Tag Archives: sleep

Listening to your body: Not just about how you feel

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The catchphrase “listen to your body” is a general reminder to pay attention to the signals your body is giving you regarding your health, energy levels, mood, pain, etc. Paying attention to this information will show you when to rest, when to push hard in workouts, etc.

But we tend to only pay attention to energy, pain signals, and our general mood. Other things we measure and observe are also information our body is giving us.

Presuming you don’t have one: Some of this info can and should be tracked using a fitness watch such as a Fitbit or a Garmin. A suitable watch tracks calories burned and sleep on an ongoing basis. They’re not cheap (typically $100-400) but they are definitely worth their cost if you’re serious about fitness and personal development.

The information this watch can give you when worn everyday provides you with not just a wealth of stats, but those stats can communicate signals that your body hasn’t otherwise been able to get through to you.

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Eat A Big Dinner Before Bed

This won’t be long or in depth. I just understand that many people struggle with sleep, despite knowing much of the general advice every other person and website gives. I want to offer a key actionable tip that works for me and MIGHT help you.

Eat a big meal a couple hours before bed. I don’t subscribe to the “breakfast like a king, dinner like a pauper” mindset, in some part because I usually intermittent fast, skip breakfast, and when I do eat lunch it’s lighter largely out of necessity: I’m usually working, and a big lunch will only tank my energy level, which I obviously don’t need.

So lunch should be light. Dinner has to be big.

The big reason you want to eat a big dinner before bed is that hunger can keep you awake. If you eat a light dinner, then you will probably be hungry when you go to bed. Hunger will rev up your hormones and keep you awake when you want to not be awake.

And no, a snack before bed is not the answer. You typically shouldn’t be snacking either way.

A subsequent and useful reason for a big dinner is that digestion can cause fatigue. Blood flows to your digestive tract, taking away resources and emphasis on the rest of your body. This causes the general fatigue you often feel after a big meal, and certainly on workdays after lunch.

Yes, your food choice also matters, and certain foods can make you more sluggish than others. I notice if I eat a light lunch with, say, tuna and produce, I feel mostly good afterward. If I eat a lunch with something processed/fried or a lot of carbs, my energy level tanks and I physically feel heavy. That’s not totally because I ate a large lunch, so much as because the quality of the food required my body to inflame plus required more energy to digest.

However, if you eat a bulkier meal before bed, then that sluggish effect is exactly what you want. You want to go to sleep. Feeling tired and sluggish is going to get you there.

If you’re worried about indigestion, then you probably need to clean up your diet some. I’ve had foods that cause acid reflux. I also never eat those foods for dinner. The whole food protein, vegetables, clean carbs that I do eat are much better for digestion. If you’re having heartburn or reflux problems when you eat a big dinner before bed, it’s probably the quality of your food rather than the fact that you ate before bed.

It honestly helps if you practice some sort of intermittent fasting or limited intake during the day. But I recognize if you have your reasons not to do so. Just recognize that you need to burn at least as many calories as you take in, lest you gain weight.

Yet you don’t want to get to dinner having to calorie-count that meal and heavily limit your intake. At least get to dinner with enough calories left to consume that you can comfortably have a big dinner.

This points to your smart move being to eat light or not at all during the work/school day. If you don’t skip breakfast, have a light, protein rich breakfast. Definitely have a light, protein rich lunch. Don’t eat anything out of a package unless that anything is as close to its original form as possible (like a bag of nuts, not like a bag of potato chips… like a can of tuna, not like a TV dinner).

Drink coffee or tea. Learn to love it without cream and sugar. Drink water. But now I’m digressing into a separate subject.

Anyway, never minding things like dimming lights and screens, sleep hygiene, etc… the most important element to sleep that’s never addressed is how satisfied your appetite is when you go to bed. Err on the side of making sure you don’t go to bed hungry, even if it means going somewhat hungry during the day to allow for a larger dinner.

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Valuable Training Recovery Habits

woman in gray crew neck shirt running on brown soil during daytime

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I don’t get a lot of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) during training. Incidentally, I had some a couple days ago after an interval workout, though I also hadn’t been training that much and I’m ramping back up to a normal training volume.

I’ve been able to train 7-10 hours per week over the years despite a full time job in Chicago and other commitments. A lot of that is creatively integrating training into my commute by running to train stations or all the way home from work, sure.

