When it comes to reaching optimal performance, one of the biggest factors contributing to success is feeling physically and mentally well-rested. When your system is stressed by intense training, the only way to fully recover is with adequate sleep.
Your whole system’s recovery process takes place with the help of growth hormones released only when you nod off – when you are not getting enough sleep, your body suffers. The majority of your muscle and joint repair takes place while you snooze, which is one of the reasons naps are a great recovery tool for professional athletes who place a tremendous amount of stress on their bodies.
Quality rest is also vital for mental well being. During sleep, your brain is actually very active, and while experts have not reached a formal conclusion as to why brain activity is heightened during sleep, many believe the activity serves the purpose of forming new neurological pathways and connections. These new pathways aid concentration, reaction time, and the ability to learn or retain new things. In fact, studies have shown that sleep deprivation has as strong of an impact on decision making and reaction time as intoxication! You would never expect to play your best tennis drunk would you? Then you cannot possibly achieve optimal performance without adequate rest. 
Science indicates that athletes who get more rest have a marked increase in performance. In a study of basketball players performed by Stanford’s Cheri D. Mah, when athletes increased their average sleep time from 6.5 hours to 8.5 hours they experienced an improvement of 11.4% in free-throw shooting and 13.7% in three point shooting. The study also noted that every single team member actually increased their speed, notching a 0.7 second improvement on a 282 foot sprint drill overall. The startling physical improvements from this study demonstrate just how valuable sleep can be to athletes seeking a competitive advantage.
Unfortunately, the fast-paced jet setting lifestyle of the tennis tour is anything but conducive to a normal sleep-cycle. Over the years Kevin and I have become more and more diligent about getting enough sleep and making sure it is of the highest quality. Below I have identified seven ways we deal with jetlag and insomnia:
Your body is hard-wired to recognize exposure to light and then send messages to your brain about what time of day it is. In the evening when light levels are lower, your brain uses these cues to trigger physiological responses that prepare you for sleep: you will experience an uptick in melatonin production and your body temperature will drop, both of which will hasten drowsiness and sleep. On the flip side, morning light triggers reductions in melatonin, an increase in body temperature and release of the hormone cortisol which all serve the purpose of increasing alertness and energy.
Everyone has their own preference to lighting while they sleep, but it is hard to argue with the science behind limiting exposure to light in the evening or early morning. Kevin and I favor the use of blackout curtains at night, and we also try to eliminate any artificial light sources such as alarm clocks, televisions or electronics while we sleep. Another rule (sometimes hard to follow) is switching off our electronics before bed. Light from phones and computers is known to increase the time it takes to doze off, as well as compromise overall sleep quality. 
The body responds well to cooler temperatures in the evening and research actually suggests that a temperature of 65°F or 18.3°C results in the best sleep quality. It is important to make sure to check the thermostat before you go to bed, because restlessness or waking up early is often the result of poorly regulated body temperature. 
It is no secret that relaxation and a quiet environment aids restful slumber. When it is time for bed, make sure there are no
outside noises that might disrupt your sleep; if there are, I suggest making use of earplugs or a noise conditioner. Typically, I turn
the thermostat fan on in hotel rooms to drown out any outside noises that might cause disturbances during the night.
To relax, meditation is a fantastic tool that helps you fall asleep faster. You can achieve this through metered breathing, otherwise known as the 4-7-8 technique. You inhale through your nose for four counts, hold for 7 counts and exhale for 8 counts, repeating as many times as necessary. I find it helps to quiet my mind if I also focus on a color while breathing. I have used meditation at night for years, after being taught to do so by my music teacher in grade school, and it really works!
Personal comfort is critical when it comes to sleep quality, and there is nothing wrong with prioritizing this while you travel. Making sure your accommodations meet your needs with respect to bed size, mattress or pillow firmness, and linen quality is important. In fact, Kevin and I are known to avoid hotels with beds too small for his 6’8” frame, even if it means not staying at the designated tournament hotel. These criteria become even more important if you have allergy restrictions like myself. When you have specific needs like Kevin and I do, it is best to call ahead to make sure you will be comfortable during your stay.
