As a distance runner, there are many factors to consider when you’re trying to improve and there’s a very good chance you’re neglecting one of the most important – sleep. Be honest – do you take your rest as seriously as you do
your training and nutrition? It’s time you did.
Your running performance depends on three fundamental components – training, nutrition and rest. If these are in balance and treated with equal importance, you have a recipe for success. If not…
Have you ever felt extra tired and just wanted to rest, be it before, during or after a run, or you simply felt generally flat all day long? This is your body trying to tell you something and you ought to listen to it. On the other hand, you may not realise you are tired, but at a cellular level full recovery is never taking place, as you are not sleeping enough to get full benefit from your hard sessions and carefully designed – and observed – nutrition programme. The everyday person can get away with sleep deprivation, for a while, but a performance runner (that’s you) can’t.
Sleep is when the recovery process takes full effect. Eight to nine hours per night is optimal and if you are continually getting less than six hours per night, then your running performance is going to suffer. Poor sleep can be an indicator of overtraining and also a contributing factor to it. During sleep, the body rebuilds itself and re-establishes hormonal balance. It’s when the recovery process takes place within the muscles and at a cellular level. So if you’re getting four or five hours a night, you are compromising your recovery. This leads to symptoms of overtraining, fatigue, a compromised immune system, reduced concentration and, ultimately, it can lead to injury.
Unfortunately, we live in a society where we are often highly stressed, short on time and, in many cases, bringing work home with us. Also, thanks to the wonders of technology, we don’t know how (or when) to switch off. This causes the mind to be permanently overstimulated and tempts us to work into the early hours, meaning sleep patterns are erratic and shortened.
Here are eight changes to try that will improve your sleep habits and make you a better runner. And a happier person.
When it comes to training and nutrition, consistency is vital, and the same holds for sleep. Getting minimal amounts during the week, then trying to catch up with one mighty weekend lie-in or a one-off early night won’t fool your body into thinking it’s recovered. A little more sleep every night will work better.
2. IT’S NOT A LIE-IN!
Most people have to be up early and many runners choose to run early. This means that extra sleep needs to be added in the evening – go for earlier nights, not later mornings.
3. SMALL STEPS
Try getting to bed just 30 to 60 minutes earlier every night. This may seem a minimal improvement, but the cumulative effect over the week will make a big difference to how you feel during the day and how your perform on the road.
Begin getting ready for bed earlier than you think necessary – no distractions allowed! Leaving the washing up, kids’ packed lunches and last-minute emails until just before bedtime will mean you put your head down an hour or so later than you had intended. Try to get these things done much earlier, so that bedtime isn’t constantly getting pushed back.
5. EASE DOWN
Avoid stimulants in the evening, both nutritional and mental. Caffeine, sugary drinks, sweets, alcohol, social media, work emails and last-minute replies to texts will all leave your body and mind stimulated just before you try to nod off, thus compromising sleep quality.
6. GET NAPPING
If you have the time or the lifestyle, then afternoon naps – particularly on your long-run day or double-run days – will work wonders in terms of recovery and energy levels.
7. ROUGH CALCULATION
A rule of thumb used by many sports scientists is to take the number of miles you run per week and add that number (in minutes) to your usual nightly sleep time. It’s a broad calculation, but I have tried it and it works. Don’t believe it will make a difference? Aim to do it for three to four weeks and see what effect it has.
8. SLEEP HYGIENE
This doesn’t refer to clean sheets (it’s to be hoped they’re a given). It means a dark room that is not too hot or too cold, alarm clocks that exude light rather than sound (so you wake up more naturally) and no electronic devices by the bed or used in the final hour before you go to sleep.
Sleep is an area that most of us can improve on if we really want to. So get to bed – you are allowed! Remember, it’s all about being a better runner…