It's 6 a.m. and your alarm clock is buzzing--it's time for your scheduled morning run. While the thought of sleeping a few more hours sounds enticing, you get up, knowing that this workout is a vital part of your race day success. Why can't we be this dedicated to our sleeping schedule? We make training and proper nutrition a priority, but sleep, which is key to achieving better performance and overall wellness, is frequently last on the to-do list.
"In my experience coaching, a consistent sleep schedule is oddly one of the hardest things for people to change in their daily life, especially those who have nine-to-five jobs, family and school commitments," says Jeff Gaudette, founder of Premier Coaching online training and a two-time All-American in cross country during his time at Brown University.
Sleep is a critical component of an athlete's physical recovery and mental alertness, allowing them to maintain a competitive edge, explains Dr. Kristine Clark, director of Sports Nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. "Physical training is very stressful on the body, and sleep is one of the best ways to heal."
Not an Elective Thing
Inadequate sleep can reduce a runner's stamina, causing fatigue as well as slowed cognitive and motor skills. According to Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, DO, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic, a full night's rest restores and regenerates cells in the body and brain, allowing both to function optimally the next day. "Unlike popular beliefs of the past, sleep is not an elective thing--it's not simply what we do when the body no longer wants to be awake," Foldvary-Schaefer says. "It is an active process that is required to maintain good health."
During the later stages of the sleep cycle, the body boosts production of human growth hormone (HGH), which strengthens muscles and increases bone density. Less than 7.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night short-changes this process, resulting in a greater risk of injury and illness, Foldvary-Schaefer explains, adding that eight to nine hours is optimal. "Studies have linked sleep deprivation and sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea to heart disease, diabetes, attention deficit problems as well as mood disorders (depression and anxiety)," she says.
Beth Engel, a runner with the Fleet Feet/Nike Racing Team, acknowledges the relationship between a full night's rest and improved performance. "I tend to get sick when I'm training hard, and sleep helps to amp up my immune system," she says. "It's easier said than done, but I try to have a strict bedtime of 10 p.m. I'll sacrifice staying out late because, in my experience, sleep and successful running go hand-in-hand."
Indulge in Rest Time
For some runners, depending on their training schedules, the recommended eight to nine hours may not be sufficient. According to a recent study by researcher Cheri Mah of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, additional sleep over the course of several weeks is key in achieving peak athletic performance.
For those who need extra sleep, Clark recommends taking a 30 to 60 minute nap one to two hours before training. And don't feel guilty about indulging in some rest time. "Some runners have such competitive personalities that they feel napping is a weakness, but it actually does help," she says. "Be in touch with your body's needs, and try to take a nap if you feel tired before a training session."
In addition to enhancing your physical ability, sleep improves mindset and helps to achieve a positive outlook, which is necessary for successful training. "A lot of training is based on how you feel, not just your physical capability," Gaudette says. "Having a negative thought process going into a workout isn't going to give you the best results." When you're rested, you are mentally alert and able to push yourself above and beyond a typical routine, Clark adds.
In addition to the amount of sleep, a consistent sleep pattern is important, too. Gaudette advises runners to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day. "I tell my runners to schedule in sleep as they would workouts," he says. To get into a consistent sleep schedule, Clark recommends doing a self-assessment to pinpoint what, exactly, is keeping you up at night. Whether you're experiencing stress from work, school or your personal life, it needs to be evaluated.
"You won't be able to get your sleep schedule organized if stress is the underlying issue," Clark says. "Scheduling an appointment with a counselor will likely solve the problem." If stress isn't a factor, your bedtime routine might be to blame: "Are you eating or exercising late at night? Are you watching television or reading an emotionally charged book in bed? If so, consider getting into a relaxing state of mind before bedtime," Clark explains. "If your spouse or roommate is keeping you awake, have a heart-to-heart conversation with them, or consider investing in earplugs or an eye mask."
The more sleep deprived you are over an extended period of time, the greater the impact on your performance. But what about not getting enough sleep the night before? It's common to experience butterflies before a big race, preventing a full night's rest. However, this may not hinder race day success. "For most runners, if they experience a sleepless night, their adrenaline kicks in and takes over," Clark says.
Breanne George is editor of Women's Running.