Stuart Young is the owner of Take Fitness, a fitness and nutrition blog based in the UK.

Of the three crucial aspects of fitness, sleep is very much the forgotten cousin of workouts and nutrition. People will spend hours debating the benefits of heavy sets of three versus sets of light weight to failure to build muscle, or why the Paleo diet is better than a ketogenic diet for regular gym goers – but when was the last time you came across two people arguing about the best way to sleep properly to get in shape?

Unfortunately, the importance of good quality sleep is vastly underrated and needed for workout recovery. Very few people claim they sleep well at night, no matter if it’s an issue with how long their sleeping or the quality of rest they’re getting.

Some pretty important things happen to your body when you sleep, most of which are vital to optimizing your progress in the gym. While you’ll need to work out regularly to build muscle, it’s not the training itself that causes the muscle to grow and become stronger – it’s the repair and recovery process that happens when you’re at rest. The training breaks your body down, while the rest builds you back up again stronger than you were before.

Some of the major issues people have when they’re not sleeping include:

  • Diminished production of growth hormone, which increases when you’re in a deep sleep
  • Higher cortisol levels, which have been linked to higher levels of belly fat and even muscle loss
  • Lower energy levels, which can impact your workout intensity
  • A weaker immune system, meaning you’ll get sick more easily
  • Decreases in leptin and elevations in ghrelin, which can cause issues with sending signals about hunger and satiety to the brain, causing you to overeat

Lack of sleep can also cause you to make poor decisions, not just for your health but in life in general; you’ll be more likely to rationalize overeating or skipping a workout, which will further hamper your physical progress.

Optimizing Your Sleep

So now that we know some of the issues a lack of quality sleep can cause, how do we make sure we have an optimal sleep routine?

First, you need to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Typically this will be between 7-9 hours per night for most people, and finding your own sweet spot is very much a case of being mindful of how you feel when you wake up and tracking how long you’ve slept.

Workouts

Timing your workouts properly can also help improve your sleep quality. If you’re going to have the best possible sleep, aim to train in the morning as it has the highest link to better quality sleep when compared with training in the afternoon or evening.

If that’s not possible with your schedule, try to finish your workout around 4-6 hours before you plan to go to bed. This will allow your body temperature to cool and your system to settle down properly, as leaving your workout until right before bed can often leave you too fired up to get to sleep quickly.

Of course, if you have no option other than to train before bed it’s better to still complete your workout, but ideally you’ll want to train earlier in the day.

Diet

What you eat and drink can have a significant impact on your sleep, and if you’ve ever tried to get to sleep after a major junk food binge you’ll know what I mean! Your body needs to deal with all the food you’ve eaten, and as it works to digest and metabolize the food you’ll probably find you wake up feeling less rested than normal.

Learn what you are eating and what benefits it can have on your body. Fruits and vegetables offer a wide variety of benefits and nutrients that your body needs to perform on a daily basis. Check out this awesome infographic on what the color of your fruits and vegetables tell you.

Avoiding caffeine in the afternoon can help boost the quality of your sleep and help you get to sleep easier. It’s a pretty strong stimulant, and it can take quite a while to get it out of your system so aim to avoid caffeine in the 8 hours before you go to bed. This includes coffee, tea, energy drinks, coke and any other product designed to keep you alert!

Also try to avoid alcohol as much as possible, particularly in the evenings. Alongside lowering testosterone and hindering muscle growth, it can also have a negative impact on your sleep cycle. The process of metabolizing the alcohol can cause you to have a restless sleep and leave you feeling pretty worn out in the morning – and that’s not even including the potential hangover.

Build a Routine

The body craves routine, so to really take your sleep to the next level you need to get in to a regular routine which supports good quality rest. The first thing to do is consider getting up earlier in the morning.Waking up earlier in the morning will help you squeeze in a morning workout as well as helping you feel more tired at the end of the day. This means you will have a better quality of sleep.

Commit to a regular bedtime and a regular wake up time, with no more than half an hour either side allowed. You’ll find after a couple of days that you start to get tired around the same time, and you’ll start to wake up naturally around the time your alarm goes off as your body gets used to the schedule.

Stay away from any artificial light sources like your laptop or phone at least a half an hour before you go to bed. Also try to eliminate any sources of artificial light from your bedroom – this exposure to light suppresses the release of melatonin, a hormone which helps the body maintain its circadian rhythm and helps you sleep better.

It’s also worth taking the time to calm your mind before you plan to go to sleep. When you’ve switched off your TV or your laptop for the night, spend some time reading and meditating before you head to bed. This helps settle your thoughts, relax your body, and prepare you mentally for a proper sleep.

Bringing It All Together

While there’s a lot to take in here, it’s easier to start with one or two small changes initially and try to slowly add more into your routine each week. Start with committing to a regular bedtime and monitoring your food and caffeine intake. Add in more as you get into a good habit with those and you will notice your workout recovery increasing ten-fold.

This will take some time to change your regular routine but once you start feeling the benefits you’ll never go back!

If you have any questions or comments, leave them below!