Athletes and experts say good rest equals good racing

A good night's sleep will do you good on race day  Credit: Stu Forster/Allsport
Mr. Sandman, give me my sleep
So in the big race, my rivals I'll beat

It was the night before the Red Dog Half Marathon. The clock read 2:45, a whopping 15 minutes later than last time I'd looked.

This race was huge and I had to be ready to rock 'n' roll for a 9 a.m. start. I wanted to sleep, I needed to sleep, yet instead of being in the Land of Nod, I was wide awake, tossing and turning.

Is finding your way to Z Land really of such critical importance for the endurance athlete? "Absolutely!" says world-class triathlete Mike Pigg.

"You definitely need it when you're a trained athlete," says the 36-year-old California native. "Getting sleep is of the utmost importance."

Being physically ready to run, swim, cycle, ski, prevail through five sets of tennis or show the club hotshot what you're made of on the racquetball court is only part of what makes a successful competitive athlete.

"The physical aspect goes hand in hand with many other key factors," Pigg says. "You also have to have the ability to sleep to let go of stress and get your rest."

Unfortunately, we all know that far too often, that's easier said than done. Stress can plague the mind while "the jitters" plague the stomach. Dr. Tim Noakes addresses this in his book, The Lore of Running. He writes that despite getting to bed by your usual time, "you may experience any of three types of sleeping disorders, especially the night before competition."

The first, Noakes says, is not being able to fall asleep. To help snooze faster, he suggests using some sort of relaxation technique, one of which he outlines in his book: Vividly imagine a place of peace and serenity in explicit detail and then imagine yourself in this place. Noakes says this takes practice, but can be of huge benefit in falling asleep.

Pigg uses breathing to relax and sleep. "I still get butterflies," he says, "but I've been racing long enough that I've learned how to control them with breathing."

He says he breathes into his belly, concentrates, and lets the nervousness dissipate. "When it's time to sleep, just let everything go."

Pigg firmly believes that "you only want to use the nervous energy a half-hour before the race. If you don't relax, it will affect not only your sleep but your digestion."

He adds, "Concentrate on what you need to do and don't go over and over what you have to do."

Regarding everyday sleep, Pigg says, "Sleeping the nights going into a race is important, but even more than that, you need to get consistent sleep if you want to train and race well. You're not going to make it on five hours."

Pigg says he likes to get nine hours a night, but this quota varies from person to person. "It's so crucial to get regular sleep. A cumulative lack of sleep can result in disaster for the athlete."

And by "disaster" Pigg doesn't just mean feeling fatigued on the line. The words "sickness" and "positive training" just aren't in the same sentence.

"Lack of sleep severely impacts the immune system," says pharmacist Robert Fazzini. "When athletes are fatigued, they open themselves up to a weakened immune system, which leads to frequent colds as well as infections and viruses."

Fazzini, a New Jersey pharmacist also noted for his knowledge of supplements and alternative medicine, has seen how lack of rest impacts endurance athletes and body builders. "It's so important for athletes to learn to relax."

Pigg's breathing method is one good way to relax. Another excellent technique is through music. Different types of music, be it AC/DC or Jammin' 105, help different athletes relax.

Sports massage therapist Mark Najera, who has worked with tennis great John McEnroe as well as a host of elite runners and triathletes, cites the numerous CDs and tapes of relaxing sounds and music on the market. He has seen how this music calms his patients during massage therapy treatment and strongly suggests athletes utilize music to help them sleep.

A second disorder Noakes cites is falling asleep but awakening early. "This can be annoying, " says national 10-mile champion Mike Mykytok. "Fortunately, since most of us runners (and endurance athletes) have to rise and shine at the crack of dawn to get to the race on time anyway, it isn't usually a huge problem."

Mykytok adds: "I try not to worry about the night before. A lot of times you'll just be up a lot."

Pigg says two nights before a big race, he tries to get a reasonable amount of sleep, eight hours or so.

"The night before doesn't really matter," he says. "One pattern I found out, though: If you're dead tired the night before a big race, you might not run as well as you would like. That usually means you didn't get enough sleep earlier that week and your body is still recovering from the hard training you might have been doing."

The final disorder Noakes hits on is probably the most common: going to sleep but waking up again and again throughout the night. This can be due to a number of factors, but recently, studies indicate that hormones may play an important role.

According to Dr. Phil Maffetone, who works closely with Pigg and is an expert in sports nutrition, if you find it easy to get to sleep but wake up throughout the night, it's most likely a sign of high levels of cortisol (one of the body's key hormones).

Maffetone writes in his book, The ABCs of Hormonal Stress, "High-intensity workouts, competition, and stress are key factors that lead to elevated cortisol the most common adrenal-hormone problem. When [cortisol is] elevated, other hormones of the adrenals are reduced, especially DHEA, testosterone and estrogen."

As you train and race, you must rebuild your body muscles especially but just as importantly, the bones, heart, blood vessels and the immune system. This "rebuilding" is referred to as being in an anabolic state.

When your body is breaking down, it is referred to as a catabolic state. This tearing-down process takes place as part of the training cycle, but excessive catabolic activity can lead to injury, ill health and reduced performance, a condition referred to by Maffetone as "Overtraining Syndrome." High cortisol and low DHEA and low testosterone in both men and women is associated with an anabolic/catabolic imbalance.

When a hormone imbalance such as elevated cortisol occurs, Maffetone says, "it can have a dramatic and sometimes devastating effect on your health and fitness." He says incorporating nutrients such as zinc and phosphorylated serine into your diet will help lower cortisol. This, in turn, can help you sleep through the night.

Sure, everyone goes through nights when Mr. Sandman just does not want to visit, but getting decent sleep on a regular basis is of paramount importance to training and competing to potential.

Noakes concludes: "My impression is that a good night's sleep the night before the race probably indicates that the runner is not properly psyched up for the race. The time to sleep well is the last week before and especially the second to the last night before the race."

As a marathon runner, I've both won and lost the battle of the zzz's. There have been pre-race nights of mental anguish, a combat between the mind knowing I must sleep and the butterflies, refusing to stop their flight.

The best advice regarding sleep and competition I've received is from my father, Charlie Parton, who's always said, "If you can't sleep, rest." The bottom line is, as long as you can focus in on the race when you get on the line, you'll do just fine.

I remembered Dad's words that night before the Red Dog Half Marathon. I rested and eventually slept. The next day, ran a personal best to win the race.

Laurie Corbin is a freelance writer and distance runner whose passion is the marathon. She runs for Nike of Northern New Jersey and PowerBar.

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