Here are five ways a good night’s sleep can help improve your running.
Everybody knows how important sleep is even though our culture of hyper-busy people discourages it. You probably know someone who brags how he only needs five hours of sleep a night and another who insists on eight hours — and it’s true, sleep needs vary.
As an athlete, getting enough sleep is as important as your food and exercise choices. Cheating on sleep makes it hard to concentrate at work, may impair you appetite and causes irritability. A sleep debt can negatively affect your running.
“You might be able to get by with one or two lousy nights of sleep, but your best performance is when you’ve had a good night’s sleep,” said James B. Maas, PhD, a psychologist from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and author of Sleep to Win.
The better sleep you get, the better you perform athletically.
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Water, Water Everywhere
One of the most important ways sleep can help your running is water reabsorption — especially during the summer months when you sweat more and dehydration is more of a concern. During sleep, the kidney balances water, sodium and other electrolytes. Without enough water the kidneys can’t balance electrolytes properly.
“Dehydration leads to muscle pain while running and poor performance,” said Joanne E. Getsy, MD, professor of medicine, Drexel University College of Medicine, Pulmonary, Critical Care, Sleep Division, Philadelphia, Pa.
After a good night of sleep, a well-hydrated runner should urinate. “If you don’t go to the bathroom within an hour of getting up, you are likely not well-hydrated,” Getsy said. “Another clue would be severe muscle pain.”
Besides making you feel better, sleep is when your body repairs and regenerates damaged tissue from the day’s workout and builds bone and muscle to be ready for the next workout. Distance runners especially need that sleep/repair time to make sure that muscles recover from training.
Research from Stanford published in SLEEPreported that increased sleeping time can improve athletic performance. In the study, researchers had basketball players maintain their regular sleep schedule of six to nine hours for up to four weeks. After that, they were asked to sleep 10 hours each night for five to seven weeks. Speed improved significantly (16.2 seconds verses 15.5 second for 282-foot sprints); shooting accuracy improved and the players said they felt their practices improved after six weeks of lengthening nighttime sleep length.
“This study was specifically on collegiate basketball players, not runners,” said Cheri D. Mah, the study’s research scientist at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory. “However, the study suggests that sleep is important for performance and that reducing an accumulated sleep debt can be beneficial for athletes likely at all levels. Sleep should be a high priority in an athlete’s daily training.”
“Sleep allows the body to engage in repair and also to allow for certain brain wave patterns that may serve to assist in the formation of memories, learning and task completion,” said Jim Winger, MD, assistant professor of family medicine, Primary Care Sports Medicine, Loyola Stritch School of Medicine, Maywood, Ill.
Important when you are training your body to climb hills or meet a certain time during track work.
What The HGH?
During the deeper stages of sleep, human growth hormone, (HGH) is released during slow wave sleep. HGH is a natural hormone produced by the pituitary gland and released into the bloodstream. HGH rebuilds damaged tissue while building stronger muscles. It also helps convert fat to fuel, and keeps our bones strong.
“If you don’t get enough sleep, you produce less HGH and it becomes harder for your body to recover from workouts. Too little sleep also leads to an increase in cortisol, which often comes out during times of stress. An increase in cortisol contributes to slower recovery times,” said Shelby F. Harris, PsyD, CBSN, director, behavioral sleep medicine program, Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, N.Y. If your workouts are hard, your body may release greater quantities of HGH while you sleep.
“If you do a harder interval workout as opposed to an easy run, you might have more HGH hormone secreted if you actually need it,” added Benny Garcia, MS, CSCS, exercise physiologist at Loyola University Chicago/Gottlieb Center of Fitness in Chicago.
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Regular sleep can boost the weight loss benefits of running.
“If you don’t get enough sleep, your body’s appetite signaling hormones [leptin and ghrelin] are thrown off,” Harris said. “Less sleep leads to more ghrelin [which makes us hungry] and less leptin [which tells us we're full]. Sleeping a full night regularly helps keep your hunger signals in check and keeps, especially when combined with exercise, your weight down.”
For marathoners during taper weeks, regularly getting a solid night of sleep may be even more important than the miles you’re running during that time period.
“Endurance athletes find that moderate carbo-loading just before an event can enhance athletic performance,” Harris said. “However, if you’re not sleeping enough, your body won’t properly store the carbs you’re consuming [leading to less glycogen stores] and the benefits of carbo-loading may be lost. You might even hit the wall sooner than usual because your glycogen stores will be depleted too fast.”
Mental toughness. Runners can be analytical — always trying to figure out why one race went so well and why another didn’t.
“The right amount of sleep affects your concentration,” said Nathaniel Jones, MD, from Loyola University Health System in Chicago. It takes a few hours after you fall asleep to reach deep, quality sleep, usually into the seventh hour — especially in younger athletes.
Concentration can be negatively impaired when a runner races with sleep debt.
“Enough sleep helps you tune into your body better, improves your concentration and helps you strategize the rest of the race or for the rest of the run,” Jones said. This concentration is also essential for being able to “push” it at the end of a race.
To get the best running from your sleep, Maas recommends these three things:
- Determine your sleep needs and meet it every night, “Monday through Monday.”
- Establish a regular sleep schedule: get up at the same time every day. “If you have a yo-yo sleep-wake schedule, you’re body never knows when it’s time to shut down,” Maas said. “You end up being in a constant state of jet lag without ever leaving home.”
- Get one long block of continuous sleep at night. Power naps are a last resort if you have to make up lost sleep. Snooze for 10 to 15 minutes — no longer or you might become groggy.