Sleep is part of training

This is the first installment in a series of blog posts on how to get the most out of your training. To become your best, it’s necessary to fully appreciate the complementarity and importance of all the facets that go into training. The training driver diagram is a good place to start.

While a tremendous amount of attention goes into crafting the progression and details of workouts in most training programs, there is generally insufficient attention applied to the other factors that are essential to becoming your best. The first priority of any ultra-runner’s training plan must be consistency in running. If you’re consistent with your running, working on the non-running components of your training will provide more return on investment than the specifics of what you do when you run. In other words, a good night of sleep will help you to be a better runner than whether you work on hills or speed today.

How much sleep do you need? There is substantial variability among people though it’s recommended that most adults get 7-9 hours minimum. Children and teens need more. Athletes in training are also likely to need more sleep.

While you sleep, many restorative processes occur. One interesting discovery is that you wash out the fluid surrounding your brain cells while you sleep. Of particular importance is that sleep helps to flush the molecules thought to contribute to cognitive impairment and dementia (such as beta-amyloid). Here’s a brief story on the subject: 

At the top of the priority list for your non-running training is putting in a full night, every night, of high quality sleep. By planning and preparing, you can make a substantial improvement in your sleep quality. But, you must put in the effort! You cannot expect good sleep to happen on its own. Put as much effort into ensuring a quality night of sleep as you put into planning and following your running workouts. 

Best practices for a quality night of sleep:

1. Have a routine.

  • During the hour (or two) before bedtime, shift your activities to ones that are enjoyable and calming such as fun reading, watching television, listening to music, taking a shower/bath. Avoid work, checking email, organizing your finances, etc. during this critical time before bed. 
  • Smartphones have ‘do not disturb’ settings that you can use, along with your own willpower and discipline, to block texts, emails, or social media (if it doesn’t relax you) in the hour before bedtime.
  • Dim the lights at least an hour before bedtime, get into comfortable clothes/sleeping clothes. Your body’s primary sleep hormone, melatonin, is impaired by bright light.
  • You can also use settings and apps on electronics to reduce the amount of blue light emitted in the hour before bedtime. Our bodies have adapted to recognize that bedtime comes with the setting sun, which has less blue light (thus, red-orange sunsets). Blue light tends to keep us awake.

2. Avoid strenuous exercise. Some people can sleep well immediately after a hard workout but most do not. Know what’s best for you.

3. Watch your diet. 

  • Food may affect your quality of sleep. Keep a record of anything you eat in the hours before bed along with how well you slept that night; experiment when you are not close to a race. Over time, you may learn foods to avoid or foods that help. For example, spicy, citrus, and fatty foods are known to disrupt sleep in some people. Carbohydrate-rich foods can make people drowsy.
  • Caffeine has an average half-life of roughly five hours. This means that you’ll still have 25% of the caffeine in your system at bedtime that you had 10 hours earlier. People metabolize caffeine at different rates, but try to stop consuming caffeine as early in the day as you can, before noon if possible.
  • Avoid alcohol, at least in the days or week before a race when good sleep is especially important.
  • Stay hydrated. You want to be properly hydrated for good restorative and reparative sleep but not to the point that you're waking up regularly to visit the loo.

4. Wake up at the same time every day. Your internal biological clock is reset every day when you wake up and light enters your eyes. There is an area of the brain that gets ‘it’s morning’ signals as the signals from that light pass through the brain (to an area called the suprachiasmatic nucleus). If we were in an isolation room without any cues to time, our biological days would get longer, and our sleep time would drift. So, getting good sleep means going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time every day.

5. Take naps, but don’t nap too much. Napping too much during the daytime can impair sleep at night. But, short naps of 20-30 minutes can be restorative. You will not make up for lost sleep by napping during the day or by sleeping extra on the weekends. Doing so will help a little, but it’s not a substitute for good sleep every night.

6. Think deliberately. Practice a form of mindfulness or meditation every time you go to bed. It may be reviewing the good things about your day, your goals for tomorrow, checking in with how your body feels, visualizing moving clouds or ocean waves, or even counting sheep. Whatever it is, do it every night. When your mind drifts away from your focus, especially if any invading thoughts are negative, gently bring your thoughts back in line.

7. Control your sleep environment. Best sleep tends to come in environments with the following features:

  • 60-67 degrees F
  • Dark. Use black-out curtains and make sure lights are off. 
  • Quiet or consistent sound. Use a background noise maker, earplugs, or other means of ensuring unexpected noises do not disrupt your slumber. I use an app on my phone called ‘white noise’ by tmsoft.com and I prefer the ‘brown noise’ setting.

Traveling:

Whether you travel for work or only for races, you will find yourself wanting to get a good night of rest when you’re on the road. For this reason, it is well worth paying the money for a room unless you know that you always get good sleep at campsites. Getting your best pre-race sleep begins weeks before the event, at home. That’s because it’s important to be used to the environment and routine that you’ll experience the night before a race. While it isn’t realistic to spend weeks in the hotel room or campsite before your race, there are things you can do to prepare for it. 

1. Think about how your typical evening pre-bed routine can be applied when you are traveling. Mimic your routine as closely as possible.

2. Make sure that your diet is consistent with what works for you, including your hydration levels. It’s tempting to over-hydrate or over-eat the night before a long event but you also don’t want to spend the night voiding those fluids or experiencing new GI symptoms instead of sleeping.

3. Go to bed at the same time. You can try getting to bed earlier but certainly not later. Unfortunately, many longer races begin so early that you have to wake up long before the time you are used to. Don’t change your sleeping habits in the days before the race in an effort to mimic the race start time or otherwise fool your body into a new schedule. If you could completely shift your sleep schedule a month in advance, it might help a tiny bit but the effect would be small if noticeable, and it’s not practical anyway. Note: you cannot ‘get used to’ sleep deprivation; don’t practice getting minimal sleep, you’ll only hurt yourself.

4. Set the environment of your hotel room to match what you are used to.

  • Request a room on the top floor, not overlooking a noisy road or pool, and away from elevators/ice/vending - tell them that you want their quietest room. If you aren’t pleased with your room location, ask to check out different rooms and change if you want.
  • Set the temperature to be the same as at home as soon as you check in.
  • Prepare your kit for the next day well before you begin your bedtime routine. That’s not a part of your routine at home so don’t disrupt your routine the night before a race (unless you run first thing in the morning, in which case it might be part of your routine).
  • Dim the lights early (hotel rooms generally don’t have dimmers, but you can leave on only the bathroom light or set just one light in a corner, etc.).
  • Bring earplugs, eyeshades, and your ‘white noise’ phone app. Make sure you aren’t trying to use any of these for the first time the night of a race; get used to them at home if you might need them while traveling. Bring your own pillow if it makes a difference for you; both comfort and smell can influence your sleep quality, and your pillow is what you smell the most when you sleep.
  • Follow your mindfulness practice once you close your eyes.

If you have chronically disturbed sleep, are fatigued even when seeming to get a full night of sleep, or you're told you snore a lot, consider contacting a sleep clinic in your area and undergoing a sleep study. Conditions such as sleep apnea can be managed, with enormous improvements in health and energy, but only after they are diagnosed.

Learn more about good sleep hygiene and how sleep impacts your overall health.