To Sleep Or Not To Sleep: The Impact Of Sleep On Running Performance

So you are a typical high school student. You go to school every day (usually!), you do homework (again, usually), you work part-time, have a social life, etc… Oh, and you run cross-country and put in 30-50 (or more) miles a week. At some point, sleep becomes optional or it happens in the middle of 3rd period English. But is losing sleep a big deal?

First off, if you think you get enough sleep, you are probably wrong. Research shows the average young adult needs, on average, at least 8 hours of sleep, but only gets 6.7 hours of sleep. This adds up over time. And if you think missed sleep just means you are a little cranky the next day, think again. Inadequate sleep leads to:

  •                 Obesity and heart disease
  •                 Increased blood sugar levels and diabetes
  •                 Poor bone and muscle growth, as well as impaired injury healing
  •                 Increased sickness and infections
  •                 Increased body temperature (important when running in Florida)
  •                 Depression and decision making ability
  •                 and a lot more stuff that would just make this list really long…

So basically, not sleeping is bad. But HOW bad? Does it affect running? Yes. A classic study done by Martin et al. (1981) found even missing one night of sleep decreases performance, cardiovascular endurance and perception of effort. They also found stress hormones were elevated, causing a depressed immune system. These results were from just one night of poor sleep. Weeks or even months of just 5-6 hours of sleep can cause substantial hormonal imbalances and fatigue.

One study remarked that individuals who went months with limited sleep had hormone levels and the mental alertness of someone 20 years older (Reilly 2007). A common side effect in many studies has been that runners have a higher perception of effort for a given level of exercise. In other words, lack of sleep makes everything seem harder -- especially running.

Lack of sleep also impacts a runner's ability to regulate body temperature. Dr. Michael Sawka, at the U.S. Army Research and Development Center, has stated that "sleep loss can depress the body's thermoregulatory system by reducing our ability to sweat during exercise". So the heat seems hotter AND the cold seems colder!

Despite this, what has always fascinated me is that the best books and videos on running almost never talk about sleep. Ever. So what can you do.

Well elite runners often take afternoon naps. Olympians like Paula Radcliffe and Galen Rupp have been known to take two-hour naps during training. This is easier said than done, the sacrifice is worth it. There are also a few things you can do to get better sleep..

                1) Create a quality sleeping environment. Most research shows the environments that are most conducive for sleep are cool, quiet and dark. So, turn up the A/C, and turn off the lights and TV.

                2) Have a consistent bedtime ritual. In other words, do things (relaxing things) each night that help your body begin the process of getting to sleep. For example, a short reading time, journal writing, meditation, or setting things out for the next day.

                3) Set a consistent sleep schedule. Nearly 80% of people with sleeping disorders have inconsistent sleep schedules. Go to bed at the same time each night -- an wake up at the same time each morning. I have known a lot of runners who will sleep in late one morning and almost always have a poor run that day. Inconsistent sleep schedule can throw us off, both mentally and physically.

                4) Have quality bedding. A good mattress is essential for a good sleep. A medium-firm pillow is best for the average, healthy person. Choose a pillow that supports your head without burying it.

So, if you are still awake after reading this… go get some sleep. You'll need it.

NEXT WEEK: Heels or toes? What is the best way to run?

Dr. Matthew Mitchell's Bio:

Matthew currently lives in Wellington, Florida and teaches Physiology, Biomechanics and Nutrition at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He completed his graduate studies at the University of Florida, Wake Forest University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. While completing his doctoral work at the University of Florida, he served as Assistant Women's Soccer Coach. During his tenure, the team won three SEC championship and one NCAA Championship in 1998. Matthew is an avid runner and currently coaches elite youth runners in Florida.