It can help to do a self-check in the morning when you wake up. If you feel achy or stiff, try to figure out if the mattress or pillow firmness is the culprit. Most hotels have different options to try. Although you might feel like a diva at first, when you recognize that comfort is such an essential component of sleep quality, it is critical to get it right.
Almost across the board, experts caution against reliance on drugs to keep you perked up or help you sleep. While a useful aid to get you through a jet-lagged day, caffeine actually takes about five to six hours to wear off (even longer for some women), so any consumption after 4pm will likely compromise your ability to sleep. Alcohol will definitely cause drowsiness, but it also has the effect of dehydrating the body and lowering sleep quality. For this reason, it is better to drink only in moderation or not at all.
Sleeping pills, while effective, have some major medical drawbacks so I would caution any athlete to tread carefully. For one, most sleeping aids can become habit forming, so responsible use is crucial. Secondly, sleep medications will actually make you breathe more slowly and less deeply; since optimal athletic recovery relies heavily on muscle oxygenation, this is a major drawback. Finally, almost all sleeping pills will slow reaction times and alertness, so any residual effects of the drug could potentially compromise performance or training efforts the following day.
While Kevin and I typically try to avoid any of these drugs while adjusting to time zones, there are many natural remedies and foods you can eat to help you stay awake or get to sleep. Some of my favorite energy boosting foods are nuts, spinach, eggs, edamame, or fresh fruit high in vitamin C. Foods that help make you tired are anything with melatonin such as cherries, tryptophan rich lean proteins like turkey or fish, and foods with potassium and magnesium, like bananas. Carbohydrate packed meals will also cause you to feel tired after you come down from the initial jump in blood glucose. 
Getting back in action as fast as possible after a disrupted sleep routine takes a conscious effort, but there are definitely some things you can do to help synchronize your internal clock more efficiently. When you are traveling, I found it helps to prepare for the jetlag before it even happens. I try to sleep as much as possible during overnight flights (eye masks and ear plugs help). I also use the app Jetlag Rooster to make suggestions as to when I should sleep and when I should try to be awake.
It is valuable to listen to your body when you are getting adjusted to a time change. Kevin and I like to go to sleep without an alarm the first few days in order to sleep until our bodies naturally wake up. If you are sleep deprived, your body will typically self-regulate by allowing you to sleep more or less until you are back on track.
Naps are definitely an important tool to use when you are exhausted from travel or physical exertion. Some athletes note an improvement in performance when they incorporate naps into their daily routines. The key to napping for maximum benefit is to try to sleep in time-increments that correspond to full sleep cycles. Since one full cycle takes an hour and a half, the best naps will be either 1.5, 3, or 4.5 hours long. However, I must caution you against napping so long that your body doesn’t feel tired at the natural bedtime of your new location. I find that going to bed at a normal time your first few nights, around 10pm-midnight, is the single best trick for getting adjusted quickly to a new time zone.
It can also definitely help to engage in gentle exercise upon arrival at a new destination. Studies have shown that people who exercise have better and longer sleep than those who don’t. However, it is important not to max yourself out when you first get off the plane; we learned this the hard way. One time Kevin’s back seized up after an intense on-court session immediately following a flight. Now, we know how important it is to ease into things; first with a gentle stretch and muscle activation, followed by a medium level cardio exertion. I tend to avoid weight training immediately after a long flight for at least a day or two.
The best thing to do to improve your sleep is to educate yourself on what improves sleep quality, and try to find what works best for you. There is obviously a wealth of information on the internet, but I recommend checking out the resources at sleep.org as a starting point.
There are also a number of devices and apps designed to help monitor and improve your sleep. I personally like Fitbit for sleep monitoring and the previously mentioned Jetlag Rooster app for adjusting to new time zones. With all the tools and resources at your disposal, you will be sleeping your way to a better performance in no time!
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