2023 Season Prep #2 — Fixing Sleep
The importance of sleep is pretty well known in the golf world. At the recent Players, the second question off the 18th green that Scheffler was asked was about how he slept the night before. In his post-win press conference as well, he mentions rest and recovery three different times as well. After his quarter final win in the Match Play, Sam Burns said he’s most looking forward to sleep. Sleep is king.
But unlike professional golf, sleep isn’t considered as important, or at least for some reason, people think it’s weird to ask or tell others about. Just like fitness, sleep is an activity that improves every aspect of your life, physically and mentally. Though I listed this as #2 in my list of things I want to get better at for the 2023 season, sleep is truly the number one aspect of life that it’s worth getting better at. If you sleep well, you’ll have energy to workout. And I have found good sleep to be trainable and worth talking about.
Why Good is Sleep Important for Life and Golf
Sleep is the time the body has to recover. During activity, such as walking and thinking on a golf course, our bodies use energy in muscles and the brain to perform. It’s like when you’re trying to make food, and you end up with a bunch of dirty dishes in the sink and dispersion on the countertop. If you don’t clean, you’ll still be able to cook the next day, but it’ll be much more difficult and you’ll spend time moving things around during food making instead of paying attention to the food production.
When any one of us sleeps poorly, besides tiredness, our bodies are not as coordinated and have lower energy, along with many mental issues. One big example is the worse I sleep, the more irritable I become. When I was younger, after a bad night of sleep, I’d much more frequently say hurtful things to people compared to much less after a good night of sleep. I also have trouble concentrating on any task, or even having motivation to do anything, golf or work. I was mostly looking forward to the end of the day to where I’ll be able to sleep again and hopefully feel better the next day.
On a golf course, this means I’d overreact in anger much more to a bad shot which could lead to club slamming and hateful self-talk. I also have big trouble focusing on individual shots or on a tournament situation. Golf is such a mental game, and bad sleep makes mental ability infinitely harder.
From the physical angle, after a bad sleep night, my swing would be all over the place as if my muscles were completely disconnected. Swing speed goes down, and the timing of the swing gets way off. This is why I work on having a swing that depends less on timing, but if I sleep well and am recovered, timing can be spot on.
On the other side of the bed, after a good night of sleep, everything gets better. The feelings of energy, excitement, and wanting to perform shows up. A bad shot is accepted and I want to prove I can recover in an efficient way. And instead of a feeling of headache and tiredness, my mind can focus on other things, like talking, or in the golf world, practice and wanting to play well.
When you sleep well, everything in life improves.
How I Sleep
My typical sleep pattern for the past 10 years has been one where I would wake up and have to use the bathroom, usually between 3:00-5:00 depending on the end of a sleep cycle and how much liquid I had before going to bed. If this was early enough in the night, I’d be able to fall asleep and get a couple more cycles in. If this was later in the early morning, there was very little chance I’d be able to get back to sleep, meaning the day that hadn’t yet started would already be of low quality.
If I was able to get back to sleep, every other day I’d seem to have issues where I’d have the aching feeling, which I talked about my specific sleeping issues in my 2022 Year in Review post:
When I don’t sleep well, I end up having a sick, empty feeling in my stomach. Eyes feel hollow, and sometimes I have shaky limbs, and a weak core. My body knows how important sleep is, which takes away my ability to concentrate and even if I’m able to do that, the weakness of my arm and core muscles means I can’t swing in a solid way. I’ve had this for a while, and still haven’t figured out a good way of overcoming these feelings other than being able to take a nap.
Sometimes, the two issues of 1) not being able to fall back asleep, and 2) aching pain could double up and my body and mind would be so disconnected I never would perform well on the golf course, or when trying to do anything else during the day.
What this meant was before or during any event, the best I could do was try to get to bed and fall asleep as early as possible. If I wasn’t going to be efficient, I needed to give myself the most time possible. I’d tried in the past to improve, doing some small changes, but never gave it the importance as I should have. This winter though, I finally came to grips with the fact that I couldn’t go on like this forever. I didn’t want to leave sleep up to chance. I wanted to be able to know what to do to sleep well and be able to replicate it every night
Tape your Mouth
If you search online for “how to sleep better”, you’ll find tons of articles and commentators giving their quick solutions or giant lists of things to do. Seeing these can be overwhelming, especially with something you only get to try once per day, and it’s important to keep an open mind and try all the solutions that people give. Experience and doing are the ways to improve anything.
In part of overall health research and idea finding, I read the book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. The book was awarded Best General Nonfiction Book of 2020 by the American Society of Journalists and Authors, where it includes stories of him talking to professional and amateur breath researchers and practitioners about how breathing differently can clearly change feelings and experiences.Read more: 2023 Season Prep #2 — Fixing Sleep
The book really does have a bunch of ideas and techniques that I think are worth looking at and experiencing yourself. For example, the start of the book is a story about how important nasal breathing is compared to mouth breathing, and what happens to your body and mind if they plug your nose and only let the air come through your mouth. Or about how diaphragm breathing, with air going to the lower part of your lungs, gives you a much calmer feeling than breathing in the upper chest, regardless of if the air is through your nose or mouth.
I found the start of my sleep fix at the end of Chapter 3 of the title “Nose”, where Nestor goes through and talks about the benefits of taping your mouth shut when you sleep. One of the many benefits he shares about taping your mouth shut is that the need to get up and use the bathroom in the middle of the night will go away. With the ease of finding the suggested 3M micropore tape, and just like Ben Gates at the climax of National Treasure I thought to myself, could it really be that simple? I put two giant straps over my mouth to shut it and went to sleep.
