fitness

My Nightly Rituals for Better Sleep, Recovery, Mood and Health

About a year ago, I wrote about something that really resonated with a lot of people on my morning rituals. In many ways, it was years in the making and continues to be my practice to this day.

What about the end of my day, though (or the end of your day)? It’s equally important, as it sets you up for what is hopefully restful sleep, which is profoundly important in recovering from your training, the stress of the day, and keeping you healthy.

I believe that “winding down” is very personal, that is to say, things that relax me, may agitate you, which will create a lousy type of alertness. Thus, you should use this as a guide to give you ideas and a “jumping off” point in which you can create your own.

Here are my night time rituals, or how I end every day:

Stop working on anything 2 hours before bed (minimum)

Admittedly, it took a while for me to do this, but it is of note because I love my work and how I spend my days and professional life. For me, it’s not a stressor to be working on training programs, but if I take myself too deep into the evening doing so, I will have a very hard time shutting off my “problem-solving brain” and be very alert and awake. I won’t be unhappy, just not in a restful state, so to avoid it, I make sure I stop all real work around 2 hours before I go to sleep. I fill the rest of my evening with things that tune me down a bit: reading, laying down/relaxing, talking with my girlfriend, and watching old re-runs of the Office. ;-)

Imagine for a moment that you are the opposite: you’re stressed by work, angry you have to do the task you need to, and that it’s taking you so long. Now you have to go to sleep. Not a great state of mind...

A light-to-moderate movement ritual

I like walks in the evening, but a few nights a week, I’ll get a little more aggressive and go to a local rock climbing wall in the traditional “dinner hours" and do some climbing. It has a relaxing effect on me. It’s the opposite of traditional working out, jiu jitsu or anything full-contact, so it’s a nice reprise. Moving at the end of the day like this feels right in a way that's hard for me to quantify. I find I need it before I shut down for the day. Sometimes I’ll do yoga during these hours as well.

Walking during sunset is a powerful way to reset your circadian rhythm- the colors in the evening sunset help signal to your body that the end of the day is near, and you can start "shutting down" for the day. I highly recommend when you travel, that you spend as much time in the evenings outdoors as possible. 

For many years, I always went back and forth with how I advise clients and athletes to treat their movement at the end of the day. I’m not the biggest fan of late night workouts, because of the cortisol dump happening at a time when you typically want it gone, but I do believe that you should move around a little in the hours before you sleep. As I said, I'm sometimes at a rock climbing gym in the evening, so it's a bit of a double-edged sword. I’d cut it off 2 hours before sleep, regardless.

A Warm Shower

At different times of year, and at different times of the day, I find warm or cold exposure to be equally relaxing. In general however, a warm shower at the end of the day will help relax me a bit, loosening my muscles up, and generally just feels good. 

Aroma or Sound Therapy

I have a recent preference and fondness of aromatherapy- something about the right scent will change my mood immediately, and helps me relax, if it’s the right scent. Often times, I find we aren’t so conscious of our sense of smell unless we’re smelling something awful, so it’s nice to get a refreshing blast of something pleasant.

You may find that a white-noise machine, or some ambient sounds help you relax all the same. If you live in a noisy area, or are around droning, awful sound all day, some nice music may do the trick. There’s also a number of apps that have hundreds of sounds to choose from. 

f.lux on your phone/laptop. Better yet, ditch it all 90 minutes before sleep.

There’s a number of apps out these days that kill the blue-light and overall brightness of all the “screens” in your life. I find too much screen-time to be way too alerting to the senses. In fact, if I'm really drowsy in the morning, I'll read a few Instagram posts to wake me up, it always does the trick. So the opposite holds- don't be getting in text conversations too late in the day or scrolling compulsively through social media before you sleep.

Set your alarm for the next morning ahead of time. Do whatever you need to do to cut the phone or laptop off 90 minutes before bed.

 

Making Your Own Nightly Rituals

It's really all about finding what relaxes you and turns off what I call "the problem solving brain." That "brain" will always keep you awake and alert, and while important, also needs its rest. 

Experiment, and like anything, evolve what you currently do. Naturally, we tend to evolve things anyway, but bring some mindfulness to it, and you'll be sleeping like a baby in no time.

 

If you have any great nightly rituals, leave a comment below, I'd love to hear it!

