Much like nutrition and exercise, sleep is essential for athletic recovery and overall performance. And just as you can tweak your diet and workouts to help you add another plate to your bench press or PR your next 5K, you can fine-tune your sleep schedule to ensure you’re operating at a peak level.
Meredith Kessler understands this. A Red Bull-sponsored athlete and one of the foremost triathletes in the world, Kessler just notched her ninth Ironman title at the Arizona Ironman (she won by more than eight minutes) and says she owes much of her achievements to learning how to incorporate proper rest into her training.
“There’s no substitute for sleep to produce quality training and recovery,” she says. “And anyone who works proper sleep hygiene into their standard training is going to see amazing results.”
Kessler wasn’t always one with sleep. Before she turned pro, Kessler worked for a big bank on Wall Street. “I’d get up and workout from five until eight, go to work at eight-thirty, stay there until eight at night and repeat,” she says. “I just did it without knowing the stress I was putting on my body.”
Once she decided to turn pro, she learned the power of sleep. “When I turned my hobby into my job, I realized I felt a lot better on six hours of sleep, let alone eight,” she says. “And the gains I saw were remarkable. For me, sleep is more important than exercise or nutrition."
After learning the power of a solid sacktime, Kessler, a self-proclaimed night owl, started working naps into her workout routine and paying more attention to her sleep habits before marathons and when flying to races in far-flung locales. Here, Kessler shares her advice on recovery, the power of naps and how to defeat jetlag before it starts.
1. Learn to Use Sleep to Your Advantage
“I wear recovery boots to bed. They’re basically air boots that compress and deflate by legs in order to move the lactic acid around in my legs,” says Kessler. “So even if I have the luxury of having a nap for even an hour, I’ll put these boots on. It’s my way of using sleep to my advantage, of upping its ability to recovery. Sleep is essential for everyone and if you can use it to your advantage, then you’ll be the better for it.”
2. Proper Sleep Hygiene Is Essential
“I’ve learned to sleep as efficiently as possible,” she says. “I’ve spent money on a good mattress because we spend a quarter of our life in our bed. My bedroom is as dark as possible and often have a sound machine or a fan in the background. I wear an eye mask, too. And I’ve removed all electronics from my bedroom. All of these things are now key for me. And my thermostat is set to 65-degrees every night, which is the optimal temperate for sound sleep. All of these ensure my rest is as efficient as possible”
3. Stick to a Regular Schedule
For Kessler, routine is everything. “I’m up every day at 4:15 a.m. because I’m a weirdo and literally run on the treadmill to wake up every day, even if it’s just a mile or two,” she says. This, she adds, allows her to maintain a normal sleep routine. Plus, “Being up that early helps me prepare for race start times. Average start time on the east coast is 7:15 a.m. so I don’t need to change anything during the transition.”
4. Sleeping Well Two Nights Before a Big Event is Essential
“No one sleeps the night before a race — you have anxiety, you’re visualizing the race in your head, you’re nervous,” says Kessler. “So you have to make sure, with anything, you get a proper night’s sleep two nights before the race. That’s key.”
5. Naps Are Integral to Maintaining Balance
“Naps are key to my existence,” says Kessler. “And I work them into my daily routine to ensure I’m able to have enough energy. But they also help me maintain balance: I’m an athlete, yes, but I also have a life outside which is very important to me. So sometimes I have dinners with my husband and friends that don’t begin until eight. So some nights I’ll only have five hours of sleep before I have to be up for training. Those nights, I’ll be sure to nap so that, combined, I have at least eight hours of sleep in a 24 hour period.”
6. When it comes to Air Travel, Comfort is Key
When Kessler travels to an event — which she does once or twice a month — she’s able to lessen jet lag by making her environment as close to home as possible. “I fly like a crazy person with an eye mask and a sound machine,” she says. “I realize I could put that on my iPhone but I like my little sound machine and it travels just fine. And these little things help me stay comfortable and well rested.”
7. At the Very Least, Know Your Body
"Let’s say it’s two months before a race and you know before you’ve gone to bed that you’re not feeling that energetic — we’ve all been there,” says Kessler. “You’re better off skipping a workout and sleeping that extra hour, because two months out you’re really training for the event and that’s when you need to hit your marquis workout. So if you have to make those in the evenings, you have to plan your life sort of around sleep at that time.”