That first night with tape was the best night of sleep I’d had in years. Seriously. According to my whoop data, I slept an hour less than my normal range. And I also felt so different than any other night of good sleep I’d gotten in years. My mind felt so alert, much clearer and cleaner than before, and no eye pain, headache, or stomach ache. I used tape the next night, and the same thing happened, an hour less of sleep but still feeling different and better. All because of tape.
The whoop screenshots below here show the changes:
Before the tape, my sleep matched well with what Whoop was saying that I needed. The first night of mouth tape was on Jan 22, which is the last point on the first pic, and you can see the drop. After that, whoop kept thinking I needed more sleep than I actually did. And that mismatch continued for a while.
Whoop says that “Sleep need is calculated each day based on your personalized baseline, as well as sleep debt, Day Strain and naps. It is a measure of how much sleep you need in order to hit peak performance”.
This is meaning that Whoop kept thinking I needed more sleep, because my sleep before mouth tape and tongue change was much less efficient, where I legit needed a ton more time. The green dots were overestimating how much sleep I needed because my personalized baseline was from the much worse sleep I had before the mouth tape.
After little over a week after this change, however, I regressed slightly. I still didn’t have to use the bathroom in the middles, but every few days I’d go back to having the eye pain and shaky feeling that I had pre tape. What this meant was the tape completely fixed one of my big sleep issues and gave me a glimpse of the solution for the other. What this meant was something else was occurring, and a fix I still needed to find.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
I kept reading Breath, and later on, there’s a chapter on the impact of the amount of carbon dioxide in our blood. It says, and this is something I didn’t know before, the stressful feeling of needing to breathe is not from lack of oxygen, but rather your body wanting to get rid of carbon dioxide.
Second, if you don’t have enough CO2, then blood vessels constrict which makes it harder for oxygen to get to where it needs to be, such as the brain. Nestor writes that in order to get more oxygen to the brain, you need to hold your breath
Whenever a body is forced to take in more air than it needs, we’ll exhale too much carbon dioxide, which will narrow the blood vessels and decrease circulation, especially in the brain. With just a few minutes, or even seconds, of over-breathing, brain blood flow can decrease by 40 percent, an incredible amount.
This was an important finding for me. Last year, when I’d wake up and have head pain, I found that if I was able to yawn, the headache would subside, slightly. To induce this yawn, I’d hold my breath until I felt a big urge to get a breath, and then 10 seconds longer. A couple of those and a yawn would come. Not a complete recovery, but I did feel better. Reading about how too little CO2 constricts blood vessels to where oxygen can’t get to the brain fit very well with what I did, meaning I was on the right track.
This led me to do more internet searching about sleep issues, specifically about breathing issues during sleep. This search somehow led me to the description of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). Before this find, I always assumed that sleep apnea is only when people wake up, gasping for air in the middle of the night and find themselves with very low blood oxygen levels. Instead, OSA is a spectrum. It’s similar to seizures, where most people consider them to always be a person on the ground, shaking without control. But there are different types of seizures that are much different. Same with OSA, where you don’t have to snore, or be woken up gasping for air multiple times a night. You can simply have an obstruction that changes how you breathe that leads to not enough CO2 and less blood to your brain, something that happens when you’re not aware.
Looking at the Mayo Clinic’s page on OSA, you’ll see a list of symptoms, and the one that hit for me was that headache. The picture they use to show what it looks like is simply your tongue dropping back and obstructing air to come into your lungs. When this happens, you don’t get enough oxygen to the brain.
That was the key for me. I realized that my untrained weak tongue falls back to my throat during sleep where it blocks air from getting in and out, which leads to overbreathing to get rid of too much CO2 and not enough oxygen to the brain. When I’d do the breath holding exercises, the CO2 would build up and oxygen would start getting back to the brain cells and I’d feel a little better.
That first night after this realization, I made sure to tape my lower jaw strongly forward, and practiced what it felt like to keep the tongue way forward, almost outside the teeth. I was back to the perfect sleep.
Since then, I’ve worked on training my tongue to always stay forward, and naturally rest on the upper palette more. To feel this, relax your tongue muscle, and tilt your head back, and you’ll find your tongue goes down and back to the throat. To feel where your tongue should reside, tilt your head forward and do a move where you try to create a double chin. Your tongue will go right to the roof of your mouth and out of the airway’s way. That’s the place your tongue should be when not drinking, eating, or talking. See the book Jaws.
And in the end, it seems like a simple fix. Getting my head to sleep in the right position – mouth closed and tongue up – was all it took. While rereading the sections of Breath again, a quote at the end of Chapter 3 about sleep tape stands out.
In the three nights since I started using this tape, I went from snoring four hours to only ten minutes. I’d been warned by [Burhenne] that sleep tape won’t do anything to help sleep apnea. My experience suggested otherwise. As my snoring disappeared, so did apnea.
I’d suffered up to two dozen apnea events in the mouth breathing phase [of his study], but last night had zero. … I never woke up needing to pee. I didn’t have to, because my pituitary gland was releasing vasopressin. I was finally sleeping soundly.
More Recovery to Come
There’s definitely more I can do to improve sleep. Light timing and eating habits are huge components. I’m learning more about these aspects and getting better at them, and they’ll deserve their own post. The difference is that this time, I can judge a lot better whether or not different habits lead to better sleep since I was able to remove the giant hindrance of apnea.
It’s weird to reflect on this and what’s changed. For years I’d been sleeping poorly. Going to sleep, during the evenings before a competitive golf round, I’d have to cross my fingers that I was going to wake up with energy. If I didn’t sleep well, it sucked to know I wasn’t going to be able to play my best. Would a sleep test have told me that it was a version of OSA? I don’t know. And I’ll admit I get caught wondering how different my golf resume during my post-college / mid-am years might be if I discovered this problem and solution in the past. Instead, I’m able to look forward and know that I can perform much better in the seasons to come.