Your pillow is ruining your workout

Neglecting sleep’s main accessory could hinder performance.

For athletes, what you rest your head on proves to be the most important recovery tool of all: “You can sleep on a $50,000 mattress, but if you don't have a good pillow, you're going to have a bad night’s sleep,” says James B. Maas, Ph.D, author of Sleep for Success! What's more: “Anything that affects the body or mind in terms of quality of sleep is going to affect athletic performance.”

Symptoms of an under-performing pillow (cervical pain, neck pain, and headaches) are an impediment to your overall lifestyle, too. Your reaction time can dull, your situational awareness can decrease, and your body doesn’t move as well, says Maas, who advises professional athletes on matters of shut-eye and has a pillow line of his own.

But unfortunately, while a pillow’s purpose sounds simple enough, the science of buying one isn’t as straightforward.

“I tend to think of pillows first and foremost in terms of your body position when you sleep,” says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., medical director of the Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. For example: Are you a stomach sleeper, a side sleeper, or do you pass out on your back? A side sleeper—a majority of the population—should look for one with extra support, eliminating the need for stacking two pillows. A back or stomach sleeper, on the other hand, would likely sleep better on one with a softer center to cradle their head.

But regardless of the type, here's how to tell if you need a new one: “Fold your pillow in half,” says Maas. “If it doesn't spring forward instantly, you have a dead pillow.” Now, here’s what you need to know before you shop.

Splurge wisely.“The only pillows you can really wash and re-fluff are those that are pure down,” says Maas. Down pillows might cost you $150 but they could last 10 years, he says. Synthetic downs, which you won’t find much cheaper than $30 to $50, will last at least three, he says. Don’t go cheaper, though. “If you buy a $12 pillow, it will give you support for a week or so,” says Maas.

Choose anti-everything.Anti-microbial and anti-allergy pillows will be an allergy sufferer’s dream. Many people who think they’re allergic to down are actually allergic to dust mites, says Maas. Try: Claritin’s Anti-Allergen pillow. A pillow protector will also provide an added barrier from pesky mites.

Consider your temp.Athletes tend to sleep hot, says Winter. That usually means old school memory foam and Tempur-Pedic are out—they can be heavy and hot, he says. If you like the feeling, look for newer generation gel-infused memory foam which can be cooler and supportive. Reverie’s Dual Slumber Pillow, for example, offers the best of both worlds—one side with a cooling memory foam and the other with a plush micro-fill. Otherwise, pillows filled with buckwheat hulls—while very firm, perhaps best for back sleepers—won’t hold heat, says Winter.

Test out your options.Pushing a pillow with your finger tips isn’t enough. If you’re in a home store, take a pillow, find a bed, and lie there for five or six minutes, says Maas. It’s enough time to tell if you’ll actually feel good sleeping on it. Alternatively, companies like BEDGEAR offer online quizzes to help you find the right pillow for you based on factors like sleeping position and body temperature.

BYOP.Winter says we should be bringing our own pillows whenever we jet set. “A pillow is the best thing you can travel with in terms of keeping the feel of your home bed when you're not at home.”