Importance of Sleep

I was surprised when I learned I had not done a dedicated post on sleeping, one of the most important components of recovery and quality of life. Sleep is both complicated and elusive, but appreciating its utility may give you more incentive to get more of it.

The first thing we should do is eliminate the possibility of “segmented sleep” from your brain. This idea puts an evolutionary argument on waking up for an hour or two in the middle of the night before returning to bed. Instead of addressing the argument directly, I’ll side-step it by pointing out this poignant fact: most people are sleep deprived. The idea of reducing sleep is utterly absurd and completely ignorant given the fact that hardly anyone reading this sentence is in danger of having too much sleep.

Because sleep is in such short supply, we will also ignore petty arguments for sleep cycles and stages of sleep. The real issue is that most people simply need more, and sleep importance only increases with people who train. Sleep allows for the body and mind to recover and recharge by allowing important neuroendocrine processes to occur — chemical and hormonal processes create an environment that heals and rests the system. By allowing this process to work effectively, the mind and body are better prepared to function.

Here, two puppies demonstrate how to sleep.

Here is a short and not comprehensive list of things that a lack of sleep can have an effect on: gross and fine motor control, decreasing brain health and function (AKA cognitive ability), body fat accumulation, insulin sensitivity, reproductive or libido issues, greater systemic inflammation (since necessary processes to reduce it are not fully implemented), lack of muscle hypertrophy (AKA swollertrophy), and flat out not recovering from training. I shouldn’t have to say this; everyone reading this knows that they feel worse when they don’t sleep.

We agree that sleep provides a neuroendocrine environment to optimally prepare for the next day, but we need to understand that sleep is not like a glass of water. If your ‘sleep glass’ is empty, you can’t just fill it back up in one night by sleeping a lot. Sleep is like a continuum; you need to get the proper amount and quality chronically to fully benefit from it. Think of it as a goblin cave (yes, I saw The Hobbit last night); every night you are deprived of sleep, you venture deeper into a twisting labyrinth (with a giant goblin that may or may not have a giant goiter). Getting one night of longer duration sleep will only move you in the direction of the entrance — it certainly doesn’t move you out of the cave, into the sunlight, and down into Lothlorien (that’s a Lord of the Rings reference). Commit to regularly getting at least 7 hours of sleep for mediocre results, but you actually need more than 8 hours of actual sleep (not 8 hours lying in bed).

There are two things that can get in the way of getting sleep: actually having the time to do it and falling asleep. The former is an issue of time management while the latter is a combination of hormonal control and stress. As for finding the time: if a productive, joyful life and optimally recovering well from training are important to you, you’ll learn how to manage your time. I can’t do that for you. But there are some ways you can improve the hormonal and mental side of things.

Cortisol is released via stress. Physical stress of training releases cortisol (and lowers testosterone), which is a trigger for a lot of other things to occur to bring it back down. However, cortisol is also released when the mind and emotions are stressed. The body will function relatively in the same way, but the difference is that your physical stress has a clear method of healing whereas the psychological stress needs guidance. Mental relaxation or meditation leaves the scope of this post, but if you know you are constantly stressed, then I would suggest researching this topic. I’ve recommended specific relaxation protocols in consultations to the benefit of the trainees I worked with. Start your search with “progressive relaxation” and also pick up a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning — if there is an interest in this topic, I’ll do a future post on it.

All of that being said, we can have an effect on cortisol. In simple terms, cortisol is supposed to be released in the morning and then taper off throughout the day (high fat meals for breakfast help it’s release in the morning). However, being psychologically stressed keeps it elevated into the evening, and elevated cortisol levels with interfere with the process of falling asleep. Progressive relaxation can be implemented while lying in bed, but ensuring you are not deficient of minerals — specifically magnesium and zinc — will help this process. Most people are deficient in these necessary minerals, and their importance only increases for hard training populations.

ZMA is a good supplement to take at night before bed and additional magnesium supplements, like Natura Calm (as recommended by Robb Wolf) are beneficial. Personally, I take ZMA at night and take a bit over a teaspoon of Natura Calm mixed with EmergenC in the morning (Vitamin D and fish oil are my other daily supplements). My sleep quality and recovery has been very good nowadays and I wish I would have done it this way years ago. By taking zinc and magnesium, you can improve on the cortisol issue to not only make it easier to fall asleep, but to stay asleep with better quality.

