Posted On:
Tuesday, May 11, 2021
Updated On:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: Give Yourself a Non-Negotiable Sleep Opportunity Each Night

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A seal sleeps peacefully on his back on a rock partially submerged in water.

Welcome back to Coach Tip Tuesday!

This week, we’re going to talk about sleep.  

I recently read Dr. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep and I found it so valuable and insightful. I learned many, many things from this book that I have put to use in my work with athletes, but the knowledge and research contained in this book is valuable for ALL humans, not just athletes. (As such, I highly recommend it if you’d like to learn more about sleep and WHY we sleep.)

One of my biggest takeaways from this book has become the basis of this week’s tip:

Please, for the love of all things frosted, give yourself a non-negotiable sleep opportunity each night.

It’s important to note that a sleep opportunity differs from actual sleep time.  A sleep opportunity is a window of time you allot to relaxation and ability to be asleep.  You may sleep during this time window (that would be ideal), but you may not actually be sleeping for all of it.  But what we really want to focus on here is giving ourselves the opportunity to fall into natural sleep.

Natural sleep is so incredibly important.  Every single organ in the human body and process in the human brain is enhanced by sleep (and conversely, they are negatively impacted when we do not get enough sleep).  When we sleep, among other things, our bodies repair damage that we’ve inflicted on them over a waking day, process new information that we’ve encountered and organize it to be stored within the brain, and keep our sympathetic nervous system in check.  These benefits of sleep are all particularly important, as these processes are what allow us to proceed onward in a positive trajectory when we do awaken.

It’s also important to note the difference between natural sleep and “sleep” that is the result of sleep drugs or sedatives; the state that is brought on by those drugs is sedation, not natural sleep, and thus does not offer the full range of benefits to our bodies and minds that sleep does.  Our word choices when talking about these two differing states is important, because it’s false to think that sedation is the same thing as natural sleep.

Although every single animal species studied thus far (yes, you read that right - EVERY animal species) sleeps or engages in something remarkably similar to it, humans are the only species on Earth that will intentionally deprive themselves of sleep without any legitimate gain.  Why do we - arguably the smartest species on the entire planet - do something that differs from every single other species?  Many times, it’s because we think we’re gaining something by sacrificing sleep, but it’s not actually a sacrifice.  It’s a loss.  A sacrifice implies that the outcome will be less costly than the alternative.  But this isn’t true of sleep; getting less sleep than we need hurts us, every single time.

You’ve all probably heard about how important it is to get X:XX of sleep per night.  Just one example of how important this is is this: studies have shown that chronic sleep deficits over the course of one’s lifetime increase the risk of brain-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.  But in order to be able to even think about getting X:XX of sleep per night, we have to give ourselves a time window in excess of the desired sleep duration.  And thus, we encounter the main topic of this post: sleep opportunity.

So, if your goal is to sleep 7-9 hours each night, you need to be in your bed, ready and able to fall asleep for longer than 7-9 hours.  For example, if you would like to sleep seven hours, you really need to be in bed for 7.5-8 hours.

There are a lot of things you can do to cultivate a quality sleep opportunity: 

  • Limit your exposure to blue light (i.e. cell phones, tablets, TVs) for 2-4 hours before you’ll be going to bed.  
  • Keep your cell phone out of your sleeping room.  Not off.  OUT of it.
  • Read a real book (i.e. a paper book) before bed.
  • Play some calming music in the time before you go to bed.
  • Have a dark space in which to sleep (light will mess with your body’s internal circadian rhythm and will prompt you to be awake).
  • Limit or eliminate your caffeine intake for the 4-8 hours before you go to bed.

Once we’ve done some (or all) of the aforementioned things to create a good space for sleep, it’s important to note that the time window in which we sleep is important.  We are best-served if we sleep at approximately the same time each day.  Thus, part of creating a good sleep opportunity is starting and ending the sleep opportunity time window around the same time each day.  If you don’t think that this is significant or that it impacts sleep quality, ask any parent of a young child what happens if bedtime is delayed by two hours or if wake up time is pushed back by two hours.  Believe me, maintaining a consistent sleep window is significant and important, and we do not outgrow this significance. :)

The first step to one having quality sleep is giving oneself the opportunity to sleep.  Thus, it’s so very important that we give this to ourselves.  Give yourself a non-negotiable sleep opportunity each night, and see if the quality of your sleep doesn’t improve.  You’ll feel better for it, I promise.

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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