How Your Sleep Routine Is Compromising Your Running Performance (And Recovery)

Plus, 8 Expert Tips To Get A Good Night's Sleep

Quality sleep is a cornerstone of optimal performance for professional and amateur runners. Ever heard the saying, “You snooze, you lose.” Well, it’s not quite right.

The relationship between sleep and running performance is intricate, as sleep plays a crucial role in physical and mental recovery. While many runners focus on training intensity, mileage, and nutrition, the impact of sleep often goes underestimated.

Runners must maintain a delicate balance between stress and recovery to avoid under-recovery. Otherwise, there is a risk that the cumulative stress, both acute and residual, can have a negative impact on performance, injury risk, and enjoyment.

Sleep is a fundamental recovery modality; unsurprisingly, athletes self-report sleep1Halson, S. L. (2014). Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep. Sports Medicine44(S1), 13–23. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0147-0 as the most important recovery strategy. Sleep plays a key role in the restoration of the muscular system, immune system, and endocrine system, to name a few.

In this article, we will seek to provide a comprehensive exploration of the relationship between sleep, recovery, and performance in runners, emphasizing the need for tailored recovery strategies and individualized sleep recommendations to optimize athletic outcomes.

We will cover the following:

How Your Sleep Routine Is Compromising Your Running Performance (And Recovery) 1

Sleep And Running Performance

So, how does sleep compromise running performance?

For runners, getting good sleep is really crucial. Quality sleep gives your body what it needs to perform at its best.

When you don’t get enough sleep, it can mess with how well you run. Your reactions might slow down, making it harder during sprints or on uneven terrain.

And that energy and endurance you need for a good run? Well, that takes a hit when you’re short on sleep. You’ve likely experienced it; it’s often akin to trying to run with a heavy backpack – not the best feeling.

While numerous studies have explored the effects of sleep deprivation in the general population, a limited body of research delves into its specific impact on athletes.

That is until a comprehensive study2Vitale, K. C., Owens, R., Hopkins, S. R., & Malhotra, A. (2019). Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. International Journal of Sports Medicine40(08), 535–543. https://doi.org/10.1055/a-0905-3103 published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine titled “Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations.”3International Journal of Sports Medicine. (n.d.). https://doi.org/10.1055/s-00000028

‌Armed with more data, we now have a much clearer idea of how sleep affects running performance.

A person running on the beach.

The study found that athletes experiencing sleep deprivation may find their reaction times compromised, which could lead to delayed responsiveness during sprints or changes in terrain.

Reduced accuracy becomes a critical concern, affecting the precision required in foot placement and pacing.

In my own running journey, I have noticed that consistent sleep deprivation reduces the overall enthusiasm that is needed for sustained running efforts and adherence to a training plan.

Not only does sleep affect reaction times and endurance, but it can also lead to an increase in stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can hinder recovery.

Moreover, it negatively affects the regeneration of carbohydrate stores (glycogen), deregulates appetite, impacts energy expenditure, and disrupts the balance between catabolism and anabolism, influencing the rate of muscle repair (muscle protein synthesis or MPS).

Compromised glycogen storage and utilization, affecting the body’s ability to sustain energy levels during prolonged physical activity, will likely lead to a decline in both endurance and speed.

A person running on a track.

8 Tips To Optimize Sleep For Enhanced Performance

When we acknowledge the unequivocal negative impact of sleep deprivation on running performance, we should prioritize sleep hygiene in our running routine.

Now, we’re not going to guess each of your routines; rather, let’s look at how we can implement practical, low-cost tips that can profoundly affect sleep quality, daily energy levels, and overall well-being.

These adjustments not only contribute to better running performance but also support the body’s natural processes, enhancing recovery and minimizing the risk of injuries.

Here are some tips to improve your routine:

#1: Morning Sunlight And Artificial Lights

Early Exposure to Sunlight:

Aim to get at least 20-30 minutes of natural sunlight exposure within the first hour of waking up. Exposure to morning sunlight helps regulate the internal clock, promoting better sleep-wake cycles and overall circadian rhythm synchronization.

If morning sunlight exposure is limited, ensuring adequate lighting throughout the day helps compensate for the missed morning light benefits.

Don’t hit the snooze button, no matter how tempting it is. It does not improve sleep quality.

A person pointing her face toward the sun.

Limit Artificial Light Exposure:

Reduce exposure to artificial lights, especially blue light emitted by screens, in the evening.

Minimizing artificial light exposure in the evening supports the natural rise of melatonin, a hormone crucial for initiating sleep. Consider using blue light filters on electronic devices during the later hours to minimize disruption.

#2: Evaluating Light in Environment

Evaluate the quality and intensity of lighting in your indoor environment. Aim for consistent exposure to natural light throughout the day, especially if you can’t get enough morning sunlight.

