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Sleep by Nick Littlehales

Sleep The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps, and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind by Nick Littlehales Proven solutions for a better night’s sleep, from...

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The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps, and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind

Proven solutions for a better night’s sleep, from the “sleep guru” to elite athletes–rest for success in work, sports, and life

One-third of our lives–that’s 3,000 hours a year–is spent trying to sleep. The time we spend in bed shapes our moods, motivation, alertness, decision-making skills, reaction time, creativity…in short, our ability to perform, whether at work, at home, or at play. But most of us have disturbed, restless nights, relying on over-stimulation from caffeine and sugar to drag us through the day. The old eight-hour rule just doesn’t work, and it’s time for a new approach.

Endorsed by leading professionals in sports and business, Sleep shares a new program to be your personal best. Nick Littlehales is the leading sport sleep coach to some of the biggest names in the sporting world, including record-breaking cyclists for British Cycling and Team Sky, international soccer teams, NBA and NFL players, and Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Here, he shares his proven strategies for anyone to use. You’ll learn how to map your unique sleep cycle, optimize your environment for recovery, and cope with the demands of this fast-paced, tech-driven world. Read Sleep and rest your way to a more confident, successful, and happier you.


Don’t Waste Your Valuable Time Sleeping

When I asked the person behind the counter of my local bookstore where the sleep section was, she gave me a quizzical look, turned to her computer, and, after some searching, pointed me in what she hoped was the right direction. Up four flights of stairs, in a dark and dusty corner, I finally found it: a small collection of academic tomes on the science of sleep, plus a handful of volumes on dreams and what they mean—New Age takes on an age-old process.

My hope is that this is not where you found this book.

There is a revolution going on in sleep. For too long it has been an aspect of our lives that we take for granted, and historical patterns suggest we’ve placed less and less importance on sleep itself (certainly by leaving fewer hours for it). But a burgeoning body of scientific research is drawing links between our poor sleeping habits and an array of health and psychological issues, from type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity to anxiety and burnout. It’s time for sleep to take its place in the spotlight. It’s time to look at this essential process of mental and physical recovery and see how we can do it better, so that we can get the most out of our waking day and be more effective at work, give our best to our relationships with family and friends, and feel great.

Until the mid-1990s we were getting away with it. Most of us took for granted that we’d get two consecutive days off (otherwise known as the weekend). Our work finished when we left the office—or wherever it was we did our jobs—and many stores were closed on Sundays. Then came a seismic change in our lifestyle. The Internet and email altered forever the way we communicate, consume, and work, and mobile phones, initially just devices for phone calls and texting, soon morphed into the little pools of blue light at which we now spend so much of our time gazing. The idea of being constantly connected became a reality, the 24/7 working mentality was born, and we had to make adjustments to keep up. Overstimulating on caffeine, popping sleeping pills to come down and switch off, burning the candle at both ends—the traditional idea of a good eight hours’ sleep at night became the stuff of legend.

The result has been extra stresses and strains on relationships and family life. Not only that, some scientists and researchers connect our lack of physical and mental recovery time with a tangible increase in many diseases and disorders. Something has to give.

I am a sports sleep coach. It’s a job that is unlikely to come up at your local career center, and that’s largely because it’s a role I’ve managed to create for myself.

This journey began when I was the international sales and marketing director of Slumberland, the largest sleeping comfort group in Europe, in the late 1990s. I became intrigued by what the top soccer team in the country did about sleep and recovery. They must have a sophisticated approach to it all, I thought, so I wrote to Manchester United, a club now owned by the Glazer family (who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL franchise), to find out. It turned out that they did nothing. The reply from Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson—who would soon make history by leading the club to unprecedented levels of success—asked if I’d be interested in coming in and taking a look.

Sleep wasn’t considered a performance factor back then, but I was fortunate that sports science was becoming a bigger part of the game and that the curiosity of one of the greatest managers of all time had been piqued. I was equally fortunate that I was able to work with a player who had a back problem, and we made some adjustments to his routine and products. You can’t cure a back injury with a mattress, of course, no matter what some manufacturers might claim, but I was able to have a positive impact on the player’s management of his condition.

