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Sleep Your Way to a New PR (Yes, Really!)

The research is clear: if you want to reach your potential as a runner, you probably need more sleep. At least 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep issues. However, the problems associated with sleep interruption, deprivation, or loss can have particularly negative effects on runners. Sleep and rest are every bit as important as doing intervals, hill work, eating properly, doing strength work, or stretching. So, to accomplish your running goals this upcoming year, you need to think about sleep as an important part of your training regimen –– yes, you can do more of it and yes, you can get better at it.

Don’t be this guy

Sleep deficits harm your training by attacking muscles and slowing recovery. Lack of sleep, for instance, interferes with the metabolism of glucose; muscles depend on glucose for recovery and nourishment. In addition, a lack of sleep also undermines the production of human growth hormone, a key player in building and repairing muscle tissue. As HGH production declines, the production of cortisol –– the “stress hormone” –– increases and plays havoc with recovery. Finally, sleep shortages contribute to low-grade inflammation and inhibit repair of muscles, tissue, and tendons. Thus, sleep is critical to one’s ability to heal the micro tears that occur during a hard workout.

Not enough sleep can also weaken the immune system. This can be a problem for runners as they ramp up toward a goal because increasing training load can stress the immune system even without a sleep deficit. Without revitalizing rest, where the body recovers and the training program takes effect, the runner will grow increasingly frustrated, run down, and maybe even ill.

The importance of sleep to effective training and running performance is clear when you look at elite runners’ attitudes toward sleep. As with other, more active aspects of training, their training approach can offer a model for the everyday runner. There is no denying that most elite runners get a lot of sleep. When British Olympian and marathon world-record holder Paula Radcliffe was competing in her prime, she slept for around nine hours a night and took a two-hour nap in the afternoon. U.S. distance runner Deena Kastor, who claimed the bronze medal at the 2004 Olympic Marathon, manages 10-12 hours of sleep per day. She also takes a long afternoon nap.

Deena Kastor –– Well rested and successful at the 2007 Boston Marathon

Before we all get discouraged that we won’t be able to replicate the number and quality of Deena Kastor’s “ZZZs,” we need to realize that resting is part of Kastor’s job. It’s merely another important facet of her training program subject to endless strategizing and analysis. The point is that we can do better than we’re doing now with our sleep training and we also can reap the positive results.

So, how do we start? Supplementing a night’s sleep with a thirty-minute power nap makes sense, if you can manage to do so, since human growth hormone is secreted approximately 20 minutes after you fall asleep. By sleeping twice a day, you will receive a double dose of HGH. This should speed the recovery of stressed and damaged muscles and allow you to adapt more quickly and effectively to your training stimulus.

Sleeping like an elite runner

However, it’s doubtful that you are going to be able to get eleven hours of sleep during the course of your day unless you happen to be a toddler. How, then, can we mimic the example of elite athletes when to comes to sleep? The key is quality. If you can’t sleep as long, you need to make sure that when you are asleep, it is of high quality. You need rapid eye movement sleep (REM) for muscle repair. REM sleep usually commences about ninety minutes after you fall asleep and lasts for about two hours. Repair hormones are released and your muscles are actually paralyzed during REM sleep to allow for maximum healing. Typically, only about 20-25% of a night’s sleep will be REM sleep, with cycles getting longer as your sleep continues. This is why quality sleep in which you stay asleep is so critical. If you are overly stressed or have a poor sleeping environment in which you are constantly waking up, it could signal that you are not getting an adequate amount of REM sleep.

A rare picture of Thomas Edison sleeping

As with all training advice, the time-pressed runner asks, “How much is enough?” And as with all training advice, I have to say… it depends. I know, I know, Thomas Edison only slept three hours a week and look at how successful he was (OK, I exaggerate –– he slept three to four hour a night). Yet, most American adults probably need more than we think and certainly need more than we typically get.

A most respected sleep expert

Here are some general guidelines:

  • Sleep one hour for every two hours you are awake during the day.
  • Runners need to add one extra minute in bed per night for every mile that they run during the week. With a little planning, this doesn’t seem too arduous. If you are, for example, doing thirty miles a week, you will need to hit the hay an half hour earlier than your usual, “non-running” bedtime.
  • Make quality uninterrupted sleep your priority –– seven to nine hours.
  • Keep on schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends.
  • Use a log to improve your sleep self-knowledge. Sleep is part of your training, so it should be logged –– particularly if you are feeling excessively run down after workouts or are having fatigue issues that defy ready explanation. Record the time you went to bed, the time you wake up, how long you have slept, whether it was interrupted, how quickly you feel you fell asleep, and how refreshed you felt when you woke up.
  • Use the sleep monitoring function on Garmin GPS watches such as the Forerunner 15, 25, and 235 to help you assess how much you are sleeping, your movement during sleep, and whether your sleep is restful.
Use one of these to track your sleep and record it in this

It’s also critical to be aware that your diet and nutrition influence the quality of your sleep and thus your ability to benefit from your training. One of the great things about working at Fleet Feet Sports is that we have all sorts of resources to help figure out how to train better. Last summer, nutritionist Katherine Kilrain-Hayes (you know her as Katie) joined our team.

For Katie, nutrition is a passion that came from a desire to approach health from a holistic perspective. Having graduated from Union College with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and philosophy, she proceeded to study the pastry arts. After finding a passion for food and how it affects an individual’s well being, she went back to school at Russell Sage for Nutrition Science. There, she earned a post-baccalaureate degree in Nutrition Science from an accredited CADE program. Currently at Fleet Feet Sports, Katherine teaches people how to integrate nutritious eating into a holistic wellness plan based around their activity levels. 

Now that I’ve introduced her, I am going to hand over the rest of this blog to her (our first guest blogger!).

Sleep, like regular exercise and eating nutritiously, is fundamental in combating diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and providing mental clarity. Studies have linked too little sleep to weight gain and greater cravings for high-fat, sugary foods. Studies have found getting less than 6 hours of sleep disrupts the balance of hormones that control appetite and satiety levels. Leptin and ghrelin are the two hormones responsible for regulating our appetites. As ghrelin increases and leptin decreases from chronic lack of sleep, we tend to eat more foods, especially those that are high in fat and sugar.  If these hormones are out of balance, due to lack of sleep, we crave bigger portions and snack more on low nutrient foods.

To increase the likelihood of having better sleep, you need to increase your fiber intake, while decreasing both high sugar added items and high saturated fat foods. Foods like beans, whole-wheat toast, fruits and vegetables provide fiber to decrease disrupted sleep patterns. Also, avoiding soda, dessert after dinner, and full-fat dairy and meat products, can lead to more restorative sleep. The cyclic nature of poor sleep habits also increases a propensity towards eating foods that negatively affect how well we then sleep. This suggests it can be a difficult trend to break. A good start could be journaling your meals and sleep schedule. You may notice a pattern and see ways to make improvements in your diet that can lead to better sleep.  

In contrast, having a regular sleep cycle with adequate rest leads to having more energy. Therefore, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is easier with restful nights. Perhaps your PR can be achieved by sleeping in a little more or shutting down the computer and going to bed a couple hours earlier.

Thanks, Katie. We’ll be looking forward to reading more from our in-house nutritionist in the future.

One thing is very clear. Good nutrition is critical to high-quality sleep and sleep is absolutely essential for improving your running. Turn off those screens, increase your fiber intake, and treat sleep like a component of your training. Good night, sir! Good night, madam!

Have you managed to consciously incorporate a sleep routine into your training? What were some of the key considerations for you? We would really like to hear about your experiences regarding sleep and training. Please tell us about it in the comments.

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