It is officially marathon season. During peak training times like now, there may not always be enough hours in the day to get everything done. As an endurance runner myself, sleep and exercise are actively on my mind right now and I’ve decided to discuss how important sleep is in a proper training regimen.

Runners who decide to enter a race (regardless of the distance) typically turn to training plans that include detailed information about the mileage and pace for each run. They read about proper nutrition to fuel a run. Sleep? Well, sleep doesn’t get the same regular discussion – yet sleep is a critical component of any good training plan. Here’s why:

Running, Sleep, and Weight Loss

Many people (including myself) start running to lose some weight. While weight loss is a result of increased calorie burn, a solid night of sleep every night can enhance these results. Sleep deprivation throws our appetite signaling hormones out of whack. When we sleep less, we have an increase in ghrelin (the hormone that makes us hungry) and a decrease in leptin (which tells us we’re full). As a result, we eat more because we don’t have a strong signal to stop. Good sleep helps to keep these hunger signals in check, leading to an easier time sticking with a diet and – when combined with exercise – a greater ability to lose weight and keep it off. Also, less weight equals faster running!

Sleep and “Carbo-Loading”

A time-honored ritual of most endurance athletes is carbo-loading during the 1-2 days before an event. Carbohydrates help to provide a ready source of energy to the body - when carbs are broken down by the body, the component sugars are stored in the muscles as glycogen, just waiting for the body to use it during the race. This can enhance athletic performance and help delay "hitting the wall" too early. Although there is debate about how much to carbo-load (it isn’t an excuse to eat four plates of pasta for dinner!), many agree that athletes should increase the percentage of carbohydrates eaten the day before a race.

Sleep deprivation weakens the body’s ability to store carbohydrates (therefore less glygocen is stored). Reduced glycogen stores at the start of a race can then lead one to hit the wall sooner than usual since the glycogen stores are depleted too fast. Good sleep makes that plate of pasta work for you on race day.

Sleep, Taper, and Recovery

Taper time takes place 2-3 weeks before a long-distance event when one cuts back on weekly mileage in order to help restore energy and recover from the tough training. This allows the legs to be fresh for race day. Many athletes find taper to be mentally challenging since they often think “I should be running a lot right before the race to be prepared.” But the training is already in the bank, and tapering for a few weeks before an event can be really helpful (though mentally challenging!).

Although we focus so much on the eating and running aspects during taper, sleep again often gets pushed to the side.

Sleep is one of the most important components to a successful taper – even more important than shorter and easier runs. During the deeper stages of sleep, HGH (Human Growth Hormone) is released. HGH is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland and released into the bloodstream. HGH aids in repairing muscle, strengthening bones, and converting fat to fuel. Less sleep leads to reduced HGH levels, impacting the speed from which you recover from workouts. Sleep deprivation also leads to increased levels of cortisol (a hormone released during stress). More cortisol also contributes to slower recovery times.

Here are some recommendations to help get quality sleep on your training schedule:

1. Don’t stress if you can’t sleep well the night before a race. This is completely normal and the adrenaline will carry you through. Try to sleep as much as you can in the days leading up to race night, helping to offset the result from any pre-race jitters.

2. Get enough sleep on a regular basis. The best way to figure out your optimal sleep need is to go to bed and not set the alarm for a few days (ideally with five or more days where you don’t need to wake up early). On days four and five, you can start to see how much sleep you regularly require. Most people fall within a range of about 6-9 hours a night, though there is individual variation.

3. Limit alcohol, heavy meals, nicotine, and exercise (tough, I know!) within three hours of bedtime.

4. Limit screen time (TV, iPad, computer, etc.) within one hour of bedtime and wind down with something calm and relaxing (maybe even incorporate some gentle stretching and/or deep breathing exercises to help with stress management).

5. Limit caffeine within 6-8 hours of bedtime.

6. If you are unable to sleep well on a regular basis, consider talking with your doctor – there are many treatments available that are very helpful!

Good luck to all who are at the start line this season! See you at the finish!

About the Author

Shelby Harris

Shelby Harris, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center.

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