-evening slot for a CRP. Have a fifteen-minute blast on a daylight lamp, either during or after your CRP, to give you a boost so you can make more of your evening.
Pester your HR department at work to provide you with a daylight desk lamp if you struggle in winter. Your colleagues won’t notice – they’ll just assume it’s another desk lamp – when you put it on during the mid-afternoon slump. Use your midday CRP. Your employers will enjoy the benefits of a happier, more productive employee.