“One of the illusions of this life is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive hour. Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they want to get in shape or improve their bodies is to put off making changes.
This approach does you no good in the long run, which is where these five simple tips come in. These are easy habits you can use to set up your body and brain for peak performance without depleting your energy reserves. You’ll be motivated and energized so you are able to take full advantage of this vital time.
#1: Get sufficient sleep.
Getting a great night’s sleep is more effective than carbs, creatine, or even caffeine for enhancing your athletic performance and brain function. For example, when the Stanford University men’s basketball team underwent a “sleep extension” in which they got 10 hours of rest a night, the player’s free-throw and 3-point field goal percentage both increased by a staggering 9 percent.
Or, when normally sleep-deprived overweight subjects got sufficient sleep, they improved brain function by 7 to 10 percent, including having better memory, and ability to pay attention. Hormone balance and neurotransmitter levels improved, which is thought to be the reason that for improved brain function.
On the flip side, lack of sleep feels pretty terrible. It influences every aspect of your life, compromising problem solving skills, lowering your ability to manage stress, and increasing hunger. To avoid all this misery, use simple habits that promote a killer night’s rest:
- Pick a regular bedtime and follow it even on weekends.
- Avoid caffeine after 1 p.m. and consider avoiding it altogether if your sleep issues are due to a racing mind.
- Eat your last meal no later than 8 p.m.
- Sleep in complete darkness and avoid blue light from computers, TVs, and phones at night.
- Reduce radiofrequency signals in your bedroom: Put your phone on airplane mode, turn off Wi-Fi, and keep electronics at least 6 feet from your bed.
- Have a pre-bedtime ritual that allows you to organize and calm your thoughts—try 5 minutes of deep breathing, a grateful log, or reading.
#2: Eat a high-protein, grain-free meal for your first one of the day.
A high-protein, low-carb, grain-free meal is the best way to maximize energy for the day.
Research shows that the amino acids found in protein will stimulate the cells in the brain that are responsible for keeping us alert and burning calories. These cells make up the orexin network of chemical transmitters and they respond to the foods you eat, making you feel sleepy, hungry, or energized.
For instance, glucose, which is what grains, such as bread, cereal, and oatmeal are turned into after we eat them, blocks those same cells that keep us awake and energized. People usually feel sluggish and lower in energy after a spiking their blood glucose with high-carb foods.
For example, studies show that cognitive function and memory is enhanced when people eat breakfasts that lead to a slow and steady rise in blood sugar, such as meals made of slowly digested carbs, higher protein, and fiber than if they eat high-carb cereal.
To try it, go for sliced grass-fed beef roast, salmon, turkey slices, Greek yogurt, or eggs. Pair it with a handful of nuts, leafy or steamed greens, or a bowlful of berries.
#3: Use caffeine wisely.
We’ve all felt it: That hypermotivation to burn through a track workout, or crush a deadlift PR when we’ve got a nice dose of caffeine in our bloodstream. Or that incredible focus and productivity that makes work a wonderful flow experience.
Caffeine is certainly a blessing for athletic performance (studies show it can boost performance by an incredible 20 percent). It’s also known to aid brain function and improve reaction time, especially when people are exhausted.
However, it can be a curse if you overdo it because studies show that too much can raise cortisol. In normal circumstances, like drinking it in the morning to kick start productivity, this is unlikely to be a problem.
But, if you’re relying on caffeine for your motivation or to fight lack of sleep, your adrenal glands are going to get stressed out. You might get one or two hyperefficient days out of it, but relying on caffeine is unlikely to lead to sustainable output.
Here are a few points to consider when planning your caffeine use:
- You’ll get the greatest athletic boost if you selectively use caffeine. For maximal performance, stop consuming caffeine for 5 days and then start with a 1 to 3 mg/kg of body weight dose.
- Habitual consumers tend to maximize performance with between 3 and 6 mg/kg of caffeine.
- Once you become habituated to having caffeine in the morning (after five days), the cortisol spike is abolished.
- If you drink caffeine in the morning and then consume additional caffeine in the afternoon, cortisol will be elevated, indicating that chronic use throughout the day is problematic for stress hormone regulation. The effect is worsened if you suffer from anxiety or a racing mind.
#4: Work out at a time that synchs with your circadian rhythm.
Physical performance peaks between 3 and 6 p.m. when body temperature is elevated and strength is nearly 6 percent higher than in the early morning.
Joints and muscles are 20 percent more flexible in the evening, and protein synthesis tops out around 5 p.m. This makes late afternoon the best time for training for maximal gains and faster recovery.
The worst time to train is in the middle of the night or very early morning because body temperature is lowest and stimulating hormones are reduced. But, if you have to train at a disadvantaged time, a few things can help:
- Get a good night’s sleep beforehand.
- Do an extended, vigorous warm-up to raise body temperature. A 20-minute warm-up the raised body temperature was found to improve athletic power performance in the morning at 8 a.m. in athletes so that it was equal that observed in the afternoon at 4 p.m.
- Use 3 mg/kg/bw of caffeine to equalize the strength and power deficit between morning and afternoon.
Of course, if your number one priority is centered on non-athletic goals, the best time to schedule your workout will be 1) when you’ll actually do it, 2) when it will improve your focus and brain function, or 3) when it will allow you to sort through a problem in your head.
For example, studies show that a variety of different forms of exercise make you smarter. In one study, participants improved their recall of new vocabulary by 20 percent after sprint interval workouts compared to a control group that did no exercise.
Researchers think intense exercise increases cognition because it raises the adrenaline hormones that stimulate the brain, while also boosting function of neurotransmitters like dopamine.
#5: Include carbs in your evening meal.
Eating whole carbs at night can help you sleep better, setting you up for another productive day. For example, one study found that people who ate higher carb diets were able to go to sleep more quickly, whereas people who ate higher protein diets woke up fewer times during the night.
This suggests that the sweet spot for good sleep is to eat protein-based meals with select lower carb foods during the day to sustain mental acuity. Then eat higher carb foods in the evening to relax and get you ready for bed.
Here are a few ways specific carbohydrate foods can help you repair your body and improve sleep:
- Berries, leafy greens, and other colorful fruits and veggies provide an array of antioxidants that fight free radicals that result from high stress hormone levels.
- Higher carb plants such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, beans, and whole boiled grains will trigger a prolonged insulin release, which can help to lower cortisol levels at night for better sleep.
- The higher carb foods mentioned above also provide the raw materials for the body to synthesize the neurotransmitter serotonin that helps you sleep and boosts your mood, but is depleted during high stress times.