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How can you train yourself to go to sleep quickly like they do in the military?

This question originally appeared on Quora. Answer by Guy D. McCardle, Jr., Cadet and Officer.

 

No problem. Get up out of bed at 4 in the morning, jam yourself into boots and long pants and haul your butt out into your front yard. Do this within 10 minutes of waking up. No coffee, no morning paper. Now run from 5–10 miles at a hearty pace while shouting a running cadence like the one below.

Oh, if you were in the military, you’d be running on all kinds of different surfaces (road, dirt, and sand) and as part of a formation, so it sucks much worse than your normal run. All of this and it’s still dark and way early.

The run ends at your dining facility where you’ll stand in formation until called inside in groups of four. Rush to get absolutely as much breakfast as you can on your plate. You need the calories. Get plenty of bread because you have to jam what you get between the slices and choke it down in a couple of minutes -literally a couple of minutes - or you’ll be tossed out of the building and reprimanded. There is absolutely no talking in the dining facility. You’ll quickly notice (and smell) that a couple guys are puking outside the chow hall because they are not used to eating so fast.

Run back to a staging area where you’ll be loaded into essentially what is the back of a semi-truck trailer. We used to call these cattle cars. They probably still do. “Relax” while standing during the few short minutes’ drive to the airfield. Let’s suppose that we’re going to do a field training exercise. This will set you up for falling asleep faster than you can imagine humanly possible. Keep in mind that for the last 8 weeks or so you haven’t slept more than 4 hours a night. When you do lie down to sleep, it feels like it was for only a few seconds, even though it was a full four hours. Your watch proves it. You’ll say as you check your watch again in disbelief. There is no feeling of being refreshed after that kind of sleep.

Where were we? Oh, it’s well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit as you make your way to the waiting Black Hawks with at least 75 pounds of gear. This is a three day field training exercise, and after a few minutes flight time you’ll be inserted into an unknown area and expected to navigate your way back to a fixed point maybe 30 or so miles away (depending on the terrain) in squad sized elements.

After deciding which way to head, you start humping it back. This is military humping, which is moving out in tactical fashion. You walk for hours, taking sips of hot (because of the ambient temperature) water that tastes of rubber/plastic along the way. During brief stops, you eat 1 item from the one MRE that you’ve been given for the day. You chew up and swallow the instant coffee from your MRE, washing it down with some sips of that nasty tasting water. No time to make an actual beverage.

You just keep walking, and walking, hour after hour. Let’s say we’re in the piney woods down at FT Bragg, NC. You’ll meet a couple snakes, be covered in chiggers and ticks within the first few hours, and cross a stream or two so your feet are probably wet at least part of the time. No whining, this is what you do. You just drive on, eating this up. Darkness falls, and you just keep going and going toward your objective. It seems like the whole world is piney woods. Since this is a military exercise, we’ve been engaged a couple times by op-for (opposing force: generic name for bad guys). You get to sit for a few minutes after those for an after action review. Sitting down is like heaven. The rock you’ve chosen feels like a decades old, well worn leather recliner. You’re exhausted, but still not tired enough to instantly fall asleep, that’ll come later.

Let’s fast forward to the exhausted part where you haven’t slept for about 48 hours. This is where the real fun begins. It’s dark, but you don’t really know what time it is. You trudge forward like a zombie kind of like if you wake up in the middle of the night out of a dead sleep and are trying to make your way to the fridge. Stopping becomes your enemy. Every fiber of your being wants rest and is screaming that message to your brain. Your brain gets confused, and you get the head bobs. You know - nodding off and then waking up after a little adrenaline rush. You have to get moving again. You know you are still awake because you can feel your feet kicking rocks and moving through the brush.

Fast forward again after a couple miles of going on like this. You start to hallucinate a bit. It’s an extremely odd sensation; you really at some points don’t know if you are awake or asleep, but regardless you move ever forward. Your thoughts stray into dreams (at least mine did), blurring the line between reality and fantasy. I’ve never done drugs, but this has to be what acid is like. I was back home talking to my family in my mind, yet at the same time I was moving ever onward into the dark woodlands.

Do to the nature of your movement, you have to stop and take a knee now and again. Here is where you get your micro-sleeps. That’s probably not a real term, but that’s what I call them. You feel your body stop, eyes close, and as instantly as flipping a switch you are deep asleep, most likely in the middle of another dream because your REM sleep patterns are so messed up by now. Maybe this is the “going to sleep quickly” you were referring to in your question. If you thought it involved soft music, a comfy pillow and some wine, you were sadly mistaken.

Now we have a problem. Some guys can’t easily wake themselves up from these micro-sleeps. Sometimes it just comes down to a kick in the ribs. This is no time for politeness. You just can’t stop and stay there. Those who can’t wake up, wash out of training. Most of us dig down and find something to keep us going, zombie-like, into the night. You put your mission first, but there is no denying biology. I’ll never forget that during one of these times of extreme sleep deprivation my buddy swore to me he saw the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghost Busters.

You might not want to get to the point of hallucinations in your quest for falling asleep quickly. But if you simulate what I’ve outlined above the best you can, I guarantee you that even the most hard core insomniac will be instantly out like a light. Maybe you can grab a few friends and make a long weekend out of the experience.

If you have a couple thousand bucks to spare, you can pay to have the folks at SEALFIT torture you into extreme exhaustion after a simulated BUD/S training Hell Week.

 

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