How can athletes get a restful night before a competition? Dr Nerina Ramlakhan talks through her top tips

Getting good deep sleep is incredibly important. There is a reason why nature has designed us to spend over a third of our lives sleeping – there’s an intelligence in this design.

When we sleep our body repairs and rebalances on many levels, this can be physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual. This ensures we wake up with energy and enthusiasm, feeling inspired and looking forward to the day ahead. This is very important for athletes who are training hard and who especially need to be on top of their game – for them, getting nourishing sleep can literally give them a competitive advantage.

How does sleeping well do this?

During deep sleep the body produces a cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones, including growth hormones, which aid recovery and optimise the growth and strengthening of muscles. The dream process enables the re-organisation and sorting of information in the brain so the athlete awakens feeling sharp, clear and laser focused. And we all know that getting velvety, deep sleep (my favourite type of sleep) makes us happy. Life just feels so much better and pressures are so much more manageable after a really good night’s sleep.

Race night nerves

But it’s not always that easy. I used to run marathons and I’d often find that the night before my race I just couldn’t get to sleep. I was too wired and I’d lie there fretting about not performing at my best the next day and all that training going to waste
because I couldn’t sleep. I found it difficult to switch my mind off and I definitely couldn’t relax my body. By the way, this was before I started learning more about sleep, working on my own sleep habits and patterns and then helping others.

By virtue of what they do – competing to excel and win – athletes tend to be driven, perfectionistic, hard on themselves and have exacting standards. Exactly the opposite of what is needed in order to get a good night’s sleep. In fact, in order to sleep well we almost need to not worry about how we sleep!

So, how can you give yourself a fighting chance of getting good sleep the night before an important event or before a hard training session?

» Stop worrying about how you’ll perform the next day. We’re a great deal more resourceful than we think we are and sleep although vital, is only one way in which we get energy. Our energy levels are also bolstered by the way we eat, drink, move, breathe, and even think.

Studies show that a night of poor sleep the night before a significant event such as an exam, presentation or a physical event
such as a race has a negligible effect on your performance. This is where adrenaline, determination and high levels of motivation can really go a long way. The bottom line – the night before a big event, don’t worry too much about the sleep you are or aren’t getting.

» Use the word “rest” rather than “sleep”. Tell yourself the night before your event: “Tonight I’m not going to worry about sleeping or not sleeping. I’m just going to rest”. Using this form of auto-suggestion might even trick your mind and body into actually letting you fall asleep.

» Familiar rituals. If you are staying in a strange environment or hotel room, have familiar things around you including sights, sounds and smells. If you use lavender oil in your own bedroom take this with you when you travel.

Sleep on your favoured side of the bed. Take photos of your loved ones or pet and put them on your bedside table. Creating a feeling of inner safety around you will settle your nervous system and enable you to rest more easily.

» Wind down with chamomile tea or a milky drink. You could also have a small snack such as oat cakes with some nut butter to avoid waking due to a blood sugar low.

» Stop clock watching. Obsessively checking the time during the night will not help your inner perfectionist who will immediately go into calculating and catastrophising about what might happen if you don’t get “X” hours of sleep.

» Know that it’s normal to wake up during the night. The average person wakes 10 to 15 times a night – it’s actually an evolutionary survival mechanism in which we wake up and check the “cave” is safe. If we didn’t do this, we would probably be extinct! We don’t remember waking this many times (hopefully) but checking the time brings you into full consciousness thus making it difficult to return to sleep.

» Tech hygiene. Avoid looking at your phone right before you switch your light off. The blue light suppresses melatonin production and can stop the eye muscles from relaxing which is vital for falling asleep.

If you’re a bookworm, start reading an easy-to-read uplifting book before your big event so you can lose yourself in a good story. Ideally it shouldn’t be a page turner that you want to stay up all night reading but something easy and maybe even humourous.

» The power of the breath. Use your breathing to put you to sleep. Put one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Follow your breath without trying to control it while silently repeating the words ‘IN’ and ‘OUT’. Gently prolong the exhalation and allow the inhalation to take care of itself. This will help to deepen and slow your breath down which activates the vagus nerve which controls the relaxation response.

» Gratitude. If you’re having difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep get into a comfortable position in bed, close your eyes
and slowly think of all the things that you’re grateful for in your life. What has gone well in your training and what are you feeling grateful for right now. Place one hand over your heart and one on your belly and allow yourself to experience the feelings of gratitude. Soften into the feelings of gratitude. Smile inwardly.

» Love yourself to sleep. This is a powerful meditation for putting yourself to sleep and sending gratitude to your body – it can be a great technique to use after all the hard work you’ve been through.

Repeat these words silently and slowly make your inner voice soft and gentle as if putting a small child to sleep. Starting with your right foot …

“I love my right foot”
“I love my right big toe”
“I love my right little toe”
“I love all the toes of my right foot”
“I love the top of my right foot”
“I love the bottom of my right foot”
“I love my right ankle”
“I love my left foot”

Then move through the sequence on your left foot. You will start to fall asleep. If you lose the meditation, go back to the starting point as soon as this happens and start as follows: “I love my right foot”.

» Dr Nerina Ramlakhan has worked as a professional physiologist and sleep therapist for 25 years. This has included conducting sleep and wellness programmes at Nightingale Hospital in London, working for clients such as Chelsea FC. She is the founder of BUPA’s Corporate Wellbeing Solutions and has also written several books. See drnerinamuses.com for more

» This article was first published in the March 12 edition of AW magazine