Here are some other common tips to prepare the mind for sleep as well as staying asleep:

  • Some people are weighed down by the next day’s tasks. Make a list with the feeling that every item on the list is moving from your mind to the paper. This frees your mind of worrying about it…until morning.
  • Avoid electronics within an hour of bed time. The bright screens have a negative effect on the eyes and brain, or something.
  • Read a fiction book. You should be reading anyway, but typically fiction is preferable right before bed because it serves more as a story instead of an involved thought process. Personally I don’t find this to be the case, but I do find it harder to concentrate on some thought provoking non-fiction as I get tired.
  • Rub a puppy’s belly. This is scientifically proven to reduce psychological stress and it will only increase the bond with your pup. If possible, rub two bellies at once.
  • Meditate or perform progressive or autogenic relaxation. You can do this while under the covers, but don’t touch yourself.
  • If you’re in a bind, satisfy your libido. Extra points if it’s with someone else.
  • Try to keep your room cool, typically under 65 degrees.
  • Try to keep your room completely dark. The less light, the less disturbance you’ll have. Just trust me.

Terry Tate says, “Relax yo mind.”

At the very least, take big, slow breaths. You can imagine your inhale as a wave washing over you and the exhale as a wave receding down your body. I feel that this specific visualization helps prevent me from thinking about other random stuff. The more sensory perception you add, the more involved your brain in this visual and the less likely you’ll drift to other thoughts. I will sometimes use a mantra of “peace” and for some reason I think of an image of a drop of water. The ‘mantra word’ comes out as I exhale. You don’t have to visualize anything, but you should at the very least let your thoughts drift away. If you start thinking about something (like the stay puffed marshmallow man), then let the image of that thought float away. I find it helpful to think of your vision as a fish bowl, and your thoughts are just fish that may swim into view, but you will let them slowly float or swim away.

If you are new to relaxation techniques, be patient. I’ve been using them for at least four years and can spike my adrenaline and heart rate or bring them down very effectively. Relaxation is a skill and it must be developed and practiced. But don’t worry, you have plenty of opportunity since you will get to do it every night as you fall asleep.


Sleep is incredibly important to optimal functioning. I realize that some of you will feel that you have earned some type of “dick around” time at night, whether it be tv, videogames, or movies, but making the decision to wind down and get into bed is a professional decision. You should pride yourself in the ability to wake up fresh in the morning ready to kick the fucking DOG SHIT out of your day. It may be necessary at times to limit sleep — as in Arnold’s “sleep faster” recommendation (more) — but otherwise you should be aiming for 8+ hours of quality sleep. It’ll make your dong hard, let you throw the iron around, and tackle life like Terry Tate. Yeah c’mon.

74 thoughts on “Importance of Sleep

  1. I have some experience in this area as I’ve suffered from some insomnia for a while. This is what has worked for me:

    – Get a pair of these glasses and wear them before bed: They block blue light which destroys melatonin stores. Yes, you’ll look like a tool. I don’t find that they help me fall asleep faster but that they promote a higher quality sleep.

    – Use f.lux Same reason as above but for your computer screen rather than eyes

    – Dark room as Justin mentioned definitely makes a big difference. I use blackout curtains as well as a face mask.

    – Meditation is how I actively initiate sleep. If I don’t my mind will wander for fuck all. I try to concentrate on my breath and drive out all other thoughts. Usually this will have me down in 5 minutes or less.

    – ZMA too.

    I have taken melatonin in the past but don’t anymore because I’ve found that if I take too much it’ll have the opposite effect and I can’t fall asleep and have the lightest sleep possible when I do, fuck that.

    • +25pts for wearing shooting glasses to bed.
      They would be even better if they were the ones with the holographic reptile eyes on the outside. That’ll teach anyone to sneak up on you at night.

    • Holy shit dude, you’re a beauty. I’ve always known that I spend way too much time on my laptop/phone, especially at night – it’s just so damn efficient and convenient that it’s hard to get away.

