Sleep for running performance
By Ben Devito
Are you up all night counting sheep? Cannot seem to get to bed early enough? Waking up feeling lethargic or groggy? More people are struggling with sleep than ever before. Sleep is crucial for an individual’s health as it helps you maintain weight by regulating hunger, reduces stress, improves communication skills, improves memory, reduces inflammation, improves focus and enhances physical performance. The average person should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night, but a third of the Canadian population is missing these requirements (3). Many people are sacrificing sleep daily and this is detrimental to performance in many aspects of life. If you are runner or athlete who is not taking sleep seriously, you aren’t just missing out on physical performance gains, but also potentially living a happier and healthier life.
The Science of Sleep
Breaking down the stages of sleep.
Sleep is still not well understood, but it is the most essential recovery tool known to humans and yet many of us don’t sleep properly. Sleep is broken up into two basic forms of sleep; REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. There are four different stages, three stages for non-REM sleep and one for REM sleep. Each stage of sleep is cycled through multiple times each night and all have different characteristics.
Stage 1: the process when most of us transition from wakefulness into a sleep state. This is a very short period and usually only last a couple of minutes, the body begins to relax and many people begin to get muscle twitches.
Stage 2: consisting of a drop in body temperature as well as electrical bursts in brain activity.
Stage 3: important to allow your body to feel refreshed. This stage mostly occurs during the first half of the night, when your muscles fully relax and begin to recover. This stage also has the least amount of brain activity where individuals in this state are very hard to wake up.
Stage 4: your body launches into REM sleep which generally occurs after 90 minutes of sleeping, during which your eyes move rapidly side to side (hence the name) and your body begins to act as if it were awake. Your heart rate increases, your brain activity skyrockets, blood pressure increases and your breathing becomes irregular and fast. Although dreaming occurs in both non-REM and REM sleep, REM sleep is known as the dreaming stage. When you are dreaming the brain ensures that the muscles of the body are paralyzed so that you don’t begin to act out your dreams. This is done as protective mechanism, experienced sometimes when individuals awake during this stage and feel stuck or glued to their bed, known as sleep paralysis (1).
All sleep stages are essential for athletes and runners. Stage 3 allows for physical repair of the bodily tissues, which is essential for recovery and physical performance (9). It is also essential for athletes to be able to enter stage 4 REM sleep, as it is an opportunity for individuals to have their most vivid dreams, allowing the brain to process emotions, anxiety and stresses. Often more vivid and frightening dreams are due to higher states of emotional stress that an individual may be enduring throughout daily life (1). Thus it is very important that athletes also enter into REM sleep to maintain focus and emotional regulation prior to competition and training sessions.
How much sleep do I need?
In terms of how much sleep an individual requires each night, there are general guidelines that are offered to the public. However these guidelines contain no real adaptations for athletes. The amount of sleep an individual requires is influenced by genetics as well as our environment, a combination of nature and nurture. There is significant research indicating that sleep disorders, such as restless leg syndrome, are genetically predisposed. These genes, named Cry, Per and Tim that are sleep genes which help the body maintain a proper “clock” for sleep. There is also evidence now suggesting that sleep patterns as a child play a significant role in sleep patterns in adulthood (1). Therefore, developing a proper sleep pattern and having a consistent bedtime while growing up may help improve sleep in the long term. Again, the exact numerical value of sleep required is up for debate, but most people should attempt to reach the recommended amount suggested by health professionals. These values are displayed in the table below (figure1.1), but does not include athletes who theoretically would require more sleep.
Figure 1.1: National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep Duration Recommendations
When should I be sleeping?
This is a very interesting topic, especially as humanity begins to stay up later and sleep in longer. Some of us don’t have issues sleeping the recommended hours but we do have the problem of sleeping in. Many sleep professionals suggest that going to bed between 8:00pm-12:00am is the best time for the body to get the most of stage 3 non-REM sleep, which provides the most for physical repair of the body. Stage 3 non-REM sleep, a.k.a “deep sleep” occurs primarily at the beginning of your sleep (5). This is very important for athletes, as deep sleep’s primary role involves the physical repair of muscles, bones and joints (9). Past 12:00am REM sleep begins to takeover and be the primary mode of sleep. This may explain why night shift workers on average have higher obesity rates, higher incidence of heart attack, early death rates and lower brain power (5). Yet some night shift workers may have a genetic advantage staying up late, excluding them from these numbers. Genetics plays a significant role in sleep habits; some people are more genetically inclined to hit the sack right at 12:00 am and others may shift towards 8:00pm (5). One is not better than the other and the most important message is when you feel tired, just go to bed.
