Shape Your Morning & Evening Routines Like a Paralympic Athlete

10 min read

Last Modified 13 July 2021 First Added 9 July 2021

By Liam Porter

Dreams are proud to be exploring this topic as the Official Sleep Partner of the British Paralympic Association/ParalympicsGB. Learn more about this partnership in our ParalympicsGB hub.

Athletes are some of the most disciplined people on the planet, with strict routines to help them meet their goals. When prepping for a competition, there’s no time to waste feeling tired – so morning and evening routines become of paramount importance. We spoke to Paralympic athletes and performance staff to hear all about their routines, both competing for ParalympicsGB and at home.

Perhaps surprisingly, athletes are free to set their morning and evening routines depending on what suits them best. Dr Tom Paulson, ParalympicsGB’s Head of Performance, explains it to us:

Routines are incredibly individual. There’s no prescribed right or wrong time to go to bed or wake up. In terms of physiology, some people prefer to sleep longer at night, whereas others don’t need as much sleep.

So, as part of an athlete’s training plan, there wouldn’t be a specific time to rest. We do have access to science and data which recommends 8 hours of sleep for your body to recover, but it would be up to the athletes to do that. We know swimmers like to get up early and train early morning so that they can rest during the day, but other sports might not do that.

Morning routines

When in training, athletes have a tough schedule which means they can be up early, out, and busy all day. A good morning routine is key to starting the day on a positive note. Consistency is often key – such as doing the same types of training at the same times of day and eating meals at regular times. This all plays a role in their biorhythms and impacts everything from how energized they feel through to when they start to feel tired.

And this isn’t just true for athletes but us regular folk too.

Dr Kelvin Morgan, when talking about routines with Dr. Pixie Mckenna, explores this in more detail.

We’re kind of making the assumption that the only routine that matters in relation to sleep are routines around sleep as if having a routine during the rest of the day really makes no difference. Of course, it makes an immense difference.

Your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour rhythm. So if you want to look after your routine this really makes you boring but it looks after your sleep. It means that your exercise routines are going to be routine, they’re going to be rhythmical. It means that your meal times are going to be rhythmical.

If you eat haphazardly; say sometimes I eat a large meal at 18:00, sometimes at 21:00. This is going to play havoc with sleep routines because it’s simply going to confuse your body – it’s not going to know where it is in its phases.

Speaking with Ali Jawad, Paralympic powerlifter, it becomes apparent that he sees the importance of daily routines and their relation to both sleep and performance. He’s had the same morning routine for most of his career and tries to keep it, whether he’s at the Games or at home.

I’m so busy throughout the day that I need to use my morning productively. I wake up at 6, have breakfast and read a bit of a journal for my PHD. My breakfast changes depending on what kind of training day it is. If it’s a high-intensity day, usually a Friday, I’ll have something like porridge or eggs with fruit. Like my training, my diet has to be quite regimented due to my Crohn’s disease.

For Ali, if he doesn’t sleep well, it impacts his morning routine, as well as his training:

A poor night’s sleep does affect me, especially before a competition. I feel tired, I’m less alert, I lack energy and also intensity, it takes me a while to wake up. And also, because my sport requires me to lift heavy stuff, if I haven’t slept well, I feel quite weak, so I think sleep is so important for the training side of it.

Winding down & evening routines

Equally important, how we approach our evening routines plays a crucial role in the quality of sleep we get and our energy levels the following day. For Ali, as his day is so non-stop, he doesn’t get a chance to wind down until around 9.30pm. He says:

When you’re trying to qualify for a Paralympic Games, do a PHD and develop an app, you don’t switch off until about 9.30pm! instead, I take breaks throughout the day when I eat. Between 9pm-10pm, I try to wind down by staying off my phone.

Ideally, before bed, I like to read for an hour. Because my day is so action-packed, that hour is my time to learn something, so I don’t watch TV or go on my phone. I also find that reading helps you to get off to sleep as it’s not as stimulating as the TV.

Then, I go to sleep at around 10pm to make sure I get at least 8 hours, or 9 on the weekend, to fully recover from the day’s training. I’m lucky that when it gets to that time, my body knows I’m tired – I don’t have much energy, so I’ll be able to fall asleep pretty quickly. But that has taken years of strict scheduling to get my body used to that!