      Excellent post Justin; would highly appreciate your take on getting to sleep meditation.

  2. “I realize that some of you will feel that you have earned some type of “dick around” time at night, whether it be tv, videogames, or movies, but making the decision to wind down and get into bed is a professional decision.”

    This, right here. I need to understand this. Great wording Justin!

    • Watch out on that 5-HTP stuff. I titrated up to the recommended dose as a sleep aid and woke up in the middle of the night panicking and hallucinating to a blue, purple, and green electric light show. I only wish I was joking. If you’re gonna play with the neurotransmitter support drugs (5-HTP, SAM-e, etc) realize that you’re going to fuck with dopamine levels and that things could get weird quick.

    • I would assume that something else is wrong if you ‘feel like crap’ by providing minerals that you are most likely deficient in. If you are taking too much magesium, then you can upset your stomach and cause diarrhea.

      You could always take less than the recommended dose (e.g. usually they have you take 3 pills, so you could take one or two).

  3. Some things I’ve learned that might be useful:

    1- Natural Calm is awesome — BUT — slowly titrate up the dose you take. Don’t go nuts and take 3 tablespoons on the first night you try it, figuring more must be better. Ask me how I know.

    2-When meditating, put the tip of your tongue on your front hard palate, just behind your teeth. Breath in through your nose, and out through your mouth. If you sound a bit like Darth Vader, you’re doing it right. Count to 4 while breathing in; count to 4 while holding the breath, and count to 4 while you’re breathing out, to get a feel for how slowly you should be breathing.

    3-Drinking heavily before going to bed *will* wreck your sleep. Again, ask me how I know.

    4-If you dig gadgets, the FitBit is a cool pedometer that also tracks your sleep. I’ve had one for a year now, and it’s surprisingly accurate at recording how many times you wake up, thrash around, etc.

    If none of the suggestions in Justin’s post or Hydro’s comments work, hie thee to a doctor and get checked out. You might need a sleep apnea mouthpiece or breathing apparatus; or maybe even some meds to help turn your brain off. Seriously — sleep is way too important to take for granted or screw around with.

  4. Farkin’ loved the “Satisfy your libido … ” part

    Alone : I can’t sleep for an hour
    With a lovely partner : I’m asleep immediately after the post-coital sammich she makes me

  5. Meditation has helped me a lot and I’d recommend it not just for sleep but general relaxation. I’m pretty sure my friends think I’m a hippie or something.

    I’m definitely gonna pick up some Natura Calm and ZMA and give em a try.

  6. Being military this is one of the biggest negatives of being part of the armed forces. People practically compete with each other to see who can by one the least amount of sleep.

    Looking back on my younger years I now realize this was a big part of a lot of physical injuries and health related issues.

    Interestingly, lifting heavy fixed a lot of this. Basically I found that if I lifted heavy for a few days sooner or later my body would call me on it and I just wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.

    • Too right. I was a shift worker for 3 years in the AF and my sleep was completely wrecked. I was constantly sick and run down, and like you say, looking back it is super obvious why.

  7. Good stuff.

    Sounds like hippie nonsense, but I love how sleepy I get the night or two after volume day. I like being “in tune” with my body and stuff.

    Also, if I don’t lift for a couple weeks, I’m amazed at how much less sleep I need.

  8. I think the most important part of this post is for people who may find themselves in a large city fighting demigods and ghosts. Keep thoughts of the stay puft marshmallow man out of your mind. That mistake has cost thousands of people a good nights sleep.

  9. Contrary to others here, I guess, I feel like a million bucks after a night of drinking (on the weekends).

    Trying a sort of sleep restriction therapy right now. Have always, always read for 1-3 hrs in bed before sleeping, and I’ve read that doing so conditions you to stay awake. Proponents believe you shouldn’t go to bed except to sleep or get amorous. Guess I will see.

    Anyone else tried it?

    • Since sleep is almost always something that people lack, I would never recommend restricting it.

      Personally I don’t have a problem with reading in bed and then going to bed, but this is clearly a psychological issue instead of a physiological issue. I’m able to forget stressful things (or not stress about them to begin with), so I don’t have a sleeping block in bed if I’ve done other things in the bed prior.