-Mark

Don't Be the Victim of Bad Advice

Fitness, diet, strength and conditioning, sport and “healthy living” advice is plentiful. Too plentiful really. Even for the trained professional, it can be a lot to sift through. I’ve had to ask myself increasingly over the years how “the latest study” vibes with yesterday’s studies, if one invalidates the others, what it means for my clients, athletes and myself. I recently had a revelation while listening to an “expert” (who will not be identified), that we need to keep certain things in mind while reading any article online, listening to any podcast, or reading the extended argument in a book. To keep it brief and hopefully helpful, here are the questions I ask internally (or aloud if I’m in the author’s presence), and my thought process while I am listening to ANY advice from an expert.

Ask yourself: is this person a clinician/practitioner (aka, in the gym as a trainer or coach), or is this person a researcher/academic, a scientific data sorter, or maybe even an author/personality/blogger?

 

It’s important to understand who the person is that is conveying information. It colors the lens in which they view the world, and how to apply their interpretations of data. It’s also obviously not always so easy to stratify or categorize an individual as simply one of these types of people either: many people fall into multiple categories.

For example, I would fall under the clinician category- I’m a strength coach and trainer and while I do stay extremely active reading the latest research, I spend most of my time interacting with athletes, clients and people in the gym or on the mats. Therefore, my recommendations, and much of my experience, is anecdotal: that is to say, I go by what I see (or what I THINK I see). This doesn’t invalidate my opinion, but it’s not like I sit there and conduct double-blind placebo studies that I vet through an academic institution.  It doesn’t make my opinion invalid, but it’s also not the approach you look to in order to find out deep, scientific details.

On the other side of the coin: is your data source a researcher? An academic, in other words. Academics may find themselves constantly playing a game of X’s and O’s, manipulating variables and studying them against controls, and often times, dealing very infrequently with people; While they do have experience in dealing with test subjects, the time may be limited, or it’s not for the purposes of a particular event/sport/etc. Many times, the information they make available through their studies becomes the basis for practitioners to develop new protocols. It also works the other way around: observable phenomena on the gym floor by practitioners merits a closer look- and that’s what the researchers and academics of the world excel in.  Much of what we do in any movement, workout or sport, is a synergy between the academics and the practitioners. 

The last category worth noting is the personality/blogger/brand pusher, who is also sometimes playing the role of data sorter. These could be the most dangerous, because they’re the most charismatic, most prolific in terms of content available, and very good at conveying their points concisely: they know how to sell their words. Conversely, they have the potential to spread the most good and enact the most positive change for these same reasons. 

Don’t be afraid though: by asking a simple question, you can determine who is a positive force, and who may just be irresponsible:

Is this person an academic, or a practitioner? Do they spend time around people, or trying to use “the latest research” and ONLY “the latest research” to advance their agenda?

 

My simple takeaway is this: all diets, workouts and systems sound great until they meet their adversary, or that is to say, until they don’t work. What do I mean?

FOR EXAMPLE (this is not me putting down or advocating a certain diet, but rather me sharing a real example I’ve encountered before):

Advocating a protein-based, low sugar/carbohydrate diet is great until the excessive protein gives your athlete/client excessive gas and digestive difficulty. Then what? Are you going to keep shoving meat, seeds and walnuts down their throat until they develop IBS? The orthodoxy of a diet fad doesn’t always allow temporary detours to get you over certain difficulty. Orthodoxy is paralyzing. 

Wouldn’t you rather have someone who has experience dealing with a diverse array of people, problems, and fitness levels? More importantly, someone who isn’t going to try and shove you into a box that their brand demands?

That may be an extreme example, I’ll give you that. So more measured:

What happens if your athlete/client doesn’t fit the profile of the study’s prototypical person? Many studies, at some point, can only control so many variables related to the subjects: 

Are all the participants involved similar in body composition? Do some have a dominance of Type II fibers while others are Type I dominant? How tall are the subjects? Do they have abnormally long arms, while others have short legs (maybe this bio-mechanical difference is to blame in analysis of weight pushed/pulled, and not so much the diet, for example). 

The point I’m making here, and the point emerging overall is that: we need a synergy of all types of people in order to be successful. We also need to be smart consumers of information and ask ourselves how to better fit the information we discover daily into our lives synergistically, intelligently, and holistically.

We need the practitioners to observe a phenomena, the academics to study it, the practitioners to re-test it, and then the personalities to spread the word for the greatest good.

Those who wish to control care little for growth. Remember that.