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How to sleep

With the right preparation and diet, people can function just fine without eating for a week. But absolutely nobody functions just fine without sleep for even a couple of days.

Rest is part of training. Poor or insufficient sleep will wreck your whole life, not just your sword practice. It's worth spending some time and effort getting it right.

Let's start with this section from my book The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts, pages 245-247. One of the people who reviewed it on Amazon (and gave it five shiny gold stars, yay!) expressed surprise that I'd put a section on sleep in the book. To me, it's such a fundamental part of training it never occurred to me to leave it out!


We live in an absurdly sleep-deprived culture. When someone tells you they pulled an all-nighter, you should not be impressed by their dedication: you should be appalled at their lack of organisation and understanding of basic health principles. It is simply childish to think of staying up late as some kind of cool thing to do. Read Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: the New Science of Sleep and Dreams (affiliate link) if you don’t believe me.

There are three kinds of sleep: REM (dream sleep, in which your brain is very active), light sleep, and deep sleep. Your body and brain cycle through these in a rhythm that takes usually about 90 minutes, with deep sleep usually coming towards the end of that. You will need about four full cycles per night, minimum. How do you know if you’re getting enough sleep? If you wake up naturally without your alarm clock, and if you are not tired during the day, then you are sleeping enough. Otherwise, you’re not. Almost everyone (according to Walker at least, and he should know) needs about eight hours. If you suffer from any kind of insomnia, go to the doctor. Avoid sleeping pills, obviously, but there are many kinds of sleep problems, and many of them are easily treated. If you snore, get yourself checked for sleep apnea. I had it for a long time, and eventually went to the doctor and had it treated with a minor surgery. I suffered the worst sore throat ever for about three weeks, but within a couple of months the difference in my energy levels was incredible thanks to improved quality of sleep. Friends of mine with apnea caused by being fat (when the muscles of the neck relax in sleep, the weight of the fat in their neck literally crushes their airway, so they choke and wake up) have found that a CPAP machine (continuous positive pressure; literally pushing air into the lungs, keeping the trachea open) has made a gigantic difference. Help is available.

The basic principles of getting enough sleep are:

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Earlier to bed is better: my Grandma used to say that “one before eleven is worth two after seven,” and as usual, she was right.
  • Avoid caffeine for at least six hours before bedtime, or ideally twelve. Using a sleep tracker I was able to confirm my suspicion that simply not having tea or coffee after 2 p.m. made an enormous difference – not to the total amount of sleep I was getting, but to the amount of deep sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol for at least four hours before bedtime. Again with the sleep tracker, I found that a couple of glasses of wine made no difference to sleep quality, so long as the alcohol was out of my system before going to bed.
  • Avoid eating a heavy meal for at least three hours before bedtime. This makes a huge difference, I find. If my body is working on digesting a big meal, my heart rate remains much higher all night than if I go to bed long after the last calorie went in.
  • Avoid screens for at least an hour before bedtime. If you absolutely must be using a screen, on an iOS device enable Night Shift, or use F.lux or something similar to adjust the wavelengths of light your screen emits. 
  • Avoid social media for at least an hour before bedtime. There is nothing more likely to keep you awake than some foolish thing said on the internet. Remember that social media companies hire really clever people whose only job is to get and keep your attention; and nothing says you’re not paying attention like falling asleep.
  • Keep your bedroom as dark as possible: use black-out curtains, and cover or switch off any sources of light pollution such as luminous clocks or devices with LED lights on them. This to me is one of the hardest things to get right when travelling. One hotel room I stayed in had an illuminated light switch in the middle of the headboard of the bed. I had to get my old boarding pass out and stick it over the damn thing with chewing gum to get any sleep. Eyemasks are ok, but I find they come off in the night.
  • Create a wind-down ritual that persuades your body that it will be going to sleep soon. Keep it gentle. I find reading a good novel is hopeless, because I stay up late to get to the next bit, but reading a fairly dull but useful non-fiction book is great.
  • Get a decent mattress. It’s worth it. You literally cannot put a price on sleep.

I also use naps extensively. If your schedule allows it, cutting your night time sleep by an hour or so is okay if you get a full sleep cycle (so a solid 90 minutes of sleep) in the afternoon. Shorter naps can be helpful, but nothing replaces deep sleep. As this book is also concerned with history, I should mention that throughout most of human history artificial lighting was incredibly expensive. It is only in the last century or so that ordinary people can afford brightly lit rooms after nightfall. Thanks to Roger Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close, Night in Times Past (affiliate link), we know that at least some Europeans used to sleep in two blocks, with an hour or two of wakefulness in between. In the 1990s, Thomas Wehr (a psychologist) found that people who live in darkness for fourteen hours per day spontaneously develop a similar pattern, so it may be very natural. It’s worth experimenting with, I think. 

For a layman’s overview, see the article entitled “The myth of the eight-hour sleep” by Stephanie Hegarty, published by the BBC on February 22nd 2012.

The key with this – as with every aspect of health habits – is to experiment carefully, and track what makes a difference for you. 


In lockdown it may be even harder than usual to get good sleep, especially if you are living in a confined space. Ideally, you would do nothing at all in bed except sleep, so that your mind associates going to bed with going to sleep. (The only exception I'd make to that is sex.) If you work in bed, watch tv in bed, use the bed like a sofa, and so on, then your mind may associate going to bed with getting work done, or playing video games. If your bed is your sofa, then you can work around this by having a day set-up (such as covering the bed with a blanket and some cushions), so ‘bed' becomes ‘sofa', and then as part of your going to sleep preparation, you re-set the “sofa” into a bed. So long as you perceive it as a separate space set aside for sleep, it should work just fine.

There's a lovely video on how to create separate spaces for different activities in lockdown here:

(With thanks to Stefan Geritz for pointing me to it)

If there is one thing to take away from this blog post, it's this: take your sleep seriously, and guard it as well as you possibly can. It's absolutely fundamental to your health. If you are having problems sleeping (as many do, including me), then make it your top priority to get more and/or better sleep. You deserve it!

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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