Sunday, March 22, 2009

Running From A to ZzZzZz...

Many adults remember pulling all-nighters at sleepovers with their friends at some point in their childhoods. I can vividly recall New Year's Eve slumber parties, using every ounce of my energy to stay awake as I glanced, bleary-eyed, at the clock until the next morning approached. My mother would pick me up to take me home, and I'd sit with a fatigue-induced headache in the car until I could go home to fall practically unconscious on my bed. Now, looking back, it's a wonder why anyone would put themselves through such cruel and unusual punishment.

As runners, sleep is sometimes underestimated. The sport itself takes time out of our day, and we can find ourselves lacking any extra time at night to relax and wind-down from a chaotic schedule. However entertaining that late-night television show is, and however juvenile a "bed time" seems, one must know when to turn off the tube and retire. To avoid becoming a burnt-out, exhausted, irritable, zombie athlete, it's time to start prioritizing sleep and treating our stressed bodies with the respect they deserve.

Running and other types of exercise usually help an individual sleep more soundly at night. But if you've ever been through bouts of hard training, it's possible you have experienced insomnia, making all the discipline in the world useless in getting to sleep. Reading, relaxing, or even counting sheep can't lure you into slumber.

Possible reasons for this sleepless state could be running late at night, causing the exercise-induced heightened body temperature, metabolism, and awareness to interfere when it's time to hit the hay. It is recommended that those who experience such sleep disturbances avoid running within 6 hours of sleep. If this is unfeasible, however, the next to best thing would be relaxation methods, such as incorporating yoga and/or stretches into your routine before bed.

Why is Sleep So Important For Runners?

Sleep consists of 5 cycles, each lasting a duration of approximately 90 minutes. The first four cycles are distinguished by non-rapid-eye moment (non-REM), whereas the fifth cycle consists of rapid-eye movement. For athletes such as yourself, cycles 3 and 4 are the most important because it is the time during which a growth hormone (GH) is released by the pituitary gland at the brain's base. GH is a significant part of your training, as it is needed to repair the muscles and bones a runner demands so much of. Thus, when you skimp on sleep, training and recovery take longer and one may experience a plateau or reduction of their performance.

To quantify this, laboratory tests have found that for an individual accustomed to 8 hours of sleep, cutting this time to a mere 6 hours had an adverse effect on performance equivalent to that of an 0.05 blood-alcohol level. Who wants to run like they're closing in on the 0.08 BAC of being legally "drunk?"

How Much Sleep is Enough?

A good rule of thumb for runners in terms of sleep duration is this: 8 hours plus the number of miles run per week in minutes. For example, someone running 50 miles a week would aim for 8 hours, 50 minutes of sleep. Of course, some people may need more or less, as individual needs are always something to consider. Personally, however, I find this ballpark is a good range for more optimum training, especially when performance is peaking before a race.

Tips to Sleeping More Soundly

While some hit the pillow hard and can sleep like rocks, for others, sleep can be a difficult thing to attain. Here are some tips to help you fall asleep faster and have a better slumber:
  1. Don't go to bed with the TV or radio on.
  2. Use curtains or other apparatuses to block out external light.
  3. Keep the thermostat at a slightly cool temperature; that way, you can use sheets and blankets as means of temperature control.
  4. Try to not drink fluids within 2 hours of sleep.
  5. Either don't use a digital bedroom clock or turn its face away from you. Clock-watching will only accentuate the frustration of insomnia.
  6. Don't excessively mull over problems of your day.
  7. Avoid napping during the day.
  8. If you must get up in the middle of the night, don't turn on bright lights that could "reset" your internal clock.
  9. When sinus problems ail you, use an extra pillow to prop your head up and allow fluid to drain, hence easing respiration and congestion.
  10. Go to bed on neither an empty nor overly-full stomach.
  11. Wake up at a time you will be exposed to sunlight or turn on lights.
  12. Don't fall asleep on the couch or in a chair; go to bed.
  13. Develop a routine for your body by rising and retiring at similar times each day.

Athletes work their bodies so hard to achieve their goals, and it's essential to realize rest is just as an important part of reaching success. It doesn't matter what strategies you use to get to sleep, how many pillows you choose to use, or even if you sleep in your underwear - just as long as you sleep long and soundly enough.


  1. Hi Breadcrumb Runner,

    Listening to soothing sounds of nature relaxes me and I fall asleep faster!


  2. I need to sleep more. Great tips. I'll have to remember those.

  3. Awesome tips! Thanks. I need to remember some of these so I can sleep better. Yep, I'm going to sleep my way to a good Boston marathon. Haha!

  4. Good info!
    I could sleep all day I think, especially Monday morning, ha!

  5. This is a really good post. I think runners sometimes forget that sleep is an important part of training.

  6. I rarely have a problem sleeping, but I should really cut out some television and get to bed earlier.

    Great info & tips as always.

  7. I've never had trouble sleeping, but this is great information for those who do. Rest is so important for an athlete.