A runner’s training program includes runs, speedwork, core and strength training. Another important part of effective training is having good quality sleep regularly. Sleep is often overlooked by runners or athletes, but it is important in preventing injury, building muscle, and recovery. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night is one of the first thing to try when a runner experiences problems with injuries or endurance. By staying up too late and not sleeping enough, a runner makes it impossible for the body to adequately repair itself.
During training sessions, there is no muscle growth, after an intense speed session or long run, the muscles are actually broken down and contain micro tears. The body has the ability to repair the muscle and make it stronger so it can sustain the next training sessions, but the muscle repair and rebuilding occurs primarily during sleep.
When sleeping, the body’s temperature and heart lowers and the entire body enters the stage of relaxation. During the deepest stage of sleep (REM), the body releases growth hormones to repair muscle tissue. The muscles are paralyzed during this time to allow maximum repair.
Sleep is also essential for a healthy immune system. If the body is sleep deprived, the number of T-cells go down, these cells are important in activating and directing immune cells. That is why it is also very important to sleep well when we are sick.
REM sleep usually starts 90 minutes after falling asleep, and lasts an average of two hours. If a runner is overly stressed or has trouble sleeping, the REM stage might never be reached. Especially for ultrarunners, the sleep quality might be affected by long-distance runs and high elevation. After long intense runs, the resting heart rate is higher, which affects the sleep pattern. Usually after an Ultra race, it might take a few days for the resting heart rate to get back to normal. That’s why post-race recovery and rest is crucial.
Tips to Improve Sleep for Runners
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
- Reduce caffeine consumption- Avoid drinking coffee in the afternoon, switch to caffeine free tea or coffee.
- Don’t train within 2 hours before bed time as it will increase your heart rate and affect your sleep quality.
- Limit the evening alcohol consumption- Drinking some wine, beer or alcohol before bed, even though you might feel more relaxed, will affect your sleep pattern. When we drink alcohol before bed, our liver has to process the alcohol, which will increase the heart rate. You might wake up during the night sweating and unable to fall back asleep. Drink only 1 glass of alcohol and no later than 7pm to protect your sleep quality.
- Don’t eat large meals before bed- The digestive system is too busy, creating more stress to the body and heart rate.
- Find a relaxing bedtime routine- Reading, taking a warm shower, drinking chamomile tea.
- Make sure you have a comfortable and good quality mattress and pillow.
Research has shown that runners who got some 8-8.5hrs of good sleep three days before a race, felt much better, stronger, and performed well.