I became more heavily involved with the club, even providing Ferguson with some products and advice, as well as some of the most famous players, including David Beckham and Ryan Giggs. This top-down approach, where everyone from the manager and coaching staff to the players uses the methods and products I’ve recommended, is one I implement to this day.

By this time I was in the process of leaving my role at Slumberland. The world of sleep had begun to engage me beyond simply selling products. I had been chairman of the UK Sleep Council, a consumer education organization set up to advise on and promote better sleep quality, which helped further my knowledge, and it was there that I got to know Chris Idzikowski, a leading expert in the field, who would grow to be a valued friend and colleague. Meanwhile, the press had coined my job title, branding me Manchester United’s “sleep coach.” “What’s he doing,” they asked, “tucking the players in at night?” In fact, I was doing things like introducing probably the first training-facility sleep recovery room on the planet. Lots of top teams have them now, of course, but that was the first.

Word spread. The Manchester United players on England’s national team competing in the World Cup and European Championship soon had English Football Association executives and physical therapists coming my way. I worked with the organization, having new sleeping products shipped in and advising players on improving their habits. And I began working with several other teams, who were responding to new sports science and changing their approach to the game. Later, I would work with British Cycling and Team Sky, including their successful Tour de France campaigns. I designed portable sleep kits for the riders to sleep on instead of the beds in their hotel rooms. I would be brought in by British Olympians and Paralympians and by athletes in sports such as rowing, sailing, bobsled, BMX, and cyclocross, as well as by rugby and cricket teams and many more soccer clubs.

This revolution in the sporting world wasn’t confined to Britain; sleep is universal, after all. I was invited to join up with leading European soccer clubs such as Real Madrid, where I advised on adapting their luxury training-facility player apartments into the ideal recovery rooms for some of the world’s best players. I worked with the Dutch women’s bobsled team before the Winter Olympics in 2014, and I coach cyclists from places as far away as Malaysia.

I have brought my methods to the United States too, teaming up with SHIFT Performance to work with teams like the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and some of the leading colleges around the country, and I’ve had conversations with people like Tim DiFrancesco, the former LA Lakers basketball strength and conditioning coach, about giving the leading athletes in the sport the best chance of recovery. The amount of travel involved in many sports thanks to the size of the United States and the stresses that games like football put on the bodies of the players present new and unique challenges to their ability to recover properly.

All of this came about because I was the first to ask the professional sporting world about sleep, and because Alex Ferguson, whose willingness to embrace new ideas never dimmed during his decades at the top of his sport, was sufficiently open-minded to help me explore the subject. As he said at the time, “This is a tremendously exciting development in the world of sport, and one I wholeheartedly support.”

The reaction of many people when they hear what I do is to conjure up images of sleek sleep pods and high-tech science-fiction-style white labs with slumbering subjects wired up to supercomputers, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I use all sorts of technology when necessary, and yes, I’ve worked closely with leading academics in the field of sleep such as Idzikowski, but my day-to-day work isn’t in a laboratory or a clinic—I’m not a doctor or a scientist.

In recent years, the importance of sleep for our health has been proven with clinical evidence. Revered institutions around the world—Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and the University of Munich, among many others—produce pioneering research in the field. This research has demonstrated everything from the links between sleep and obesity and diabetes1 to showing that our brains effectively wash away their waste toxins during sleep, potentially illuminating one of the key reasons we sleep.2 Failure to get enough sleep and clear out these toxins is linked to a host of neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s.

The health factor is a big reason why governments and businesses are starting to prick up their ears and listen when it comes to sleep, and why more attention is being given to research and funding. Stress and burnout are bad for business.

But as mind-bendingly smart as the people researching sleep are, there’s so much about sleep that we just haven’t yet figured out. As Philippe Mourrain, associate professor at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, writes, “We don’t really know what sleep is. This may come as a shock to the uninitiated.”

What we do know—and even the scientists can all agree on this—is that sleep is vital to our well-being. Quite simply, we’re not getting enough of it. It is estimated that, on average, we’re getting between one and two hours less sleep than we were in the 1950s.3 So, is the answer that we should simply get more of it?

