What This Elite Athlete Wishes Everyone Knew About Sleep

mbg Contributor By Leigh Weingus
mbg Contributor
Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist writing about health, wellness, feminism, entertainment, personal finance, and more. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis.

As a mother, five-time CrossFit Games competitor and two-time North Central Regional champion, at age 38 it's safe to say that Elisabeth Akinwale is ridiculously strong and really good at taking care of herself. Her solid balance of a healthy diet, regular training, recovery tactics, and meditation have left her radiant, healthy, and happy. But that wasn't always the case. There was a time when Akinwale was in constant pain and struggling to make ends meet. Here's how she pulled herself out of it.

How rock bottom led to a love of CrossFit.

Years ago, Akinwale was struggling just to walk up the stairs of her apartment. She'd had seven knee surgeries and was told it was time to undergo a fourth ACL reconstruction. And that wasn't all. "At the time, I was a newly divorced mother, living in a city with no family, in a third-floor walk-up apartment with my young son," she says. "Surgery most certainly did not seem like an option. It was overwhelming."

Facing another surgery, Akinwale became determined to heal her broken body naturally. "I wanted to improve my knee strength and stability through weight training so I could be pain-free and participate in physical activities. That's when I started CrossFit. It takes a great deal of dedication to maintain my knee health, but being inactive is not something I’m willing to resign myself to."

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The role sleep plays in the recovery process.

All aspects of recovery are important to Akinwale, but sleep tops that list. "I work hard to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night," she says. "Sleep is incredibly important to me, both from the perspective of allowing the body to physically rejuvenate and keeping myself mentally alert and emotionally regulated. Frankly, lack of sleep makes me worse in every area of my life."

So, what does her bedtime routine look like? "I try to stay off my phone and social media for an hour before bedtime," she says. "I sleep best when I take a shower immediately before bedtime. I sleep in a completely dark room, and I don’t keep a television in the room. With the lights out, I read my kindle with the backlight set to dim. If I don’t fall asleep right away, I use some mindful breathing to relax and clear my head so I can fall asleep."

How meditation has changed the game.

"I first started my meditation practice about five years ago, and I actually began to explore meditation through the lens of wanting to perform better athletically," she says. "Through that beginning phase of my learning process, I found that across the board, sport psychologists identify visualization, mindful breathing, and a calm state as key skills for athletes. All elements that are related to meditation. As an athlete, having a peaceful state of mind is really empowering and creates the mental space to be your most effective in training and competition."

Though Akinwale's meditation journey started as a way to become a better athlete, it's completely changed her life. "The true gift has been the discovery of how impactful a regular meditation practice is in my life as a whole."

Inspired by Akinwale? Read about the surprising force behind Shalane Flanagan's marathon win.

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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