What you can learn about sleep from truckers

If you’re waking up tired every day, you might need to take a lesson from truck drivers who maximize their sleep schedules.

BY STEPHANIE VOZZA

If you got eight hours of sleep last night and woke up feeling tired, there’s a reason for that. Minutes matter more than hours when it comes to sleep quality. In fact, if you had slept for 30 minutes less, you’d likely feel more refreshed, says Dean Croke, principal analyst at DAT Freight & Analytics, an on-demand freight marketplace.

For more than two decades, Croke has taught sleep science classes for truckers and shift workers, helping them get better quality sleep with fewer hours in bed. As you can imagine, truckers’ sleep schedules must be purposeful.

“We build biocompatible schedules, which are schedules designed around human sleep, as opposed to when the loads got to be there,” says Croke. “When you engineer sleep into a driver’s day, all sorts of good things happen. Well-rested drivers make about 10% more miles per week if they’re taught how to sleep.”

Croke was a truck driver in Australia, logging in about two million miles on the road. “When I was in management, we lost a couple of drivers who fell asleep at the wheel and died,” he says. “I’ve seen the dark side of the trucking industry from a sleep deprivation perspective. It’s a fairly tough world if your sleep quality is not very good.”

The same principles that help truckers improve their sleep, can help anyone feel better rested.

SLEEP IN CYCLES

The first thing to understand is that minutes matter. Croke says we’ve all been tricked into thinking that more sleep is better sleep, but that’s incorrect. Our brains sleep in cycles of about an hour and a half, and sleep quality comes from sleep architecture.

“If we were to wire our brains with scalp electrodes, like they do in sleep studies, you would see different electrical pulses between the between the neurons in the brain,” says Croke. “They translate to different levels of sleep.”

About 30 minutes after you drift off to sleep, the brain enters a phase of deep restorative sleep. During this stage, the body goes through a repair cycle and the immune system is bolstered. Deep sleep lasts between 30 and 75 minutes, after which your brain starts to wake up. You finish off that sleep cycle with a dream and rapid eye movement (REM).

“Your whole body goes into a state of paralysis, but your brain is buzzing with electricity,” says Croke. “Deep sleep deals with the fatigue. REM sleep deals with memory and mood, archiving the memories and flushing out the brain of the things it doesn’t need.”

If your alarm wakes you from a cycle of deep sleep, you will have sleep inertia. “It takes about 20 minutes for the sleep inertia to kick out of the brain and then you can get going with the day,” says Croke. “The timing of sleep is absolutely critical.”

CREATE A SLEEP SCHEDULE

While five 90-minute sleep cycles would be ideal, Croke says you can break them up, sleeping two cycles in a row and three cycles later in the day.

“I teach people about the behavioral therapy aspects of sleep, which is, don’t stress about this,” he says. “You can also nap strategically.”

Croke says the body is programmed to sleep twice a day, at night and again eight hours after you wake. The second sleep should be a 30-minute or a 90-minute nap to take advantage of the sleep cycles and avoid waking during deep sleep.

Having a bedtime is important. Croke recommends to trucking companies that they have drivers start work at the same time every day.

“In trucking, that’s the opposite of what really goes on,” he says. “But if you have a same start time every day, by default you have you have the same sleep time. It creates an anchor sleep at the same time every day that helps you get good consistent sleep back-to-back.”

CATCH UP ON THE WEEKENDS

If you have a week that wears you down, Croke says you can make up for it on the weekend.

“The brain is incredibly resilient,” he says. “You’ll bounce back quickly if you’ve got two periods of good sleep at the end of the week. I call it the ‘two and seven rule.’ Get two periods of consecutive sleep each week to get rid of the sleep debt from the previous week.”

After two periods of good sleep, the brain washes away that sleep debt, and you can start Monday morning fresh.

“What happens to most people is they don’t get the two periods; they might get one,” says Croke. “There’s a residual sleep that Monday morning. And that adds to the sleep debt by the end of next week. And it gradually builds and builds and builds over time.”

For trucker, sleep debt and sleep inertia can be dangerous. In fact, Croke says accidents often happen within the first hour of rest break if it wasn’t properly timed. “It’s because they woke from deep sleep, and the brain was still in the sleeper berth,” he says. “I teach drivers to sleep in blocks of an hour and a half. Seven hours of sleep is worse than six hours sleep because seven is not a multiple of an hour and a half.”

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