What about a single parent who is up at the crack of dawn to get the kids off to school, works all day, and then comes home at night to make dinner, put the children to bed, and then get the housework done before collapsing into bed? How is that person supposed to fit more sleep in? Or a medical resident working all the hours that the job entails, as well as trying to maintain some faint sliver of a personal life—how is it possible for them to get more sleep? There are only so many hours in the day. How does sleep research directly benefit their lives? What can everyday people take from it beyond an interesting nugget of information they might read in the news on the train to work and forget about by the time they sit down at their desks?

Athletes, whose activities during most of their waking hours are already subject to intensive scrutiny from college and professional coaches who want them to perform at their absolute best when they’re on the field, don’t want too much of a clinical approach to their sleep. After all, sleep is one of the few remaining privacies we have, away from the glare of our employers, who have managed to enter our personal lives through our phones. People generally don’t want to be wired up and monitored while they sleep, with the truth about what they’re up to at night being shared with their supervisors at work. It’s too intrusive.

My approach is different. Science and research inform what I do, of course, but I’m hands-on, working directly with people to give them the maximum advantages in recovery so that they can perform at their best when it matters. What I see, and the people who apply my methods to their lives see, is a vast improvement in the way they feel, in the way they recover, and, most important, in their level of performance. This is the benchmark clinical test for any professional athlete, and there’s no arguing with the empirical results that competitive sports provide.

I talk to these performers about their habits, give them practical advice, and arm them with the skills to plan and manage their rest in clinically accepted cycles of sleep. I design and source their sleeping products, help them with everything from coping with a newborn in the family to getting them off sleeping pills; ensure hotel rooms are producing a conducive environment for recovery for cyclists on the tour and soccer players at international tournaments; and, when needed, go into their homes and address their sleeping setups there.

However, for those of you hoping for a sleep-and-tell exposé on the contents of David Beckham’s bedside table, you’re in for a disappointment. These performers and sporting institutions trust me implicitly. They’re letting me into a very personal and private sanctuary, and I’ve had to earn that right. After all, would you let someone you didn’t trust into your bedroom? But what I can tell you all about is the methods and techniques I bring into these sanctuaries, and I can show you how to set up yours just like an elite athlete.

Fine, you might be thinking, but what do the sleep habits of top athletes have to do with me? The simple answer is absolutely everything. All of the advice and techniques outlined in this book are as relevant to you or me as they are to the players. Indeed, I work with many people outside of sports, from corporate clients to anyone looking to improve their sleep regimen at home. The only difference between top athletes and the rest of us in this regard is quite simple: commitment. If I tell an Olympic athlete what to do to improve their recovery, they do it. Sports people are like that. If they can see a gain to be made, no matter how marginal, they’ll go for it, because it all adds up and they’re in the business of performing better than their opponents. For the rest of us, it’s all too easy to adhere to a method for a few days before real life starts intervening, and next thing we know we’re working well into the night or passing out on the sofa after a few too many glasses of wine.

But this book isn’t a fad “sleep diet.” I’m not going to give you a rigid scheme to stick to that you’ll abandon after a week. I don’t want to make your life more difficult. I am going to show you my R90 Sleep Recovery Program, the very method I use with elite athletes. I have developed this program over nearly two decades as a professional sleep coach, acquiring knowledge from doctors, academics, sports scientists, physiotherapists, mattress and bedding manufacturers, and even my children, through the experience of being a parent. I’ve tested my methods at the forefront of professional sports, where sleep simply must be effective. These athletes operate at the margins of what is possible for human beings to achieve, and I can show you how you can work at the margins of what is possible for you too.

Through integrating this approach into your own life, you will be able to reap the benefits of the extra mental and physical energy you will feel. You will learn to look at sleeping in a polyphasic way. I will help you choose the best sleeping position (and there is only one that I recommend). You will no longer think about how many hours a night you’re sleeping; rather, you’ll think in terms of how many cycles per week you’re fitting in. This will help you learn to accept and relax about the odd bad night’s sleep—we all have them, and we all get up in the morning and carry on.