  10. I have nothing to add about sleep. I only wished to say a big “Fuck you, Justin.” for getting to see The Hobbit already, while those of us in Oz have to wait until Boxing Day. That is all.


  11. Aside from recent layoffs, I’ve been consistent with my training for the last year. Too bad I haven’t been consistent with my food, sleep, mobility… I’ve read Lights Out, I should know better. Hell, when I first read Lights Out, I was literally reading it in bed and freaking out that I wasn’t asleep already, and the stress made it harder to eventually fall asleep. The other week my computer’s video card went out. It was the best week.

  12. I got to meet some cool people this weekend at a USAW Level 1 Cert. : Tom Ward, Tom Cross, Dennis Espinoza and Jill (last name I forget) at Edmond Oklahoma cert.

    Also was told by one of the coaches “you’re built like a quarter horse, some great glutes and hamstrings, now if you could just figure out how to use them…”, aka- I have no skill, #mopeility wod moment..

  13. How about spazzy sleeping, I saw a comment around here (maybe mopeWOD) by Bront about waking up soaked with sweat and panicking, he said something about sleep hypoglycemia I think. So, food then sleep? A bowl of sugar then sleep? Dip your pillows in sugar so when you drool you get a glucose top up?

    • Strong MopeWOD love ITT

      Try all three methods and see which one works best for you. Create a chart showing your results. Post it here. Cry when no one gives a damn about it. Then turn that sadness into a hammer curl PR.

  14. NIce. As soon as I read the title of the article I wondered if you were going to mention about the folks that wake up for about an hour or three in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. Somadrol is a dank ass supplement I’ve used in the past, too.

  15. I have used ZMA for the past month and a half and have had quite a lot of success with it. I track my sleep using an iPhone app, Sleep Cycle, for my alarm, and I make notes of various things: whether I have had anything to drink, whether or not I drank a protein shake prior to sleeping, whether I took ZMA, etc. Coffee after three in the afternoon and taking a mid-afternoon nap adversely affect my sleep apparently. ZMA, meanwhile, helps it.

      • It’s been interesting for precisely the reasons I mentioned: using the sleep notes function, it gives me a rough idea what is affecting my sleep for better and for worse. Since I got a new iPhone and lost all of my old data a month before going on ZMA, I’ll now need to actually go *off* ZMA for a month or so to get a better idea of how it affects my sleep. But so far, the data says it improves the quality of my sleep an average of 5% per night. And I definitely fall asleep earlier and easier with ZMA. Overall, I would recommend Sleep Cycle if you’re not using another app, but there might be betters apps out there.

        • While I enjoy your scientific enthusiasm, the body doesn’t work like this. The presence or lack of stress (in this case the ZMA or other stuff) is not a switch where the intended effect occurs immediately.

          In the same way that sleep is not an empty glass, but a continuum, the same goes for supplements, nutrition, and/or macronutrients. Haven’t ever taken ZMA or a mag supplement and then all of a sudden use it? You’ll probably have an immediate effect but the real worth to your body is doing it chronically. Using this supp for 4 weeks and then going off will not yield the same results as before you took the ZMA, so your results are imperfect and not really generalizable to yourself, much less another person.

          But this applies to most n=1 situations.

  16. Anyone else ever used Melatonin as a sleep aide? I’ve been using it from time to time for a few years now and find it very helpful. I don’t take it every day, but I ever need to wake up early (at like 4:30am to train or for whatever reason), and therefore want to be asleep by 8:30 pm, I take a melatonin at 7:30. Melatonin doesn’t knock you out or make you drowsey like Nyquil or Benadryl; I would say it “suggests” sleep rather than “commands” sleep. I also find that I sometimes have much more vivid and memorable dreams if I take melatonin.

    What about snoring? I never snored before putting on 20-30 pounds of muscle when I started training hard in 2009. Since then apparently I snore a lot. I’m not a fatty, but I’m pretty sure the added neck meat has something to do with the snoring. Wife says I sound like a freight train. I tell her she should try sleeping by the tracks since apparently that’s what she’s in to. But I am concerned about some of the negative impacts that snoring can have on sleep/health.