Maintaining a well-lit environment during the day supports sustained circadian regulation. Consider using bright, full-spectrum light bulbs to simulate natural sunlight.

A running shower head.

#3: Deliberate Cold Exposure

I’m not saying you must jump in a cold plunge every morning, but hear me out.

Cold exposure stimulates the release of adrenaline. Try incorporating deliberate cold exposure in the morning, such as a cold shower or a brief exposure to cold air. This can help increase alertness and boost metabolic activity.

#4 Exercise In The Morning

Engage in morning exercise, ideally outdoors if possible. Morning exercise has been linked to improved sleep quality, potentially due to its positive impact on circadian rhythms.

#5: Time Caffeine Effectively

If you consume caffeine, be mindful of its timing. Consuming caffeine strategically, such as in the morning or early afternoon, ensures its stimulating effects align with when you want those peaks in energy, preventing disturbances to the evening sleep routine.

Caffeine has a half-life of about 5 hours, meaning if you consume 100 milligrams, you may still have 50 milligrams in your system after that time.4Research, I. of M. (US) C. on M. N. (2001). Pharmacology of Caffeine. In www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. National Academies Press (US). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK223808/#:~:text=The%20mean%20half%2Dlife%20of

‌To ensure a good night’s sleep, it’s best to have your last coffee earlier in the day. Caffeine affects adenosine receptors linked to sleep, so consuming it too close to bedtime can interfere with falling asleep.

Most people should avoid caffeine at least 6-12 hours before bedtime, but individual sensitivity varies, and some may need a longer caffeine-free period before sleep.

If you are feeling that afternoon slump creeping in and want to avoid coffee, try taking short breaks from work, stretching, or engaging in light physical activity.

A person smiling while eating from a bowl.

#6: Be Consistent With Your Meals

Establishing consistent meal times, as well as regular and timed meals, contributes to the synchronization of your circadian rhythm.

If possible, have breakfast shortly after waking up. This helps anchor your circadian rhythm into a routine and supports digestive processes.

Opt for lighter, well-balanced meals in the evening to avoid digestive discomfort that may disrupt sleep.

#7: Be Consistent With Your Bedtime

Establishing a consistent sleep schedule is essential for regulating circadian rhythms.

Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day helps synchronize the body’s internal clock. You’ll find it easier to get to sleep and easier to wake up!

#8: Sleep When You’re Tired

It’s a simple but effective rule: only hit the hay when you’re genuinely feeling sleepy.

If you find yourself tossing and turning, resist the urge to stay in bed. Instead, get up and engage in something else until the drowsiness kicks in. This might mean reading a book, doing a quiet activity, or just chilling out in another room.

A person sleeping in bed.

Sleep And Running Injury

During sleep, the body undergoes essential processes that contribute to overall recovery. If we consistently run without adequate recovery, we risk a significantly higher chance of injury.

When we run, we induce physical stress on the body, especially on the musculoskeletal system. Intense physical activity leads to microtears in muscle fibers, the depletion of energy stores, and the production of metabolic byproducts.

This process triggers an inflammatory response as the body works to repair and adapt to the stress imposed by exercise.

Now, here’s where sleep comes into play on a physiological level. During the various sleep stages, especially deep sleep, the body experiences increased blood flow to muscles, enhanced growth hormone secretion, and heightened protein synthesis.

These mechanisms are crucial for the repair and regeneration of tissues, including the microtears caused by exercise.

Sleep acts as a vital recovery tool by promoting anabolic processes, reducing inflammation, and optimizing hormonal balance.

It’s not just about feeling refreshed; it’s about providing the physiological conditions necessary for the body to effectively heal and adapt to the stresses of physical activity, ultimately reducing the risk of injuries and promoting optimal performance.

The covers to a bed.

Alcohol And Sleep

If you are aiming to optimize your performance, be mindful of alcohol consumption and its potential impact on the quality of your sleep.

Research suggests that alcohol intake is linked to both poorer sleep quality and reduced quantity. Specifically, individuals who consume alcohol may experience disruptions in their rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a critical phase associated with vivid dreams and cognitive restoration.5Roehrs, T., & Roth, T. (2001). Sleep, sleepiness, and alcohol use. Alcohol Research & Health: The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism25(2), 101–109. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11584549/

final thoughts

For runners seeking optimal performance, a holistic approach that includes prioritizing quality sleep, implementing practical sleep hygiene tips, and being mindful of lifestyle factors like alcohol consumption is key.

It’s time to recognize that achieving your running goals involves more than just hitting the pavement – it requires a commitment to quality rest and recovery.

So, lace up your running shoes, but don’t forget to tuck yourself into bed for a good night’s sleep afterward. Your performance may just thank you for it.

If you are looking to learn more about sleep, you may like:


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Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

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