It will inform your decisions about things in your day-to-day life that you might never have thought about before: which desk to sit at in an office, choosing a side of the bed in a hotel with a partner, or whether the bedroom in the house you’re considering buying is fit for the purpose (and if it’s not, that should be a deal-breaker). I will set out the seven Key Sleep Recovery Indicators, which are the building blocks of the R90 program. Within each of these I will give you seven steps to improve your sleep. Even adopting just one of them could go a long way toward improving your life. And if you adopt one per week, you can completely revolutionize your sleep in just seven weeks.

Your lifestyle won’t have to suffer. You can still have that inviting-looking coffee you crave. You don’t have to say no to another glass of wine when you’re enjoying a fine summer night with friends. And if you’re sitting down to dinner in a restaurant after nine o’clock and wondering if it’s too late to be eating, don’t worry. Life’s too short to miss out on good times and great experiences. I want to give you the confidence to make these decisions and have the flexibility not to worry about getting to bed “on time” or stress about “sleeping well.” Through adopting the measures mapped out in this book, you can learn to improve the quality of your rest and recovery, rather than spend time agonizing over the quantity.

This book will explain what we can learn from our Paleolithic ancestors to better regulate our sleep—think a Paleo sleep diet—while also managing modern-day challenges like smartphones, laptops, jet lag, and working late. Technology is a wonderful thing, and I certainly won’t be advocating discarding it just to get a good night’s sleep—all of our devices are here to stay, and this is only the beginning of it—but with just a little more awareness on our part, they don’t have to be detrimental to our well-being.

We’ll see how your love life can dramatically improve with just a little bedroom know-how, why we should all hail the power of the afternoon nap—and how you can nap with your eyes wide open in a room full of people. I’m going to show you that, in all likelihood, the mattress you’re sleeping on is the wrong one, even—or maybe especially—if it’s a $2,000 “orthopedic” slab you’ve just remortgaged your house for. The good news is that I can show you how it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to remedy it. I will give you a foolproof method for picking the right surface to sleep on that will mean you’ll never again have to endure another salesperson trying to sell you a multi-thousand-coil mattress with racing stripes and a price tag to match.

The R90 Sleep Recovery Program shares some of the spirit of Team Sky performance director Dave Brailsford’s “aggregation of marginal gains” approach. With the cycling team, recruiting my expertise in sleep was just one of many ways in which Brailsford sought to make a tiny improvement (another was teaching the riders the best way to wash their hands in order to avoid catching a virus), so that when they were all added up it would produce a significant increase in performance.

With the R90 approach, we look at everything we do from waking until closing our eyes at night as having an effect on our sleep. As we funnel our attention down toward going to bed, we can aggregate our own marginal gains by implementing the advice set out in the Key Sleep Recovery Indicators.

You might not see results overnight—even after a particularly good night’s sleep. But give it time. It usually takes professional athletes years to reach the top of their sport. You’ll see results in your sleep much quicker than that with the R90 program. It’s not uncommon for me to receive a call from someone a few months after we’ve worked together and hear them say, “You changed my life.”

You can change yours too. Let’s start using the time you spend asleep wisely. Like the athletes I work with, you should be getting the absolute maximum of physical and mental recovery out of it. You might learn that you actually need less sleep. You will certainly feel an improvement in your mood and capabilities at work and at home, and you’ll also become more aware of when it’s time to pull back a little, to take a break and switch off for a few minutes. “Oh, but I don’t have time for that,” you’re saying. Think again. There is a host of little tricks and techniques to find time for breaks, enabling you to get more done in less time.

If you want a book about how to get your pajamas on and have a cozy time in bed with your cocoa, then you’ve come to the wrong place, though I can certainly point you in the direction of a dusty corner. I am, however, going to show you how to sleep smarter, to use sleep as a natural mental and physical performance enhancer. It’s time to stop wasting time on sleeping without benefit.


The Key Sleep Recovery Indicators


The Clock Is Ticking

Circadian Rhythms

You wake up to the alarm on your phone and reach over to turn it off. While you’re there, you check the notifications beamed in overnight from your news, sports, and entertainment feeds, your social media apps, emails and texts from work and friends. Your mouth is dry, your head is already spinning with what’s to come this morning, the curtains are leaking light, and the standby light on the TV at the foot of the bed is staring unblinkingly at you, reminding you how you finished the night before.