But those daily 4-7 mile runs, especially with some true speedwork sessions during the week and long runs during the weekend, not to mention all the work and walking and errands I did when I wasn’t running… could have burned me out quickly had I not developed effective recovery habits to follow between work and all those runs.

Even if you aren’t running 6 miles in your work clothes right after getting off work, many of the habits that have helped me can help you as well. In fact, the busier you are and the more you train, the more important it becomes that you adopt as many of these habits as you can:

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Losing Fat Without Losing Sleep

An irony of New Year’s Resolutions driving people to diet and hit the gym in January is that winter is probably not the best time to try and burn fat in colder climates.

You have a more difficult time sleeping when hungry, especially if it’s cool or cold. Your body will kick into a sort of overdrive to burn body fat, which revs your circulation up enough to keep you in a state too awake to get to sleep. In fact, if you have issues getting to sleep, you may want to make sure you’re better fed shortly before bed.

But most of you want to lose weight and this is the time to do it because blah blah bathing suit season etc. You don’t want to punt the golden opportunity, and you certainly don’t want to gain weight during the winter when you want or need to lose fat in the long run. Fair enough.

There’s actually a middle ground, and it works especially well if you prefer to train later in the day. The key is intermittent fasting, i.e. not eating for most of the day, then eating all of your food in a limited time window like 6-8 hours.

Now, a myth with intermittent fasting is that it causes you to lose weight in itself. That isn’t necessarily true. You could still overeat for the day in the 6-8 hours you can eat. It’s very easy to pound a frozen pizza, and then a hamburger or something 4-6 hours later, let alone snack on anything in-between, and end up over the line. Even with 16-18 hours of not eating, you could still end up storing extra fat overall.

Given that, it’s still entirely possible to diet effectively and lose weight, while still going to bed each night feeling satiated after a ridiculously sized meal.

The key is to flip the conventional “breakfast like a king, dinner like a pauper” wisdom on its head. This is actually for most a counter-productive way of eating that has been sustained largely out of forced cultural habit. It makes sense to many people (even alleged experts) because that’s always how they’ve eaten.

Basically, even if your last meal of the day isn’t your largest, you want your last meal to be a large meal, one where by the time you go to bed you’re not in any way hungry. You may even want to top it off with a hearty snack right before bed.

Also, as this infers, you probably don’t want to start your limited feeding window at dawn and then eat your last meal around noon or 1pm, going to bed several hours after that meal. You will almost certainly be hungry at bedtime.

You will want to follow a more conventional intermittent fasting window, where you skip breakfast, eat your first meal at lunch, and then eat regularly until before bed. This allows you to fill your stomach close to full before bed and avoid insomnia-producing hunger.

Now, that doesn’t mean your first meal of the day should be the smallest. You can break your intermittent fast at lunch with a large meal as well. Just make sure any meal or snack you eat between lunch and dinner is not too large.

You probably do want to make sure you eat something a few hours after lunch to avoid any hormonal crashes or temptation to binge-eat any garbage at dinner… unless you have a specific reason you’d want to do so (like a special family dinner). Just make sure it’s around the 400-600 calorie range, bigger than a little snack but not quite a full meal.

Just because you can still gain weight intermittent fasting doesn’t mean your body isn’t burning fat during the fasting period. Moderating your diet just makes sure you aren’t piling on more fat than you burn. The fasting period does its job burning fat without food in your stomach. This process revs up your circulation, which you want during the day when you’re awake but mostly sedentary.

By back loading your food intake later in the day, your body can utilize this nutrition for post-workout and overnight recovery, and allow you to relax and sleep.

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Why could I not get to sleep last night?

Not a super evergreen topic this evening, but last night I had a lot of trouble getting to sleep. I had that wired feeling where you almost can feel your muscles churning in place.

I did eventually get to sleep sometime after midnight following some water and an old stand-by: My ice pack. I wasn’t hurting or anything, but being a bit warm I felt that adding in some quite-cold stimulus would normalize me a bit quicker. It did, and I was out soon after introducing it.

I didn’t have more than a cup of coffee in the morning or any other sort of stimulant. I had eaten well, so I don’t think I was hungry. And I wasn’t drowning myself in blue light like others do.

