One of the greatest benefits of being a trainer would have to be the lifestyle. I train throughout the day, and I eat the food I want when I want. I get to bed early so I’m fresh for the next day. But my life hasn’t always been like this, and for a lot of you reading this, your life isn’t like this either.

When I was in the military, I can remember how poor my lifestyle factors became as I was exposed to living conditions outside of my control.

It was an extremely physically and mentally demanding career that sometimes involved poor living conditions and unhealthy day-to-day routines.

One of the most challenging things I remember having to deal with was sleep disturbance. I recall a period of about 6 months where I had to be on duty every night between 12am and 4 am.

Now even though I still got my 8 hours split into two four hour blocks, I was waking feeling completely unrested and sluggish. I just couldn’t figure out what was happening. My training at the time, while still improving slowly, was never optimal and every session just felt so hard. I struggled to put on any real muscle mass even with lots of food.

It wasn’t until many years later when I began to take a more deliberate interest in my health that learnt about circadian rhythms. I began to realise what a powerful effect quality sleep can have on increasing muscle mass and strength gains in general.

How sleep works

Sleep wake cycles are the result of movement from the sun and planets and affect nearly all living creatures.

As the sun rises, a hormone called cortisol rises and peaks between 6:00am and 9:00am. Cortisol is an activating hormone that is released in response to stress and light, artificial or natural. Its function is to turn the body on and prepare it for movement.

Cortisol release cycle

In the afternoon, cortisol levels drop significantly, especially as the sun descends into darkness. This allows for the release of melatonin and also increases the levels of growth and repair hormones. It is for this reason that a wind down period should be employed as the sunsets.

Melatonin release cycle

Physical repairs mostly take place between 10:00pm and 2:00am with psychological repairs lasting until we wake.

This is why I wasn’t fully recovering during my time on deployment. I was awake during what should have been a very important repair process.

Disrupted sleep/wake cycles, in my opinion, are the single biggest killer of strength gains and rectifying them to produce quality sleep is like seeing a turbo button being switched on. I am lucky enough to have seen this happen enough times to know its power.

What you should do to sleep more soundly

1. Get to bed by 10:00 EVERY NIGHT! Nothing good ever happens after 10:30.

2. Avoid stimulants after midday. These include sweet foods containing sugar, tobacco and of course, caffeine (gasp!). Caffeine has a half life of 6 hours so if your last coffee (300mg) is at 2pm, by 6pm your body still has 150 mg of caffeine stimulating cortisol production. By midnight there will still be 75mg of caffeine running through your body.

3. Sleep in complete darkness and don’t turn on any lights if you have to get up through the night. Sleep with a dim light source next to the bed that you can use should you need to get up. Remember light = cortisol.

4. Unplug or move all electrical devices as far away from your bed as possible. This includes mobile phones, clocks, TV’s and lights.

5. Drink lots of water. Dehydration causes stress, which has an awakening response.

6. Exercise. Choose which time you train wisely. If you have trouble sleeping then timing is key. If exercise is intense, it can produce cortisol especially if it’s longer than 30 minutes, so training after dinner may not be the best option. If you are able, mid morning is the best time as this is when cortisol is at its highest naturally.

Sleep is a powerful weapon and you don’t have to put it in a shaker bottle or swallow it as a pill, you just need to prepare for it properly and plan your evening like you would your day. You’ll not only feel better, but your results in the gym will improve dramatically!