Welcome to your day. Did you sleep well? Do you know how to sleep well?

The average person in the United States gets a little over six and a half hours of sleep a night. Furthermore, over a quarter of the population gets by on only six hours a night, and 14 percent get five hours or less.1 It’s a similar story around the world, with over a third of the population of Britain reporting less than six hours of sleep on workdays, and Japan not far behind. The statistics show that in these countries, as well as the likes of Canada and Germany, most people “catch up” on their sleep on the weekend.2 Their work lives are limiting their sleep. Almost half of Americans are being kept awake by stress or worry, and when you take a look at the schedules of many people, it’s not difficult to see why.3

An NBA athlete might compete in a game on the West Coast one day and then be back across the country the next day to hear me talk to the team about sleep. He’s probably wondering when he’s supposed to get any, as he’s about to spend the next few months on the road, playing in games all over the United States. You can do it for a while, of course, with the right approach. Round-the-world solo sailors can get by sleeping for thirty minutes every twelve hours while they’re at sea for three months; we’re remarkably adaptable creatures with incredible reserves of stamina. But do it for too long, and sooner or later something has to give. Sports associations are starting to bring me in to educate players and help them manage their schedules, because they’re seeing a rise in the number of players coming to them with depression, relationship problems, and burnout.

It’s not just in sports, of course. These patterns are replicated all over society. All of us face difficulties fitting in the demands of our work and personal lives. Knowing what I know now, I can say that I stayed in a job for five years too long. I was working long hours, with an abundance of day-to-day stress and plenty of travel, which meant a lot of time away from home. But they were business-class trips along with plenty of fine dining, gin and tonics, and coffee to keep me going, so at the time I thought I could handle it. The truth is that it took a very heavy toll on my family life.

How much was I sleeping then? How much are players on the US national soccer team getting? What about that teenager sitting up playing computer games deep into the night? How much are you sleeping? Does it actually matter?

The amount isn’t the important thing at this stage. What is important is a natural process that has been with us since humankind began, a process that many of the aspects of modern life are taking us away from. Artificial light, technology, shift work, sleeping pills, travel, checking our phones when we wake, working late, even running out of the house and skipping breakfast to race to our jobs on time—all these things are taking us away from this natural process. And that’s where our problems with rest and recovery begin.

Off the Grid

Let’s start by going off the grid for a while. Let’s get back to nature for real. You and I will leave all our possessions behind—our watches, computers, phones—and head out to an uninhabited island, where we’ll live off the land, just as our ancestors once did. We’ll hunt and fish and sleep under the stars. Eat your heart out, Bear Grylls.

So out there on this island we make camp in a large rolling field. When the sun eventually goes down, and the temperature drops with it, we build a fire. We’re going to spend quite a lot of time now without daylight, so we want to eat. We cook and devour our spoils for the day, and then sit back sated, chatting softly, absorbing the amber light of the fire as we look into it. Eventually the talk subsides, and we gaze up at the stars for a while before, one by one, we turn over, curl up under our blankets, and drift off into sleep.

At some point in the morning, the sun is going to start approaching the horizon. The birds will start singing even before it gets there, and when it does, the temperature will start to rise. Even if it’s really cold, it will still rise by a degree or two, and everything will get lighter. Whether or not we’ve got our heads under the blankets, the light gets in and we wake up. The first thing we’re likely to want to do is empty our bladders, and then we’ll start thinking about drinking some water and eating breakfast. Then it’ll be time for a bowel movement before we go fishing and hunting and gathering for the day—all of it in daylight. Nothing hurried, all in its natural time.

Later in the day, when the sun starts going down again, we’ll sit back down in the field. The temperature will drop and it will get dark again, so we’ll have to light the fire—we’ll do it all again. This is really getting back to what we do naturally, working in harmony with our circadian rhythms.

Got Rhythm?

One of the first things I ask anyone I work with, whether it’s a top athlete or a corporate executive struggling to sleep, is, “Are you aware of circadian rhythms?”

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