Editor’s Note: Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”
How you sleep each night plays a vital role in how you perform in your daily life. So, it’s no wonder that professional sports teams tap the expertise of sleep doctors to ensure their elite athletes get the quality sleep they need to perform at the highest levels.
As a mobility coach who works in Major League Baseball, I can attest that during spring training, when every day starts early, players and coaches alike dread losing an hour of sleep when we “spring forward” for Daylight Saving Time.
It’s not just professional baseball players who struggle. A 2022 study found that more than 30% of adults have reported an hour of sleep debt — when you sleep less than your body needs — while nearly 1 in 10 adults had a sleep debt of two hours or more.
Adults need at least seven hours of solid sleep at night, according to the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep debt and irregular sleep duration are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, dementia, obesity and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
I asked two of my favorite MLB sleep experts to share some of the same tips they provide to professional baseball players, so that anyone can learn to sleep like a pro.
It’s important to get the recommended seven-plus hours of sleep nightly.
Sticking with a regularly scheduled bedtime and wake time helps, according to Dr. Cheri D. Mah, a sleep physician specializing in the sleep and performance of elite athletes. “Our bodies like regularity and will anticipate sleep with a regular sleep schedule,” Mah said. “As a reminder, set a daily alarm on your phone to go off 30 minutes before you want to start your wind-down routine.”
Pay attention to what your body and brain are telling you about your sleep schedule, suggested Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist and host of the “Sleep Unplugged” podcast. “If you go to bed at 9 p.m. but it always takes you two hours to fall asleep, why not try going to bed later?”
If you want to sleep better, you need an environment conducive to sleep. “Make your room like a cave,” Mah said, “You want it to be really dark, quiet and cool — as well as comfortable.”
She recommends getting comfortable bedding, using blackout curtains or eye masks, wearing earplugs and setting the room temperature at 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit (about 16 to 19 degrees Celsius).
Do you judge how well you slept based on how fast you fell asleep?
The amount of time it takes you to fall asleep, called the speed of sleep latency, is an inaccurate gauge for sleep quality, according to Winter. How long it takes to fall asleep varies from person to person. The consensus of most sleep experts, including Winter, is that the average sleep latency is five to 20 minutes.
“Someone who is asleep ‘before their head hits the pillow’ is not a champion sleeper any more than an individual who can eat their entire dinner in three minutes is a highly nutritious eater,” Winter said. “That can often be a red flag and not a sign of great sleep.”
Many people jump right into bed with a racing mind, Mah said, which results in difficulty sleeping. She suggests that her clients create a 20- to 30-minute wind-down routine to help them transition to sleep. Activities could include gentle yoga, breathing exercises and reading, “just not on a tablet or phone that emits sleep-disturbing blue light frequencies,” she said.
Both Mah and Winter report that getting people to refrain from technology use the hour before bedtime presents the biggest challenge for their clients. “It’s hard to convince people to change a behavior that doesn’t cause immediate pain,” Winter added.
Despite the popularity of “night cap” cocktails, Mah and Winter agree that alcohol is an impediment to sleep. They suggest that it be avoided entirely or at least not enjoyed in the hours before bed. They also recommend limiting caffeine intake later in the day. “Caffeine has a half-life of about six hours, so it’s best to cut it out in the late afternoon and early evening,” Mah added.
Along with all the other health benefits of regular exercise, research shows a strong link with better quality sleep, which Winter frequently points out to his clients. “If you are complaining about your sleep and not exercising, you better have a good reason for not doing it,” he said. “From a research perspective, it is far more effective at deepening sleep and improving its quality than any fad tech gadget in existence today … and it’s free!”
There is one caveat: Because some research has shown that the benefits of exercise are mitigated and can even hurt sleep quality when performed later at night, avoid vigorous exercise at least one hour before bed.
Sleep debt is the difference between your needed amount of sleep and the sleep you actually get, accumulating over time, if not paid back.
Many clients come to Mah without any knowledge of the concept of sleep debt and the need to repay it. More so, she said they are surprised to find that “it often takes longer than one night or one weekend to significantly pay back accumulated sleep debt.”
If you’ve built up sleep debt, try going to sleep an hour earlier or sleeping an hour later over a few days — or however long it takes for you to feel adequately rested.
Catching up on your sleep isn’t just good for increasing daily alertness — a 2020 study found that adults who caught up on sleep were less likely to show elevated inflammation levels, which contribute to chronic disease.
At the same time, it’s important not to stress about sleep, Winter said. Too much emphasis on things such as “falling asleep faster” or the notion that people “can’t sleep,” creates a sense of fear that he deems “highly problematic.”
“It’s physiologically impossible to not sleep at all, so nature has you covered,” he said. “Control the variables you can control, like schedule, environment, etc., and put it out of your mind.”