And it’s not only Ali who sees the benefit of a good book as part of his evening routine. Paralympic cyclists Lora and Neil Fachie swear by an audiobook in the evening to send them off to sleep. Lora says:

Through the Rio Games, I listened to David Attenborough’s memoir, because his voice is amazing to send you to sleep. Other books I like are anything read by Stephen Fry, who also has a very melodic voice.

Lora also recommends a range of podcasts called Send Me to Sleep, featuring short stories.

For Neil, he recommends listening to a story that you know well:

Recently, I’ve been winding down by listening to the audiobook versions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I know the story so well, so it doesn’t matter if I fall asleep and miss a bit!

We also spoke with Dr Tom Paulson, who identified how a big part of his role in supporting Paralympic athletes is making sure that they get enough sleep. For him, evening routines are all about consistency. He says that for athletes, a good evening routine to get ready for bed is key. Whether that involves having a meal at a set time, having a bath, reading, or watching TV – it should be a very deliberate period of getting ready for bed and going to bed. It sounds very basic, but for an athlete that is struggling to sleep well, it’s the first thing to recommend. And that consistency doesn’t just mean weekdays, it means weekends too.

Para-sport specialist Michael Hutchinson adds that sleep hygiene is essential:

We want to make sure the athlete is creating good habits around sleep hygiene. If those good habits aren’t proving sufficient, then we would look at getting specialist intervention.

When it comes to sleeping at a competition, often the trouble that athletes have is around spending more time in their hotel room. Dr Paulson says:

We recommend trying to get out of your room before bed, so that when you come back into your room, and the environment is dark, and you’re getting yourself ready for bed, you’re preparing your body to sleep. That’s better than spending time in there watching TV and doing other things which don’t really help you get ready to sleep.

What about evening routines for less athletic folk?

Again, evening routines aren’t just important for athletes and those looking to boost their physical performance. They’re important for everyone. From mental agility and memory to happiness and mood control, evening routines can impact large parts of our life. The team over at Amerisleep decided to look into this in a little more detail and asked a number of sleep experts to run through their own bedtime routines. Aside from regularity, some of the key elements that appeared were nutrition and supplements, light levels, temperature, muscle relaxation and meditation.

On nutrition, Dr Robert S Rosenberg stated:

About one hour before bedtime, I like to have a small smoothie. I make sure it has tart cherry juice, which in a recent study done at Louisiana University, has been shown to increase sleep, because of its melatonin content as well as phytonutrients that inhibit the breakdown of tryptophan. I also include a banana that contains tryptophan, magnesium, potassium and vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine). Tryptophan is converted to serotonin and melatonin. Magnesium and potassium relax muscle and nerve cells and B6 is necessary for the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin. I add some almond milk for more tryptophan and magnesium. Lastly, some flaxseed for omega-3s that tend to be calming.

When discussing temperature, Dr Richard Shane PhD, a sleep specialist and founder of SleepEasily explores the temperature he finds ideal to help fall asleep, noting that when we sleep, our body temperature drops. Having a cooler room temperature helps the body cool a bit, which helps with sleep. So I have the house thermostat set to 55 degrees [fahrenheit] starting at 10:30 pm. In reality, the temperature usually only goes down to 65.

The common thread between all the activities included in these sleep expert routines was how everything is centred around relaxation. Whether through stretching, breathing exercises, reading or diet, your night-time habits need to allow your body to settle in a slower and more relaxed state.

Tips for setting your morning & evening routines:

  • Regularity is key – try to set both a morning and evening routine and stick to it.
  • If you’re introducing new things to your routine, like exercising or meal planning, start small. Introduce one thing at a time and make it a habit before moving onto the next.
  • Yoga and stretching are great for helping you relax. They’re calming for the mind so perfect for incorporating into an evening routine.
  • Like Ali, Lora and Neil, consider a book or podcast as part of your bedtime routine. This will help your mind start to relax and wind down for bed – especially if it’s a familiar story or tale.
  • Light and temperature are crucial. Dark and cool is usually your best bet so consider leaving your windows open in the run-up to bedtime. You’ll also want to make sure no outside lights are getting into your bedroom, as well as avoiding harsh lights for the few hours before bed.
  • Diet is just as important for sleep as it is for athletic performance. Avoid any stimulants for at least 3 hours before bed – caffeine and sugar being the worst culprits!

Want more tips on sleep from the nation’s best athletes? Head on over to our Team GB and ParalympicsGB hub for everything from more helpful, inspirational articles to athlete profiles and more. Or use the ‘read more’ section below and jump straight in.

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