An article examining the physical, mental and restorative benefits of sleep for maximising performance in runners.

If you could get hold of a free supplement, that enhances your metabolic system, improves and accelerates tissue repair, boosts human growth hormone to assist in development of muscle and bone and enriches your mental health, your first reaction would probably be to check that it was legal.

In fact, the global sports nutrition market is estimated to be worth around $61.4 billion. That is people like you and I spending their hard-earned cash on powders, capsules, gels, even recovery chewing gum. Every morning, runners across the globe consume a cocktail of supplements to improve their performance and encourage their bodies to recover. More often than not, however, we are ignoring the one thing that has a greater effect than all of these supplements combined. Sleep.

The World Health Organisation has previously declared a global sleep-loss epidemic; I know, we’ve had quite enough of epidemics for one year, but the truth is inescapable. One of the leading international scientists on the effects of sleep deprivation, Professor Matthew Walker, Director of Human Sleep Science at the University of California, in a 2018 interview with The Guardian newspaper, said that sleep deprivation affected “every aspect of our biology.” He went on, “no aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation. It sinks down into every nook and cranny…after just one night of only four or five hour’s sleep, your natural killer cells, the ones that attack cancers, and that appear in your body every day, drop by 70 per cent…Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason.”

Now this is not an article on sleep deprivation per se but one can deduce fairly easy that if just a single night with a sub-optimal level of sleep which, according to Professor Walker, is a solid 8 hours, can have dramatic consequences on our health, the effects on our performance as runners is sure to be catastrophic.

photography of bedroom
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Importance of sleep for runners

For runners, sleep is especially important because without it, it can severely hinder our body’s ability to recover. When exercising, particularly running, which places such a huge strain on our bodies, muscles breakdown on a cellular level. Without adequate sleep, these muscles cannot repair, which results not only in decreased levels of performance as muscles are unable to grow but also increases the risk of injury.

Lack of sleep also impairs our immune response, increasing the risk of illness and infection. Taken together, lack of sleep, particularly on a consistent basis, is a ticking time-bomb of sickness and injury.

How much sleep should you have?

The WHO recommends that everyone should get 8 hours sleep, each night. The National Sleep Foundation, a US organisation, reports that the average American only gets 6 hours and 50 minutes per night. Anecdotally, that certainly seems more akin to my friends and family, including myself.

Crucially, though and like most things, the exact amount you require varies to person to person and there are some tell-tale signs that you are not getting enough. If you feel like you need an afternoon caffeine hit to get you through the day, you probably need more Zs. Although, this is not the same as needing a caffeine hit to help you smash your toughest sessions. Similarly, if you just cannot wake up when your alarm goes off and you continually have to snooze, you probably need to go to bed a touch earlier.

Obviously, if you don’t feel alert or cannot concentrate throughout the day or become excessively drowsy, the likelihood is, you need more sleep. As a runner, these are essential characteristics in helping you achieve your personal bests and push yourself that little bit more in workouts.

The enemies of sleep

Along with the right amount of time in bed, the quality of the sleep is also vitally important. Often you can get into bed and no matter how many imaginary sheep you count, you just cannot fall asleep. Here’s a few of the common enemies to quality sleep and, as General Sun Tzu said 2,500 years ago in ‘The Art of War’, “know your enemy, know yourself.”

· Exercising at night – for many people, exercising too close to bedtime can make it difficult to wind-down and go to sleep with endorphins and adrenaline still rushing through your veins. Try and exercise at least 3 hours before you intend to go to bed.

· Caffeine in the afternoon – Though sometimes it is necessary for increasing alertness and concentration, necessary for the tough sessions we do as runners, bear in mind that the instant hit you get, needs paying back with interest. If you consume caffeine too late in the day, it’s likely to still be coursing through your veins when you try and go to bed.

· Our mobile phones – We all do it, scroll our Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and then Instagram again before we finally turn our phones off and close our eyes. What we might not realise, is that the artificial light that emits from these screens, tricks our brains into thinking it is still daytime. So, unsurprisingly, it takes far longer for your brain to switch into sleep mode. Try and ensure that you don’t use your phone within one hour of going to bed and get into a routine of turning it off or placing it out of reach.

· Stress – One of the most common causes of sleep deprivation is stress. It increases cortisol levels in our blood and prevents us from truly winding down. Schedule a relaxing activity in the hour before you go to bed and watch yourself drift off to the land of nod in no time.