As runners, we all recognize the importance of recovery from hard workouts and races. Without adequate recovery, our running becomes stagnant and if the training is hard enough and the recovery is inadequate, injury is certain to follow.
One of the most important components of recovery is also the simplest: Sleep. Obviously, we all need to sleep but the more we train, the greater its importance. And yet, due to our stressful lives full of responsibilities, adequate, quality sleep is often something which is overlooked.
As two-time Olympic marathoner Peter Pfitzinger points out in his new book Faster Road Racing, “Reduced time of sleep and quality of sleep can lead to reduced recovery and impaired running performance. It may also contribute to overtraining. An acute sleep debt from a few days of less-than-optimal rest can be made up relatively quickly, but many people’s lifestyles leads to chronic sleep debts.”
Chronic sleep debts—lack of adequate sleep—can reduce the synthesis of protein which is utilized for muscle and tissue repair, a key factor in recovery.
The two main types of sleep are REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM, but both are important from a running standpoint. REM sleep is a deeper sleep which is linked with mental processes and cognitive function. Pfitzinger, an exercise scientist and coach in New Zealand, suggests that REM sleep is important for learning new motor skills (such as drills), while non-REM aids in physical recovery from workouts, builds bone and repairs muscle damage.
Dreaming is relatively rare during non-REM sleep as the mind is usually more organized during this time. But since our brains are more active during REM, this is when most dreaming takes place.
There isn’t anything you can do to control which sleep phase you are in as we cycle between the two. (Actually, there are three but the first phase is very brief.) After that initial phase, comes non-REM sleep, followed by a shorter period of REM sleep usually coming about 90- minutes after we first fall asleep. Typically, we alternate between non-REM and REM all night long.
Most adults require approximately 7-8 hours of sleep a night, but runners, who are in a training mode of high mileage and hard workouts, might need more. Ironically, hard training and high mileage can stimulate the nervous system to such an extent and raise the resting heart rate, that increased training can lead to difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep.
If that sounds like you, there are a few things you can do, so the higher level of training doesn’t inhibit your sleep and reduce your recovery between runs. First off, don’t run at night. At least not within three or four hours of bedtime. Secondly, avoid caffeine in the afternoons and certainly in the evenings. Also, reduce your alcoholic consumption at night. One drink or a beer is probably OK, but more than that can disrupt your sleep.
It also helps your sleep patterns if you get into a routine. That is, going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time. Once in bed, keep your bedroom slightly cool (turn on a fan in the summer), and keep the room dark. If you read in bed, only use a bedside lamp and don’t lighten the entire room.
Napping helps catch up on sleep and rest—especially if you are doing high mileage before a marathon—but napping also makes it more difficult to fall asleep at night. If you’re having trouble falling asleep at night and staying asleep, try to avoid naps.
Also, a lot of runners who don’t fall into deep sleep patterns, are actually asleep and just don’t know it because they are so restless. Even if they aren’t asleep but resting comfortably in a darkened room, they are still getting rest. It may not be as satisfying as deep sleep, but it’s rest nonetheless.
If your training is so rigorous that you need a little rest during the day, try taking a short—very short—nap around mid day. But limit the catnap to 10-15 minutes which should be adequate to refresh without interfering with your regular sleep routine at night.
Finally, if you are still having trouble getting enough sleep during a high-mileage phase, you may have to cut back on your training. Reduced sleep quality and having trouble falling asleep is a sign of overtraining so you might be training above your physical and mental threshold anyway.
Best advice is to take several days off and your sleep cycle should return to normal.