      • Thanks. I tried those a few times. Snoring doesn’t bother me at all one way or another, but wife reported the strips didn’t do anything. I have the privledge of wearing a night guard for teeth grinding, which I think compounds the snoring issue.

    • Occasionally I’ll hit some melatonin if I’m out of my normal sleep cycle. It’ll hit you quick if you hold one of the tabs under your tongue. I tend to shy away from using it long-term because I read some stuff about it suppressing normal melatonin production if taken long-term.

    • I have used melatonin in the past after hearing Robb Wolf talk about it, but it’s not something that should be used chronically since it’s literally a hormone. If you take it chronically, then it skews your body’s production of it (worst case being that you stop producing it at all).

      In which case, I like the idea of using melatonin for short term solutions, like trying to reset a sleep schedule or purposely going to bed significantly earlier than what the person is adapted to. I would not recommend it chronically, and I would use the minimum dose. 2g to 5g is enough, and 10g is probably way more than enough, and definitely not something to use on a regular basis.

  17. Excellent post, and great advice.

    I used to use melatonin, but am leery using hormones to affect bodily changes. Instead, if I really really need to get some sleep: Afrin and red wine. Works better than any sleep aid, NyQuil etc for colds – teh Awesome.

  18. This may be a comment for PR friday but here it goes. Today is a proud day. Proud because my ass and hamstrings are too large for mere 34 waist board shorts. Growing up I surfed and so I have a shit ton of boardshorts that until now have made great workout shorts. They have gotten tighter and tighter as I trained all year and in the past week 3 pairs have torn at the bottom of a squat.
    The tearing of these triple stitched shorts is a small mile stone for me and my larger ass/hammies and marks the day when I have to invest in stretchier shorter shorts, soffes perhaps, to showcase the man legs that finally match my man beard.
    Have a great day everyone

  19. How have y’all blacked out your bedroom? My bedroom gets hella light from a big window (4′ x 8′) and it’s only covered by blinds (no curtains or curtain rod). As a renter, I’m looking for something that’s not permanent, but also not hobo-esque (i.e. cardboard, aluminum foil, etc).

    • I did this with foil. I got a call from the rozzers asking me if I was growing weed in my room. I suggest if you DO use foil/cardboard, use something white on the outside so that neighbourhood nosy peoples don’t go talking to the police about you.

  20. Justin (and others), what is your view on napping?

    I’ve never really been much of a nap person but I wonder if it is something I should try on the weekends when I have time.

    • I don’t nap, but see utility in having a quick 10 to 15 minute nap. Anything longer and it does more harm than good — at the very least you’re wasting your day. If you are dog tired, just stay up until 8 or 9 pm.

  21. Yes, please (anyone) sound in on napping! Is it only a bandaid to help “heal” or fix a shitty night sleep, or is it an actual technique to be used in conjunction w/ good sleep, or what?

    I stay up too late not because I can’t sleep, but because I hate being bored, and that’s exactly what it takes to go to sleep; embracing boredom. So, after not getting enough sleep, I do not know whether to take a nap, or to just lumber through the day and arrive in the evening really tired so I “have to” go to sleep.

    • If you get good sleep, you should not be napping.

      Edit: But this also depends on stress levels and how you can handle them via mindset and relaxation techniques.

  22. Pingback: Tools For Better Sleep « Hydro Strength

  23. What’s the best position to sleep in? I trained myself to sleep on my back to fix my shoulder issue, but now I seem to wake up in the morning with a super dry mouth and nose.. I bought a humidifier maybe that will help.

  24. Pingback: Thursday Training | Dansville Fitness Club

  25. Pingback: Wednesday 122612

  26. Pingback: Are you sleeping enough? | WestsideCrossFitDallas

  27. Pingback: SUNDAY | CrossFit Forward

  28. Pingback: Monday 130121 | CrossFit NYC

  29. Pingback: 230113 CrossFit WOD « Reebok Crossfit Sentinel

  30. Pingback: 230113 CrossFit WOD « Reebok Crossfit Sentinel

  31. Pingback: Cortisol: The Final Frontier |

  32. Pingback: PR Friday — 1 Nov ’13 | 70's Big

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.