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Go to sleep!
Posted: June 25, 2009
As the days get hotter and hotter, most runners find themselves stumbling out the door earlier and earlier, trying to beat the heat. If you’re running with Rogue this summer, there’s a good chance that you have at least one day a week where you’re beginning a run at 5:30am – which means that you’re waking up at 5 or earlier!
Although most people can eventually get used to the idea of 5:30 running (and use it as a bragging right) they don’t always adjust their schedule to ensure that they are getting a sufficient amount of sleep. Sleep is one of the most important elements of your training (great news, right?), but far too many runners are severely lacking in this department. When you combine a job, a family, a social life and now predawn running, who has the time to sleep? Can’t you just pound back the coffee and the Red Bull all day and count on Gu to get you through your run?
The answer, of course, is no. Nothing but sleep can replace sleep, and it is more important for endurance athletes than nearly anyone else out there.
Your body heals itself when you sleep, and this process doesn’t typically begin until the 3rd or 4th stage of your sleep cycle. Human growth hormone (HGH) is released during this period and plays an essential role in building and repairing muscles and tissue, while also enabling your body to efficiently utilize fat as fuel. When HGH levels are low – due to sleep deprivation – recovery takes longer and longer, causing a backlog of stress on the body. Your workouts get harder and harder, and eventually it builds up so much that you physically can’t push through anymore. Only sleep can prevent this.
People who are chronically sleep-deprived release higher levels of cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. The effect of this is obvious; you end up irritable, unmotivated, tired and tend to eat too much of the wrong things. These are all detrimental to training, and when you add in the fact that sleep deprivation leads to decreased glycogen stores and ultimately less endurance, you can’t argue the fact that you need your rest!
But how much do you need? And how do you get it? The number of hours needed per night varies by person, but the general range is 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep. A good way to figure out what you personally need is to experiment by going to bed at the same time for several nights and allowing yourself to wake up naturally, with no alarm. This should give you a good idea of your requirements.
It’s worth noting, however, that quality is just as important as quantity, if not more so. People who toss and turn all night or are frequently woken will be much less rested after 9 hours than they would be with 6 hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep. Luckily, running is an excellent catalyst for deep sleep and most people find that the quality of their sleep increases in direct relation to their fitness level. The usual advice, such as avoiding coffee, soda and tea, will also help deliver deeper sleep to those who have trouble.
Now on to the big question. How do you fit in a full night’s rest and make it to your 5:30 run? The answer is simple: prioritize.
Everyone gets busy and everyone, even the most vigilant elite athletes, will have nights where they get less than they should. On a daily basis, however, there are steps you can take to help yourself go to bed earlier, get higher quality sleep and easily awaken in time for that predawn workout.
1. Start a ritual. Whether it’s milk and cookies or a long shower, find something that you do each each night before bed and do it every night. Your body will learn to expect sleep after this ritual, and you can then ‘trick’ yourself into going to bed earlier and earlier, bit by bit.
2. Turn it off. All of it. Our lives are run by computers, televisions, cell phones. 30 minutes before your bedtime goal, turn everything off and allow nothing but reading (you can even just look at the pictures if you want, we won’t tell!). This is a calming, passive activity that will get your mind off of everything else, give you heavy eyes and soon have you snoozing.
3. Avoid eating a heavy meal late in the day. If possible, have your biggest meal for breakfast or lunch. If you eat a big meal late in the evening, the digestion process that follows is likely to interfere with your sleep. Get that over with early in the day, and save small meals or snacking for nighttime.
4. Lay out everything that you need for your run the next morning. This way you can fall asleep easily, knowing that when that alarm goes off all you have to do is grab and go. Don’t let something so simple be added to that already overwhelming to-do list running through your head!
5. Naps. This is tough to fit in for a lot of people, but take naps whenever you can, ideally after a hard workout. It will greatly assist with recovery, and will also do wonders for your mood and concentration levels in day to day life. As little as 20 minutes can make a big difference!
6. Keep the bedroom just that: the BEDroom. Avoid using that room for work, bill-paying or computer tasks; those things cause you to associate the room with stressful activities and can actually interfere with your sleep. Your bedroom should be a sanctuary, not an office.
Many people are not aware of how sleep deprived they actually are, but runners need to be especially vigilant about listening to their body and making the time for that extra rest. Start by making an effort to go to bed 30 minutes to an hour earlier just two or three nights a week. Eventually you’ll begin to reset your body’s ‘clock’ and will notice a significant improvement in your endurance levels, your recovery speed and your motivation levels; any time that you ‘lose’ by sleeping more will surely be made up with the extra amount of energy that you’ll gain!