The Importance of Sleep for Runners

26 October 2016
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Sleep & Running

Everybody knows how important sleep is. Runners need more sleep than most people. Running sleep deprived can be as dangerous as driving intoxicated! 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 your appetite and causes irritability. A sleep debt can negatively affect your running. The National Sleep Foundation says that “sleep is as essential as diet and exercise. Inadequate sleep can result in fatigue, depression, concentration problems, illness and injury. Sleep helps general protein synthesis, cell growth and division, and tissue repair and growth.”


So, what happens during sleep that is so important?

  1. Water Reabsorption

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. Being fully hydrated, the kidneys can balance your body’s electrolytes more effectively so that this balance can be better maintained during running.

“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.


  1. Body Repair

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 SLEEP reported 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 night-time sleep length.

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 the repair process.


  1. Human Growth Hormone (HGH)

During the deeper stages of sleep 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.


  1. Weight Loss

Regular sleep can boost the weight loss benefits of running.


If you don’t get enough sleep, your body’s appetite signalling hormones [leptin and ghrelin] are thrown off. 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. 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.


  1. Concentration & Mental Toughness

Runners can be analytical — always trying to figure out why one race went so well and why another didn’t. 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. This concentration is also essential for being able to “push” it at the end of a race.


Knowing this, how can you get the best running from your sleep?


  • Determine your sleep needs and meet it every night, “Monday through Monday.” Establish a regular sleep schedule. Go to sleep at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every day. If you have a yo-yo sleep-wake schedule, your body never knows when it’s time to shut down. 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.
  • Ensure you are well hydrated, taking in enough water during the day and limiting caffeine, nicotine and alcohol which can reduce sleep quality.
  • Stop using your mobile phone 1hour before bed – this can help to increase sleep quality.
  • Try to keep noise levels down and ensure there is no brightness entering your room.
  • Avoid stressful situations before bed – try reading a book, taking a relaxing bath or practice relaxation techniques, maybe even listen to relaxing music.
  • Lighten up on evening meals, try not to eat before 8pm. Eating after this can be a recipe for insomnia.
  • Try to fit your running in early. Exercise helps promote restful sleep if it is done >3hours before bedtime – you will sleep more soundly and faster if you try this.



If you are struggling with sleep days before a race, don’t panic. Research has shown that sleep loss ranging from 16-24 hours does not impair performance during aerobic and anaerobic events. The adrenaline rush of competition appears to override any negative physical consequences of sleep deprivation. Therefore, if you miss several hours of sleep for a night or two before your race, your performance is not likely to be impacted unless you are particularly susceptible to sleep deprivation. Once the sleep loss doesn’t exceed 2 successive nights.



“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.


As always, Yours in Health,

The Lawlor Clinic,

Chiropractic & Physiotherapy

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