If you have trouble sleeping, try setting up a bedtime routine. This bedtime routine can involve reading, restorative yoga, stretching, listening to relaxing music, and journaling (1). The bedtime routine should range from 30-60 minutes to unwind from the crazy lives we all lead (9). Many of us go to bed with chips on our shoulders and with a jacked up autonomic nervous system, in low levels of fight-or-flight. The goal for this routine is to allow the body to switch gears from the sympathetic system to our parasympathetic system, allowing for more of a restful and replenishing sleep (1).
Limiting screen time.
After a long day of work many of us hit the couch and watch television, play video games, or use our phones right up until bedtime. This often occurs night in and night out, resulting in a lack of quality rest during sleeping. Screen time has been shown to destroy good sleep habits, and is the thorn that keeps most people up at night (10). Not only does the continued stimulation increase our levels of stress, but the actual light of our screens is interfering with our physiology. The blue light emitting from our TV, computer, and smart phone is disturbing our melatonin response, a hormone that should naturally raise as we get ready for bed (10). A great tool to combat this blue light pollution is to shift our screens into “night mode” after dinner, which uses a different more yellow light to help our brains to calm before bed.
What to (not) consume before bed.
What you put into your body affects your sleep; it is as simple as that. Drinking caffeinated beverages, eating certain foods and consuming drugs such as alcohol and marijuana all affect our sleep. An athlete or individual that struggles with sleep must be more diligent with what they are putting into their body prior to sleeping.
Starting with caffeinated drinks, caffeine is a massive performance enhancer and there is no doubt about it. It stimulates focus and physical performance across various sports. The only issue is, nighttime is the time for recovery, a time to put the sympathetic nervous system back into its cage for the day (1). Caffeine should not be consumed prior to bed, but there is more to it. Numerous studies illustrate that caffeine affects the human body for up to 6 hours after consumption (5). So if you are having a “pick me up” coffee at 3:00pm, which many of us do, we are actually jacking up the body past 9:00pm, when we should be focused on getting into relaxation mode to prepare for bed. Evidently caffeine is great for performance and is arguably good for you, but it should be used diligently and wisely at certain times of the day.
Now, consuming marijuana and alcohol on the other hand have no performance benefits in regards to running and sleep. Marijuana is a drug that many believe helps with sleep and relaxation. Yes, research shows marijuana does have these affects, however the sleep quality is not nearly the same as sober sleep. Individuals that smoke marijuana chronically before going to sleep or throughout the day often struggle to get into REM sleep, limiting the brain’s opportunity to dream. The brain uses dreams to help with memory consolidation, focus during the day, and even emotional regulation (2). People that smoke marijuana chronically before bed do not get this desired dream state sleep and often see cognitive and emotional performance decline overtime. Many individuals that smoke marijuana before bed often need to daydream, as this is the brain’s way of compensating for the lack of dreaming at night (2). Now obviously, if you are daydreaming all day long, your focus and performance will tank in your work, relationships and many facets of life, not just running.
Moving forward to alcohol, which is probably the largest hindrance to performance and sleep. As soon as an individual consumes alcohol, they are putting their sleep at risk. When an individual consumes a certain amount of drinks (depending on the individual), their sleep is compromised. Alcohol limits many of the processes that occur during quality sleep. And when going to bed feeling drunk or “buzzed,” we are actually not sleeping. We are “lights out,” more unconscious than sleeping, and so no physical recovery is occurring as the individual misses out on the healthy stages of sleep (4). So alcohol, especially copious amounts, is detrimental to sleep, recovery, and running performance.
And finally food, what an athlete eats, when they eat, and how much they eat affects their sleep. It is known that healthy foods have a massive affect on performance as well as sleep. Eating unhealthy foods, such as high sugar foods can destroy the drive to sleep. High sugary foods will spike glucose in the bloodstream and will give you dirty energy to stay up longer (8). Often when individuals crave sweet and sugary foods before bed it is because they are tired and the brain is trying to get a jump-start of energy to stay up later (5). If you are craving something sugary before bed, it means that you are tired and it is time to go to sleep. When you eat a meal matters as well, if you eat too close or too far away from your bedtime it can affect your sleep (1,5,8). The optimal recommendation is to have dinner 3-4 hours before you go to bed, and a small snack an hour before bed (could be added to your bedtime routine). This snack should have no caffeine and should have 20 grams of protein to help your body repair the damage incurred during daily training (8).
Sleep is a very powerful recovery tool that many of us are not fully utilizing day to day in our lives. Sleep can be very complicated with the crazy lives we lead but ultimately should be taken as a priority for everyone, especially athletes. Again sleep has numerous cognitive and physical performance benefits that can take you to the next level. To optimize sleep, create pre-bedtime routine, decrease screen time before bed, avoid caffeine within 6 hours of sleeping, avoid drugs and do not be complacent on what you eat before bed. Treat sleep like a competition or a hard workout, go in prepared every night to get the most of that session. If you do this, you will no longer be counting sheep every night before bed but instead you will be counting the seconds, minutes and hours off your personal bests.
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