Are You Sleeping Efficiently? Here’s How to Find Out (and Why It Matters)
The best athletes are often the best sleepers.
Words By Vernon Williams, MD
It’s no secret that getting enough high-quality sleep is one of the best things you can do to optimize your health and performance. But people often get tripped up on the “high-quality” part of the equation. That’s because it’s one thing to be in bed for eight hours, and another to actually get eight hours of restful sleep. After all, you don’t exactly get the same benefit from two hours of scrolling horizontally on your phone as you would from two hours of shuteye, right?
As a sports neurologist, I often talk about sleep efficiency as key to optimizing one’s rest. Sleep efficiency refers to how much time you spend asleep versus how much time you spend in bed. The more high-quality sleep you get for each hour in bed, the more efficient your sleep. If you want to reap the benefits of a good night’s rest—such as better endurance, faster reaction times and enhanced post-workout recovery, as this study reports—it’s important to evaluate and improve your sleep efficiency. And lucky for you, that’s not as tricky as it sounds.
Find Out If You’re Sleeping Efficiently
I often ask my patients if the time they spend in bed each night matches how rested they feel in the morning. For instance, if you’re under the covers between seven to nine hours each night, and you feel energized and ready to tackle the day when you throw back the comforter, then you’re probably sleeping efficiently. Conversely, if you’re spending that much time in bed and you don’t feel alert in the morning, then you may be struggling with efficiency.
That struggle can manifest in a few ways, such as taking a long time to fall asleep. Considering how stressful life can be these days, this is not uncommon. The time it takes you to fall asleep is known as sleep latency. A sleep latency of 10 to 20 minutes is ideal. However, if an hour goes by before you drift off—because you’re scrolling through your phone, worrying about tomorrow’s to-do’s or staring at the ceiling—that’s a sign your sleep isn’t as efficient as it could be.
Also, you might be surprised to learn that falling asleep almost immediately when your head touches the pillow can be a sign of a sleep disorder or sleep deprivation. I recommend discussing this with your doctor on your next visit.
The other issue that affects efficiency is sleep fragmentation. If you’re waking up in the middle of the night and it takes you 45 minutes to fall back to sleep, or you wake up several times during the night, this can also signal poor sleep quality and efficiency. When your slumber is interrupted, you don’t get to go through all the cycles of sleep the way you normally would, so you don’t reap the full benefits of your time in bed.
If you’re looking to put some data to the sleep efficiency equation, you can find out more about how long you spend in each sleep stage with a wearable sleep tracking device that keeps tabs on metrics like heart rate, heart rate variability and body temperature. Also, if you’re really struggling with sleep versus just looking to optimize it, ask your doctor if you can participate in a local sleep study to further investigate what’s going on.
Why Sleep Efficiency Matters
Just about every physical and athletic performance factor you can measure improves when you optimize sleep. Your performance sees the biggest boon, including being able to add extra workouts to your routine. Sleep is that powerful!
A study published in Sleep is a great example of this. Researchers took a group of collegiate basketball players and had them increase their sleep duration to a minimum of 10 hours per night over the course of five to seven weeks to encourage more high-quality, efficient sleep. The results were pretty remarkable. After extending their sleep, the basketball players had faster sprint times, better shooting accuracy and even reported improved physical and mental well-being during practices and games.
Now, I’m not saying you need to spend 10 hours in bed every night to perform better on the Peloton Bike, Peloton Tread or mat. However, if you’re aiming for a PR, major milestone or simply want to feel better when you work out, a solid bedtime routine can help. Occasionally, I work with professional sports teams, and I can tell you that the best athlete on every team is often the best sleeper. That’s no coincidence. If you want to level up your performance, optimizing your sleep is one of the smartest things you can do.
Here are three tactics to help you step up your sleep game.
1. Get Early-Morning Sun Exposure
Your body has an internal clock, known as your circadian rhythm. It helps you naturally figure out when it’s time to wake up and when it’s time to sleep by releasing certain hormones. One of those hormones you may have heard of is called melatonin, which helps regulate your sleep cycle.
It turns out that the sun is one of the factors that helps set your circadian rhythm. So if you can get exposure to sunlight before 10:30 or 11 a.m., it can help your body do a better job of releasing the right amount of melatonin at the right hours. That means when it’s time for bed, you’re more likely to have an easier time falling asleep. So taking a short walk or doing your conference call outside this morning can be an investment in your sleep efficiency tonight.
2. Optimize Your Sleep Environment
You’d be surprised how much the room you sleep in can impact your sleep quality. Sometimes, making just a few adjustments to your bedroom can encourage better sleep efficiency.
It can be helpful to do a little “audit” of your sleep environment. Is there anything you can do to make it feel more restful? For instance, many people find that keeping their room tidy can help them feel more relaxed when it’s time to get to bed, leading to decreased sleep latency.
Some other best practices for a healthy sleep environment include:
Ensure your room is completely dark.
Reduce any extra noise in your sleep environment.
Keep the temperature cooler rather than warmer.
3. Set An Alarm For Bedtime
Part of sleep health and making your sleep more efficient is being consistent not only with duration, but also timing. Much like you set a morning alarm to wake up, I advise you to set an alert to remind you to start winding down for the night. Create your sleep schedule on your phone, smartwatch or virtual assistant and aim to receive your alert about 30 minutes to an hour before bed. Think of it as a friendly nudge to start wrapping things up and calling it a day. Awareness is critical in achieving your sleep goals and building in these little reminders really helps.
Vernon Williams, MD is a board-certified clinical neurologist specializing in sports neurology and pain medicine; he is also a paid consultant member of the Peloton Health & Wellness Advisory Council. Dr. Williams is the founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, CA. He passionately advocates for optimization of neurological health across the lifespan for his patients and peak performance clients. Follow him on Twitter.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.
Vernon Williams, MD