read The Vital Connection Between Sleep And Running Performance

The Vital Connection Between Sleep And Running Performance

The Vital Connection Between Sleep And Running Performance

David, a chartered accountant, is new to the world of long distance running. He has managed to complete a few 5k’s and 10k’s. Now, he aims to achieve a PB for his next 10k! He’s been training regularly, preparing himself for race day. 

One bright morning, David sets out for his usual training session. He knows that to beat the clock, he must adhere to his training paces. However, a few minutes into the run, David starts to feel sluggish and tired, much to his confusion.

Puzzled by his sudden lack of energy, he pauses to catch his breath and tries to assess the situation. 

“What could have possibly led to this? I have been training regularly and eating right, so why am I unable to perform well then?” he thinks to himself.

When he raises this concern with his coach, the coach inquires about his sleep patterns amongst other questions to establish his diagnosis. He wonders what that has to do with anything and then says, ‘Well, I have been spending all my time at the office crunching numbers and preparing financial reports. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a very long time.’ In response, his coach emphasises the importance of quality sleep for optimal performance and advises him to prioritise improving his sleep habits to excel on race day.

You know that old saying, ‘You snooze, you lose’? Well, it does not always hold true. While regular training and proper nutrition are typically considered to be paramount for improving running performance, the importance of sleep is often overlooked.

Understanding the Physiology of Sleep

In order for us to understand how sleep affects one’s running performance during training and racing, we must first understand how sleep actually works.

When we sleep, our body passes through different stages, called sleep cycles. Each cycle includes four stages: three stages of Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep and one stage of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. 

On average, we go through these stages 4–6 times every night, with each cycle lasting for approximately 80-100 minutes. Each stage has its own characteristics. The length of each stage, the type of brain activity, and changes that take place within the body help determine which stage of sleep a person may be in.

Stage 1 (N1): This is the initial stage of sleep that marks the transition between wakefulness and sleep. The body begins to unwind as the muscles relax. This stage typically lasts for about 1-7 minutes. Since one is in the process of falling asleep, the person can still be easily awakened.

Stage 2 (N2): In this stage, the body temperature starts to decrease. The heart rate and breathing rate slow down as well. Muscles continue to relax, as brain activity decreases. During this phase, which usually lasts around 10-25 minutes, the brain experiences sleep spindles which are rapid, rhythmic bursts of brainwave activity. These sleep spindles are important for memory consolidation, the process through which the brain collects, processes, and organises new memories.

Stage 3 (N3): This phase of sleep is also referred to as Deep Sleep. The muscles of your body muscles further relax, and your breathing slows down even more, making it harder to wake up as you progress through this stage. This stage lasts for about 20 to 40 minutes.

Researchers employ Electroencephalogram (EEG) scans, a test that identifies irregularities in one’s brain waves to learn how the brain works while one sleeps. 

Several EEG studies of individuals in this stage indicate the presence of a specific type of brain wave called Delta waves. These waves are characterised by their high amplitude. Imagine two people holding a jump rope. When one person flicks the rope hard, it creates a wave with prominent peaks and troughs. These high amplitude brain waves look much like this on an EEG graph.

Several studies suggest that Delta waves are linked to improving immunity and reducing stress. They’re also a crucial aspect of restorative sleep, promoting tissue regeneration and cell growth. So it’s safe to say that this stage of sleep is very important for the body to recover, grow, and stay healthy. 

Stage 4 (REM): During REM sleep, brain activity rises to levels comparable to when you’re awake. However, the muscles of the body experience atonia, which is temporary muscle paralysis. This applies to all muscles of the body except for those responsible for breathing and the eyes. Even though your eyes are shut, they move rapidly, giving this stage its name. Normally, REM sleep occurs around 90 minutes after falling asleep. 

The Impact of Not Sleeping Enough on Running Performance

So now you know that when you close your eyes and drift into dreamland your brain doesn’t clock out for the night. In fact, it’s still very much active, passing through these different stages of sleep. But how does this in any way impact running performance, you ask? Let’s take a look. 

Quality Sleep and Helps Your Body

A restful night’s sleep can have an effect on several physiological aspects of health.

Hitting the hay helps you Run Better

Believe it or not but not sleeping enough can affect your speed, how far you run and, when you feel tired. That’s exactly what a study published in the Journal of Physiology & Behavior in 2020 demonstrated. Participants were partially sleep deprived post which they were made to engage in a self-paced running exercise. It was discovered that participants were unable to run fast, covered less ground, felt easily tired, and had slower reaction times due to poor quality sleep. 

Early to bed and early to rise helps you feel Energised 

When you run your body needs glycogen, the molecular form of carbohydrates stored in muscles, because it’s the primary source of energy. It provides the necessary fuel which helps you to run for a longer time without running out of energy. 

