Sleep is an incredibly influential factor in optimizing my performance in just about every aspect, including focus, strength, and endurance. The more I use my body, the more tired I get physically. So, when I’m training, a big part of my restoration as an athlete and my ability to recover and perform the next day is getting eight to nine hours of sleep a night. When I sleep well, I’m in a better mood, I can think more clearly, and my physical performance benefits.
Understanding and learning how to optimize my sleep has been a really neat part of my journey to improve as an athlete, so when Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist and sleep medicine expert, asked to accompany me on an overnight climbing trip for an episode of the new Sleep.com series Sleeping Around With Dr. Chris Winter, I was excited to have an expert to talk to in real time.
In the fall, I led Dr. Winter up an ascent in Colorado’s Estes Park, where we stayed the night in a set of portaledges, or collapsible cots that climbers use to sleep mid-climb on long ascents. A portaledge hangs hundreds, or thousands, of feet above the ground.
Sleep anxiety before a big day
Before we got started, I told Dr. Winter that I had slept for about seven hours the night before, but that it wasn’t deep sleep because I was excited about our climb. I shared with him that I often lie awake in bed the night before a big climb — the night before a big competition or performance can be stressful. You know you need to sleep well, but your mind is racing in a million different directions.
He confirmed that feeling excited or anxious when you go to bed can diminish sleep quality, and that the secret to calming sleep anxiety is managing the fear that you won’t get enough rest. “You will sleep; it’s impossible not to,” he told me. “And there is tremendous value in just resting, which is always under your control.” According to Dr. Winter, shutting my eyes for 20 minutes, even if I don’t fall asleep, can be beneficial.
This was an "aha" moment for me. In climbing, fear comes from not understanding the gear. The more I learned about the equipment, the more I trusted it. Similarly, the more I learned about the science of sleep, the less concerned I was about not getting enough. With the right tactics and mindset, sleep will come, and as Dr. Winter and I discussed, there are even benefits to banking sleep before a performance day.
Removing the emphasis on sleep the night before, and instead thinking about sleep health over time, has enabled me to focus on a routine for getting good sleep.
Changes I’ve made to my sleep routine since climbing with Dr. Chris Winter
Spending time with Dr. Winter provided a really valuable experience in terms of changing the way I think about sleep. We discussed ways to wind down such as eliminating the use of screens before bed. While no screens before bed is perhaps an obvious step, it's also incredibly hard to implement. Like anything, it is a habit that is learned through practice and routine.
My routine since climbing with Dr. Chris Winter looks like this:
I have dinner around 7 p.m. This allows me to have a big day outside, but also gives me enough hours to digest before going to sleep.
After eating dinner, I typically begin to wind down. Something that relaxes me is taking baths with Epsom salts and baking soda. I’ll also stretch and do some breathing exercises.
I’m in bed around 11 p.m. I’m a night owl, so getting into bed much earlier than that actually doesn’t feel natural for me. That’s something that I learned from Dr. Winter as well — that we each have our own circadian rhythms, or natural cycles of being asleep and awake, and that getting up earlier or later than someone else isn’t going to make me more or less productive than another person. I like to work later and sleep later. My natural sleep cadence is going to bed around 11 p.m. or midnight and waking up around 8 a.m.
When I’m at home, I take my sleeping conditions very seriously. I have a mattress that I really like, and pillows that support me in ways that enable optimal levels of relaxation. I have a sound machine that I keep on low, and I like to sleep tucked into my sheets in a cold, dark room.
But a night of sleep at home is not all that common for me. I travel a lot for my job, and when I’m on the road, I’m in hotels, Airbnbs, and yes, even sleeping on the side of a cliff. So, being comfortable with abnormal sleeping conditions is something that I’ve had to get used to.
For this reason, I’ve developed habits and must-haves that help me sleep. I like to travel with an eye mask and ear plugs in case a place is bright or loud. I also travel with a pillow that I’m used to if I can.
I’m currently launching a company, called Send Bars, and writing a book, so coupling that with my training has contributed to a lot of stress and thoughts swirling around in my mind. Having rituals helps calm my mind before bed, especially when I travel. I often bring a calming scent wherever I go.
This summer, I’ll be on a six-week expedition, attempting a groundbreaking big-wall climb with an all-female climbing team. I will be sleeping in alpine tents and on portaledges the whole time, so I’ll need to prepare to be comfortable sleeping uncomfortably.
I’ll bring my familiar sleep belongings to help me wind down before I try to go to bed. I’ll pack a portable pillow that works for me and find and download an app that can serve as a small sound machine. I’ll also have my blue-light-blocking glasses for reading at night, and my eye mask.
Sleeping conditions may not be perfect, but I’ll try not to stress about it.
I’ll breathe, and let my body relax. As Dr. Winter said, that counts as something, too, even if you’re struggling to fall asleep.
If that doesn’t work, I can always count the stars.