Trail Tips

It’s OK If You Are Not A Great Sleeper

Sometimes, being told to “sleep more” is not that much different than hearing you need to “digest faster.” Yeah, there are certain decisions and scenarios that can make sleep and digestion better. But they are still mostly involuntary biological processes. Pressuring yourself about something involuntary is a surefire way to take some of the fun out of life.

This article has the simple goal of removing pressure from the dialogue about sleep. Because if you read enough on the subject, it can feel like not being a great sleeper might as well mean you are strapping a 500-pound weight around your neck. 

This article has the simple goal of removing pressure from the dialogue about sleep. Because if you read enough on the subject, it can feel like not being a great sleeper might as well mean you are strapping a 500-pound weight around your neck. 

Here’s what I see behind the scenes. Tons of athletes struggle with sleep. That can mean having trouble getting to sleep, finding that no amount of sleep hygiene or caffeine abstinence can stop neurons from doing what neurons do. It can mean waking up and being unable to get back to sleep, where getting up to pee at 2 a.m. is a disaster. It can be predictable or random, connected to life events or parenting duties or the news or something that you wished you’d done differently 10 years ago or nothing at all.

This type of sleeplessness can happen to anyone. In my coaching experience, it’s slightly more common in high achievers, female athletes and athletes over 40, but the research indicates that it’s not confined to any background, gender or age. 

Sleep is not always a choice

The reason I am writing this article is to let you know that if this describes you, things will be OK. I have seen athletes win national championships averaging a few hours of fitful sleep, an athlete finish high up in the world championships after two days of total sleeplessness, another excel as a top grandmaster athlete after years of sleep struggles. My wife/co-coach Megan will often joke that she “is not a skilled sleeper.” 

It’s not meant to dismiss the studies or evidence. Across the population, sleep clearly matters for everything from hormonal state to nervous system function to recovery and adaptation. While there are some people who have reduced sleep needs, that “sleepless elite” genetic variation is relatively rare. Physically, more sleep is probably a good thing for just about everyone.

But what can be even worse than sleeping a bit less than may possibly be optimal in a controlled scientific study is what happens if you excessively worry about your lack of optimization. When each night becomes a battle to turn off a light without an obvious switch, the stress can be crushing. I have seen plenty of athletes excel as unskilled sleepers, but have almost never seen someone be a fully content person if they beat themselves up about it.

Do what you can

So make sure you’re doing everything you can to improve your sleep skills. Practice sleep hygiene, disconnecting from screens and light and noise. Consider mindfulness techniques and meditation. Cut down or eliminate caffeine.

If all the good habits in the world don’t work, talk to a doctor or therapist and consider trying natural sleep aids (I have seen Nature’s Made brand melatonin work surprisingly well for some athletes). Talk to a therapist and treat any mental-health issues. See a sleep therapist if you have persistent issues. Go to a specialized doctor if you think the issue may be insomnia or another medical condition.

That’s a long list of things to do. I have seen unskilled sleepers with pages of printed-out tips on the subject, and even the 100-point to-do lists sometimes fail (shocking, I know). Being OK with that is essential for long-term self-acceptance for unskilled sleepers. There are three guidelines that have helped athletes Megan and I coach based on some of the science and sleep-therapist recommendations.

First, try to dedicate at least 7-8 hours to turning off your brain. 

If you can’t sleep during that time, it’s totally fine. Just don’t scroll Instagram or fire up the computer and respond to emails. As your parents may have told you when you’re a kid, resting is rejuvenatory even if you’re not cavorting in dreamland.

Some research suggests passive activities like reading can be helpful when you find yourself unable to sleep. Anecdotally, I suggest topics that will support the low-stress mindset, rather than a book called The Top 20 Most Treasonous Phone Calls or whatever is topping the political charts these days.

Second, try to practice gratitude in that time. 

Here is where meditation or other mindfulness techniques really come in handy. If you can work on filling the world around you with love and patience and acceptance, then that relaxed time will fill up your soul cup, even if sleep is hard to come by.

Third, talk, laugh and cry about it. 

The world can be dark and scary at midnight, when our brains want to wander into an abandoned chainsaw warehouse full of our failings and stresses. But it’ll all be OK. Whether it’s sleep or something else you are struggling with, tons of other people are right there along with you, ready to laugh and/or cry together about the difficulties of being human.

The world can be dark and scary at midnight, when our brains want to wander into an abandoned chainsaw warehouse full of our failings and stresses. But it’ll all be OK.

I tried to avoid citing too much research in this article because I have a feeling that’s not helpful to some the unskilled sleepers in the audience. Just remember: your life does not unfold in a lab. You are not cultured cells in a petri dish where we can isolate variables for tidy conclusions. There are thousands of variables that go into your performance, your happiness, your longevity and everything else. One of those variables is sleep. It touches many of the other variables, but it’s not everything. 

Unskilled sleepers have won world championships, written immortal concertos, been our best leaders, lived to 100. And, more importantly, plenty of unskilled sleepers have been happy with who they are. 

Sleep more if you can. But if you can’t sometimes? Things will be OK. You will be OK. Because you are awesome just as you are.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.