Turns out, not sleeping enough can lead to a decrease in the amount of glycogen stored in the muscles. The Current Sports Medicine Reports published a review which spoke about this decrease of muscle glycogen caused due to sleep deprivation. Runners’ who were a part of the study experienced a dip in energy levels which hampered their performance. 

Staying under the covers helps you Recover 

Running, overtime, can lead to wear and tear of the muscles and joints. This happens especially due to the repetitive nature of the activity. Training and racing cause micro-cellular damage, leading to tissue breakdown. 

Sleep plays a crucial role in controlling the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA), which is the part of the brain that governs the release of Growth Hormone (GH). Studies indicate that Deep sleep or the N3 Stage triggers a rise in GH secretion. This hormone plays a crucial role in promoting muscle recovery, and enhancing the body’s ability to heal from injuries or stress. 

Good Sleep = Stronger Immune System

When you get ill or are injured, your body produces cytokines, which are signalling proteins that help control inflammation. These cytokines aid the body in healing wounds and fighting infections. Interestingly, the body also produces these proteins even when you are asleep, in the absence of injury or illness. This is one reason for many researchers to believe that good sleep can have an effect on the immune system.

So, sleeping well ensures that the body can keep illness at bay, which means that runners can avoid the dreaded Runner’s Flu—a common concern that occurs post-training or racing, where runners experience cold-like symptoms like a runny nose, sore throat, or chest congestion. 

Good Sleep Can Help Can Help Your Mind

As runners, we know it’s not just about training the body but also the mind. Good quality sleep can have a profound effect on several cognitive parameters. Research suggests that when we don’t sleep well, it can affect our ability to think clearly, stay focused, and process information. When these factors are off, it can definitely impact our running performance. 

Embrace the Pillow, Chase the Miles

So now you know why you can’t simply overlook your nighttime rest but how do you go about ensuring you sleep well every night? Well, just keeping these 6 points in mind will enable you to sleep well and wake up feeling fresh. 

Limit Screen Time Before Bed: Avoid using electronic devices like smartphones, tablets, or laptops in the hour leading up to bedtime. The blue light emitted by screens can interfere with your Circadian rhythm, the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, making it harder to fall asleep. Instead, unwind with activities that don’t involve screens to promote better sleep quality. 

Stick to a Consistent Sleep Schedule: Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends when you may want to binge on your favourite TV series. This helps regulate your Circadian rhythm, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up feeling refreshed for your run. 

Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine: Taking the time to engage in activities that you find calming, like reading, meditating, or listening to music, can signal to the brain that it’s time to count sheep. If you do choose to read, make sure you’re not reading a crime thriller or any other material that stimulates your body. The same goes for music – no loud, trashing music before bedtime; just calm, relaxing music. This approach ensures you’re prepared for your run and won’t be tempted to hit the snooze button on your alarm.

Watch What You Eat and Drink: Be mindful of your evening food and beverage choices. Avoid heavy meals like parathas, kebabs, and biryani, as they can disrupt your sleep patterns and leave you feeling groggy the next day. Spicy and oily foods may lead to digestive issues, which can hinder your sleep as well. Instead, opt for simple meals such as rice, plain dal, salads, and soups, which are easier on your stomach and remember to finish  dinner at least 2 hours prior to sleep to avoid indigestion or bloating. 

Take a Warm Bath before bedtime: Our core body temperature changes throughout the day. These changes are governed by the circadian rhythms, the 24-hour internal clock in our brain that regulates sleep and alertness. Our bodies tend to gradually cool down as we approach sleep time. Research suggests that quality of sleep improves when the core temperature drops by 2-3°F.

When one takes a warm bath, the core body temperature rises. This leads to an increase in blood flow to the peripheral parts of the body like your hands and feet, while also increasing skin temperature. This causes heat to dissipate, eventually leading to a drop in core temperature, helping you to sleep better. 

Sleep Environment: Your bedroom environment also plays a crucial role in how well you sleep. The temperature of your bedroom needs to be between 15-19°C for you to fall asleep comfortably. If it’s warm, consider using a cooler or an AC. During cooler months, make sure to use a comforter to keep warm.

Ensure your bedroom is dark. If there are bright lights disrupting your sleep, investing in blackout curtains may be very beneficial.

In a nutshell, sleep is absolutely vital for athletes, particularly endurance athletes like runners. Quality sleep doesn’t just help you feel rested; it also helps fight off sickness, sustain energy levels during runs, promote recovery, and, most importantly, enhance your running performance to help you achieve your goals.

So, keep in mind that old saying: ‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a runner strong, speedy, and ready to tackle the miles!’