One of the toughest aspects of fight preparation is weight cutting. At events like the UFC, I will have fighters that may lose up to 20 pounds in less than a few weeks for an event. Of the hundreds of questions I receive from fighters monthly, weight cutting is always a common theme. I pride myself on having developed safe and effective methods for this process and have had exceptional results over the last decade. In fact, I have had so few bad experiences that when one did happen recently, it forced me to research a topic that I least suspected could be the culprit.
A UFC fighter of mine was having a terrible time cutting weight. No matter what he did (or didn’t do in terms of eating and drinking) the weight wasn’t coming off. Although he did make weight, this cut was stressful, taxing, and not what a fighter needs before a big fight. In the weeks following the fight, I obsessed about what went wrong. The diet, training, and water manipulation were exactly he same as the fighter had used in previous fights with success. Then I stumbled on the major difference from this fight to the rest: the fighter stated that he wasn’t “sleeping well”. Actually, I came to find out weeks before the fight he wasn’t really sleeping much at all. This clue started me on an investigation of a topic that I concluded is a mystery for many of the most seasoned coach and trainer. Hopefully this article will attempt to solve not only how to get a better night's sleep, but also the issue of people in general viewing sleep as nonessential.
Getting a World-Class Night of Sleep
One third of your life is to be spent sleeping. This may sound like a lot of wasted time, but I must remind you that sleep is one of the basic necessities of life. We all recognize that we need food, water, and exercise to survive, but in the case of getting to bed, sleep is often viewed as expendable.
Both the quantity and quality of sleep are related to health problems like obesity (just look up the terms ghrelin and leptin for more), hypertension, and cardiovascular problems. Poor sleep can also be related to decreased IQ and irritability. If being less intelligent and having a bad ticker don't bother you, here's something that will: not getting enough restful sleep leaves the body with a reduced ability for muscle repair since sleep is a major time for protein synthesis to occur.
And if you don’t mind having less muscle mass while being fatter and dumber, don’t worry, because the immune system responsiveness, the memory and motor program consolidation, and the proper release of hormones (like growth hormone and insulin) that you'll be missing will also leave you sick and uncoordinated.
But, at least with the bad memory, you might not remember why you’re so messed up in the first place. Perhaps this “sleep amnesia” is the ultimate reason behind so many problems the human race currently faces.
“Many things - such as loving and going to sleep - are done worst when we try the hardest to do them.”
If you're like my athletes, you may not think you need to make adjustments to your sleep schedule. But, like my athletes, you'd be wrong. How do you know if you need more sleep? Go through this list quickly:
- You wake stiff and sore in the morning. You don't feel refreshed.
- You feel sleepy at times throughout the day.
- You suffer from impaired memory and or concentration.
- You toss and turn during the night.
- You have a weakened immune system
- You need to wake up to an alarm clock four or more days a week.
Got your attention? Now, if I told you I had a way to stop the problems I listed above (decreased muscle mass and hormone secretion, decreased IQ, etc.) you might assume there would be a tremendous amount of work to be done. The paradox, however, is that your sleep problems can be alleviated by doing less.
Setting Up a World Class Sleep Environment
If you're willing to train and eat like a champion, you need to be prepared to sleep like a champion.
Before I tell you what to do for sleep improvement, you first need focus on what not to do. I have often found that the “inactions” you add into your sleep schedule can be more important than the actual “actions” you take. For instance, instead of trying to “balance” your day by trying to fit everything in, you must first remove what you shouldn’t be doing. If the average guy watches over 20-30 hours of TV a week, it's obvious he has a lot of opportunity to find more time for sleep (and to go the gym and maybe get a social life).
Once you've removed habits that may be stealing your sleep (like caffeinated drinks, late-night workouts, or surfing the 'net until the break of dawn), the next key is to focus on what you can do to improve your sleep environment.
6 “Keeps” for Creating the Athlete’s Den for Sleep
- Keep your room cool. 65-69 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended. Since your body cools right before sleep, a warm or hot room can make it difficult for your body to shut down and get to sleep.
- Keep your room quiet. If you can’t control some sounds, white noise can help block out unwanted sounds. You can use a fan, sound machine, or even earplugs.
- Keep your room dark. This seems like a no-brainer but you'd be amazed how much light creeps in through windows. Blackout shades or an eye mask can make a big difference. Melatonin, which your body produces naturally and is essential for sleep, is only released in the dark.
- Keep your TV, phone, and computer out of your bedroom. These are distractions that can excite the body with both sounds and lights. In addition to the mental and sensory distractions, the electrical currents from devices are also hypothesized to alter sleep patterns.
- Keep an appropriately-sized and personally comfortable mattress. Take your time selecting a mattress just like you would a pair of training shoes or supplement. If your mattress is 5-10 years old (or sags in the middle) it's time for a new one. Have supportive pillows, cotton sheets, and blankets and change them all regularly.
- Keep an alarm clock that doesn’t have a “snooze” button. When it's time to get up, really get up! Open the shades, get some sun, and get active to set your biological clock.
Developing Good Sleep Habits
“Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.”
I believe that Blake’s quote is profound advice for living. Once you have your sleep environment properly set, it is time to address your sleep routines and rituals.
- Go to bed the same time every night. Even if you're sleepy, stay on schedule. The more your body is on “rhythm” the easier it will be to fall asleep and wake up. Keep a sleep journal to document your hours and be able to review your patterns. (If you can document your training, you can do this, too!)
- Have a “pre-sleep” routine. This can include reading, soft music, mentally planning out the next day, or even deep breathing. Turning the lights low or even wearing sunglasses in the house thirty minutes before bed can jump start the sleep process.
- Have a light snack before bed. A glass of milk and peanut butter sandwich can be a simple and quick meal to give you the protein and carbs your body needs to get to bed. To get a little more technical (and less tasty to some) some sliced turkey and cottage cheese can deliver the L-tryptophan and slowly digested protein that can get you off to bed and supplied during sleep.
- Improve your supplement closet. In addition to the potential effects of supplement classics like melatonin and valerian root, making sure you're not deficient in magnesium and zinc (found in ZMA may also help with a restful night sleep. Another supplement to look into is arginine.
- Don’t oversleep. A few days in a row of this can confuse your sleep schedule.
- Don’t use caffeine (up to 8-10 hours before sleep), alcohol (which can disrupt sleep patterns), cigarettes (stimulant), and sleeping pills.
- Don’t nap. And if you do need to lie down on the couch for a snooze during the day, keep it under 25 minutes.
- Don’t train within three hours of bedtime. (Jacking up your nervous and cardiovascular system will make it nearly impossible for your body to shut down and get restful sleep).
“There will be enough time for sleeping in the grave.”
Most athletes look at training and nutrition with such detail, but merely gloss over sleep. To reach your full potential (in body and mind), you must embrace the art of sleeping as much as you have the art of training.
Most of us recognize the things that lead to bad sleep habits, but are you really doing anything about it? Make no mistake: you are the result of the behaviors you maintain. So make some of the behavioral changes listed above and your life—not to mention your physique—will improve.
If, however, you subscribe to the Franklin quote above and miss too much sleep, that time in the grave might just be sooner than later.