But I can see in hindsight a few other factors that led to a restless night.

Yesterday was an active one:

  • I walked several miles on an errand excursion to Bucktown and back home through Lincoln Park.
  • Later towards sunset I went on a planned 45 minute circuit run that ended with a hard 8K-effort finish. It felt great at the time, but revving the motor that hard around 6:30pm might have left me too wired to drift off comfortably at 10-11 pm.

So basically it wasn’t exactly taper madness. In fact, I probably was a lot more active than I ought to have been, after having run over 12 miles the day before. Physically I felt okay, a tad sore but definitely up for all that effort. Even today (now well into more of a taper-like workload, after a day of sitting at a desk) I don’t feel too bad.

Soon after dinner I will probably sleep more soundly, but sometimes despite your best efforts you can’t quite get to sleep.

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Feeling tired? It’s probably one of these things

I can’t tell you how many years in Seattle I battled lethargy despite a busy schedule full of theatre commitments I was very into. I definitely became one of those guys who pounded coffee and energy drinks in the afternoon or evening, to try and keep the motor going for that night’s action.

Needless to say, I’ve since figured out how terri-bad that approach was for my health. I still indulge in the occasional afternoon cup of coffee (decaf if it’s around), or a caffeine-free vitamin/energy drink like FitAid (which they sell at Whole Foods in Chicago).

But generally the only stimulant you’ll see me take anymore is a morning cup of coffee.


Of course, the problem of lacking energy goes well beyond what stimulation you’re giving yourself. Pretty much everyone struggles with low energy and feeling tired, and I’m still to this day no exception.

The difference between the 2011 Me, who would pound a 5 Hour Energy before a show performance to keep from falling over, and the 2018 Me… is that 2018 Me knows the reason for feeling tired comes down to one of these four things:

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Recovery, sleep, diet: It’s all connected

One of the biggest problems I’ve had over time with recovery from hard/long runs and races hasn’t been soreness or lingeirng fatigue. It’s been sleep before and after the run.

Before the run, anxiety can mess with your state of mind and lead to keeping you awake, which obviously impacts the run itself and everything beyond. After the run, you can be so revved up long after you’ve relaxed that it can keep you awake.

This is obviously a huge recovery problem, because sleep is just as if not more important than your nutrition and rest patterns. If you get poor sleep, it messes with just about everything else you do from that night until you get caught up… if you do.

Obviously, a hard or long run revs your heart rate up and taxes your body to a point where following the run it may not totally come down before going to bed that night, even if you lay out all day. What probably happened in a lot of those cases was that I went to bed with a heart rate and state still close to activity-level. Even if I got to sleep, I usually didn’t stay asleep for suitably long.

My game plan yesterday went beyond my route and in-run fueling. I also had food ready with big meals planned for the afternoon and evening. I wasn’t going to make the mistake of going to bed hungry, especially after a 20 mile run.

For lunch I ate about a pound of baked chicken, with four cut+baked potatoes in olive oil, a pretty large meal. I probably drank about a gallon of water between the end of the run and the end of the night. Even after indulging in too many veggie chips around sunset, I made sure to bake and eat three chicken thighs with some more potatoes that evening. I hit the hay around 10:30 and slept pretty well this past night.

This will be important after the Chicago Marathon for one key reason: I have to go back to work the next morning. I can’t afford to be so revved up after a marathon that I sleep 3 hours, and then work all the next day at a gig I can’t take a sick day from.

If I can set a routine to house a big post-race meal, then house two other big meals during the day, with the last meal being an hour or two before bed, plus make sure not to go and do anything else… I think I can calm the motor enough to get to sleep and stay there until morning.

We forget that our bodies are ecosystems, and the different elements of recovery (rest, nutrition and sleep) are all connected.

  • Rest periods can’t do their work if you don’t get suitable nutrition and enough sleep.
  • Nutrition can only do its work if you get needed sleep, and you give your body the inactivity to allow rebuilding.
  • Sleep can’t happen if you’re not effectively fed, and you cannot slow the motor enough to allow yourself to get there.

So in the past I’d struggle with sleep and focus on why I can’t sleep, instead of doing the right thing and looking at how my eating patterns and other habits contribute to my ability to get to sleep and stay asleep that night.

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