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Sleep In — It Will Make You Faster

Routine and a good sleep environment can help you get to sleep, combat insomnia, and deal with pre-race anxiety.

Routine and a good sleep environment can help you get to sleep, combat insomnia, and deal with pre-race anxiety.

One night, when Bobby Curtis was a sophomore at Villanova, he didn’t sleep much. Then it happened again. And again. Curtis, who now runs for the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in Rochester Hills, Michigan, started to become anxious, worrying if he’d be able to sleep. For three months he would spend a couple weeks at a time never getting more than a few hours of rest.

The fatigue took its toll emotionally and physically. His grades suffered, his life was chaotic, and he stopped caring about running. Since then, he’s learned to deal with what is called conditional insomnia and hasn’t had problems since 2009. He’s also helped shed some light on sleep issues among athletes.

“It’s a really, really common thing,” says Curtis.

While most runners may not experience the same kind of crippling insomnia, they are used to chronic fatigue. Waking up extra early to cram in a workout and loading up on coffee is an athletic norm. And, it’s not helping you get faster.

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A 2011 study that measured the effects of extending sleep to 10 hours per night for five to seven weeks found an increase in many performance metrics for Stanford basketball players. Preliminary studies with other sports – tennis, swimming, football – have found similar preliminary results. One thing appears to be clear: more sleep, to a point, is better when it comes to athletic performance.

Sleep is still an area of study, however, about which there’s a lot to learn. And, while the results have shown an increase in some performance measures, such as sprinting, reaction times, and shooting accuracy, it’s not yet fully known what the effects of sleep on endurance are.

“[Sleep and performance is] an area that we’re just starting to understand,” says Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, who helped author the study.

It’s not hard to understand, though, that sleep deprivation can limit recovery and the rebuilding of muscles.

“You’re always remaking your body,” says Dr. Matthew Edlund, director of the Center for Circadian Medicine, and you need sleep to do that. Sleep deprivation has been linked to decreases in overall strength, poor concentration, and hypoglycemia. While we sleep, our bodies release growth hormone, rebuild muscles, and rewire our brains.

Studies have found that chronic sleep deprivation decreases the time before an athlete reaches exhaustion. And, even one night without sleep decreased the distance test subjects were able to run in a half-hour.

That may not be good news for runners who worry about sleeping well the night before a race.

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Of course, plenty of athletes have been able to perform well off one night of very little sleep. Motivation and race-day excitement can overcome a lot, says Edlund. Curtis even won the NCAA title in the 5,000 meters his senior year, when he was sleeping more, but still not well. Not sleeping much for a few weeks would affect his training, but not sleeping a few nights before a race would make “no difference at all,” he said.

Plenty of athletes subscribe to the belief that it’s not the night before that matters, it’s how much sleep you get two nights before a race or game. But, both Mah and Edlund say there’s no scientific basis for that. “I have no idea where that comes from,” says Mah. “It’s not just one night or two nights. What really matters is prioritizing sleep over the whole season.”

To do that, Mah has a few suggestions for athletes.

It’s important to keep a consistent sleep schedule, even on the weekends, and to aim for an adequate amount of rest. But, determining what is an adequate amount for you can be tricky.

“Individual sleep need can vary,” saysMah. The average adult gets seven to nine hours, though that range has gone down about 90 minutes in the last 40 years, notes Edlund.

To figure out exactly where you fall in the sleep spectrum it’s important to ask yourself if you feel refreshed and rested or if you need lots of coffee and naps. “If you don’t meet that need every day, then it accumulates like a debt,” says Mah.

To help get to sleep, combat insomnia, and deal with pre-race anxiety that can keep athletes awake, it’s important to have a sleep routine and a good sleep environment. That means “make your room like a cave,” says Mah. Also, limit alcohol and caffeine intake, and spend 20-30 minutes relaxing before bed by reading a book or unwinding.

When it comes to pre- or post-race stress, Mah recommends that athletes take some time before the 20-30 minutes of relaxing to do something like stretching or yoga, which can give you time to process your thoughts in a slightly active way.

Naps can help compensate for a lack of sleep and can improve things like memory and decision-making, but they’re not a substitute for being well-rested, says Edlund.

And, when it comes to early morning races, there may be no substitute for just being a morning person, known as a “morning lark” in sleep science, instead of a “night owl.” To prepare for an early morning race, a runner can shift their sleep routine earlier the few weeks before and go into the event well-rested. They can also exercise at the same time as the race, which has been shown to have an impact on performance.

But, it’s not a coincidence, Edlund says, that most runners happen to be morning people. “Owls don’t exactly do well with a 4 AM performance,” he said.


About The Author:

Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara is a journalist/reporter and former professional triathlete. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes for a number of magazines, newspapers, and websites. You can read more about her at