We know what runners’ dreams are made of: long, peaceful runs where our legs never get tired, personal bests, and yes, breaking the tape at the finish… Or these days, just getting the chance to toe the line. But here’s the deal; you won’t reach your dreams, or even have many of them, without this most overlooked element of your training regimen: sleep.
“Research shows it’s an essential component of your health and well-being,” says Dr. Karan Shukla, a Family and Sports Medicine Physician at Novant Health Randolph Family Medicine, and a member of the medical team at Novant Health Charlotte Marathon since 2016. “There’s a direct link to how much sleep someone gets, and the quality, and how they’re able to perform during training and competition.”
That makes a lot of sense to the perpetually-tired among us, who get up early to run, work all day, and come home to family and other obligations. Who hasn’t “gotten by” on 6 hours of sleep for 2 or 3 nights — or more — in a row? Well, it’s not good for your overall health, or your running performance.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research points out that adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep at night to maintain healthy cognitive, physical, and metabolic function. That includes your immune system function (because getting sick is no fun) and regulating important hormones that control tissue repair, stress, and insulin levels (because being sore and broken down all the time is no fun either).
“Sleep affects performance in substrate ability — glycogen stores, how much time to fatigue, our reaction time, and cognitive speeds,” says Dr. Shukla. “And athletes might require more sleep than non-active people so that they allow for adequate recovery between training and performance times.” According to other studies, athletes are generally bad judges of the amount and quality of sleep they’re getting, and are most likely to “push through” because of the shape they’re in.
“We have a poor ability to self-assess how good our sleep is in general,” says Dr. Shukla. But athletes also feel like they’re working harder (in studies of “perceived exertion”) when they’re sleep-deprived, while their performance, accuracy, strength, and endurance have actually decreased. “Youth and collegiate athletes were injured more often after a night with not enough sleep,” says Dr. Shukla. “Even one additional hour can reduce injury.”
So what’s the fix for the busy, overtired, and under-slept amongst us? Dr. Shukla says there are a few simple things that will help us get better quality sleep, even if we don’t always get the right quantity.
5 Steps to Better Sleep
1. Optimize “Sleep Hygiene” – Your bedroom should only be used for one thing, advises Dr. Shukla, and that’s sleep. Not work, not TV, not reading, not browsing social media until you’re exhausted. Just sleep. And maybe one other thing (wink, wink). Leave everything else for your living room or office.
2. Shut Down Technology – You may think you’re doing some light reading until you’re drowsy, but science shows that your phone or laptop messes with your brain chemistry if you’re on it right before bed.
“The backlights interfere with our circadian rhythms by suppressing melatonin,” says Dr. Shukla. “It keeps your mind running and not in a relaxed state.” Shut it down an hour before bedtime to get the most rest — you want a 30-60 minute period to get in a relaxed state that allows sleep.
3. Cool Your Cave – The environment should be comfortable, cool, and dark, with minimal ambient noise. Perhaps hibernating in a frozen cave isn’t your speed, but you don’t want to wake up sweating, either. Some people will drift off better and sleep deeper with the whirr of a white noise generator or ceiling fan, or soothing lavender. Apps like Calm, Breathe, and Headspace can help you with mindfulness and breathing, and reduce stress and anxiety (but not right before bed!) A bedtime ritual (shower, set your alarm, prepare for the next day) also kicks your body into the habit of going to sleep.
4. Limit Late Snacks – We love sitting down with a bowl of ice cream or a glass of wine to relax, but again, WHEN you eat or drink can have an effect on sleep just like WHAT you eat or drink. NO CAFFEINE or stimulants after 2pm; your body knows, even if your droopy eyelids don’t. Alcohol and nicotine can affect your ability to fall asleep, too.
Some herbal teas, melatonin, and CBD oil have been gaining traction as non-narcotic sleep aids, but we wouldn’t suggest trying them for the first time the night before a race. And prescription medicines can also affect sleep and how refreshed or drowsy you feel when you wake up. Make sure you talk to a doctor about any meds you’re taking before adding a sleep aid.
5. Keep a Journal – Yes, sleep homework! Journals that chronicle when you went to bed, when you woke up, and how you slept, are a great tool to see how patterns affect your running routine. Log your workouts there, too, to see how sleep corresponds to how you feel when you run. You’ll also notice if you’re not keeping a consistent sleep schedule, which will affect your quality of sleep.
“This information can allow for a wide-angle perspective for training,” says Dr. Shukla. “Incorporating information like training loads, fatigue levels, stress level, and moods during these periods can help athletes appreciate the benefits of sleep on performance.” Journals are especially helpful for young athletes who are balancing school, sports, and studying in their day — and often late into the night.
There are also several other factors that can affect your sleep like hormones, pregnancy, or menopause for women, and restless leg syndrome, bladder issues, or other medical conditions. Check your iron and Vitamin D, as they can ease conditions that cause bad sleep, too.
And remember to find a mattress and pillow that suit you. These are very individual things, but a medium-firm pillow that supports your head without burying it is a good start.