One of the keys to overcoming challenges I’ve faced — rowing across the Atlantic, raising two young children, overcoming an addiction to Dragon’s Den — has been some well-planned shut-eye.
As an Olympic rower, I knew that quality sleep would help me make the team, and help me make the team go faster. Now a working stiff, great sleep boosts my productivity at the office while also helping me reach for my goal of being the best dad on Vancouver Island.
The Canadian Men’s Health Foundation equates proper sleep with healthy eating and exercise, as it helps repair and restore our brains as well as our bodies.
Sleep became a big experiment for me when I was part of a four-man team that attempted the first-ever unsupported rowboat crossing from Africa to North America. Because two of us always had to keep watch and row, we slept in four-hour, two-hour and one-hour blocks around the clock. Over our 73 days at sea, we would only grab more than eight hours of sleep when it was too stormy to row. These were not ideal sleep conditions: Stretched out on the deck of a 29-foot rowboat, I was jolted awake by a face-full of saltwater every hour or two.
Believe me: The drowning nightmares were terrible.
We planned our sleep routine with the help of Dr. Charles Samuels at the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, who works with elite athletes, shift workers and emergency personnel. Dr. Samuels told us that it’s not as important to have seven to nine hours of sleep a night as it is to have 50 to 60 hours a week. Sleep, he said, can be broken up into batches. That’s what got us through the ocean row, and by Day 14 we had adjusted to our revamped sleep schedule. By Day 30, we were all thriving.
These days, I work as a corporate trainer, storyteller, and national champion for the Canadian Men’s Health Foundation. I’m woken daily not by a coach or teammate, but by a mucus-encrusted toddler.
4 good reasons to get to bed early
My sleep habits, however, are as practical as ever. I go to bed at 8 p.m. and wake between 4 and 5 a.m. This may sound extreme — my family and friends tell me it is — but consider the upside:
- It helps me get the kids to bed. “We want to stay up with you!” they say. “I’m going to bed,” I reply. The debate is over.
- I get my alone time in the early morning, which is healthier than late-night alone time. Who gets up early to drink a six-pack, eat a bag of potato chips and binge-watch Dragon’s Den?
- Early wake-ups boost my self-esteem. I feel groggy and sluggish when I get up, but then I realize I’m beating almost everyone. The streets are dead when I bike to the office. When it’s a late morning — 6 a.m., say — and I see a dozen people on my commute, my feeling of specialness diminishes.
- I travel from west to east quite often on business, and this schedule helps stave off jet lag. Phone calls to Europe, Asia and Newfoundland are also much easier to schedule.
Find an ideal wake-up time: To determine my ideal wake-up time, I use a tool called an actigraph, which measures body movements. While researching our adaptation to weird sleep cycles amid house-sized waves, my ocean rowing team was introduced to actigraphy by Fatigue Science, a Vancouver-based company that monitors the sleep habits of pro sports teams and industry executives to increase performance.
Fatigue Science is designed for coaches, managers and HR staff who monitor others to make sleep their secret weapon. I love using the “Sleep Cycle” app. I place my phone in my bed (in airplane mode), and it monitors my sleep quality, tracks my sleep hygiene using a questionnaire, and wakes me up just before I would naturally.
I’m not saying everyone should wake hours before the dawn, but using actigraphy and sleep monitoring has made my mornings much more effective and enjoyable. My point: Monitoring your sleep will help you get the rest you need by identifying habits that work for you.
Establish healthy sleep habits
Setting a consistent routine will help you improve your sleep and overall health. These tips will help you do that.
- Simplify late-night consumption. What you consume within four hours of bedtime can negatively impact sleep quality. Alcohol, coffee, tea, nicotine, even spicy food — all can disrupt sleep patterns. Even water can lead to a restless night if you have to get up to use the john every two hours.
- Start evening exercise, earlier. Exercise makes you physically tired, which encourages sleep, but working out right before bedtime has the opposite effect because it boosts adrenaline levels.
- Be consistent. If you go to bed at about the same time every night, you’ll enjoy a better night’s sleep.
Follow these tips, track your sleep habits, and you too can use sleep as your secret weapon.
Now, how do I get the CBC to move Dragon’s Den to 7 p.m.?