Sleep : The Essential Part of Training That Most Runners Overlook

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You do it every night, but have you ever taken the time to understand what role sleep plays in your running journey?

And how often do you actually get enough quality sleep?

It is no secret that many of us are sleep-deprived a lot of the time. 

Particularly we runners, who often find ourselves having to squeeze in a pre-work run at the crack of dawn whilst, like any other human, we juggle a million other things. 

In this article, we are going to demystify sleep by taking a dive into:

  • What goes on in a runner’s body when we sleep,
  • whether runners need more sleep than most,
  • whether running actually improves sleep,
  • how to and whether you should track your sleep,
  • and we will finish with 6 key tips for a good night’s sleep.


Let’s go!

Sleep- An Overview

Here’s the low down on sleep. 

There are 4 stages of sleep, check out this infographic:


5 Signs you’re not getting enough sleep

In a US survey, 11% of adults reported getting an insufficient amount of sleep every night.

And the quality of sleep you get is just as important a factor as the quantity.

If you feel tired and you’re working off 5 hours of sleep a night, quantity is probably the issue you need to address.

However, if you are hitting that recommended 7-9 hours of sleep a night and you’re still feeling sleep-deprived, your quality of sleep may not be good enough.

Here are some signs that your quality of sleep is poor:

  • You’re groggy in the daytime.
  • It takes you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep.
  • You’re waking up more than once a night.
  • You wake in the night and it takes you longer than 20 minutes to fall back asleep.
  • If you need a lot of caffeine to get you through the day.

What goes on in a runner’s body during sleep

As runners, what we are interested in when it comes to sleep is how it can boost our recovery and help us to become better runners.

The good news is, a good night’s sleep does just that!

The majority of sleep’s recovery-boosting benefits come into play in stage 3, the deepest stage of sleep.

Stage 3 usually occurs within the first half of the night, and in this stage we see:

  • Tissue be repaired
  • And memory be consolidated (new facts and skills are stored and strengthened)

Why is growth hormone important?

Growth hormone stimulates growth, cell reproduction, and cell regeneration.

It works at keeping your body fat down and your muscle mass high.

Sounds good, right?

It’s great when you let your body do its thing during optimal sleep. The body knows best.

But don’t get tempted by growth hormone supplements!

Too much growth hormone can lead to swollen hands and feet and altered face features.

….and not in a free nose job kind of way.

Do runners need more sleep?

If sleep is so crucial for muscle repair, then surely runners (who love to tear up their muscles) need more sleep than the average person?

Whilst training to break the sub 2 hour marathon, Eliud Kipchoge slept for 8 hours a night, and took a 2 hour nap during the day.

And during her training, marathoner Paula Radcliffe would sleep 8-10 hours a night and another couple of hours in the afternoon.

Research shows that runners do need more sleep than sedentary people, for a few reasons.

Here are 2:

1. Full recovery requires proper sleep.

Studies show that in order to reap the benefits of your training, you need to recover properly.

It would be a waste to spend hours a week training for your running goals, for your progress only to be sabotaged by under-sleeping.

2. As your mileage increases, sleep requirements increase.

During the peak of your training, when your weekly mileage is at its highest, your need for sleep will also be sky-high.

During peak training, you may even find yourself taking a leaf out of the pro’s books and hunkering down for a nap in the afternoon.

What happens if you don’t get enough sleep?

Chronic poor sleep has been shown to increase your chances of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease.

And there are even some reports that indicate that you’re at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Although, those would result from pretty extreme cases of sleep deprivation over the course of many years.

More relevant for runners, however, is the fact that poor sleep can increase the risk of injury.

Related: What Is The Ideal Marathon Runner’s Body?

Does poor sleep increase the risk of injury?

Short answer, yes.

Studies have demonstrated that consistent under-sleeping can increase your risk of injury and overtraining syndrome.

This is because consistently training on fatigued legs means your body just doesn’t get a chance to recover fully between training sessions.

Proper recovery should be viewed as an essential part of training, sleep included.

Does running improve sleep?

So, as runners, we need better quality sleep. And more of it.

Does our body adjust naturally?

According to sleep expert Amy M. Bender PhD., among the general population, those who report exercising more, are more likely to spend longer in stage 3 sleep, that is deep sleep. 

And we are more likely to get more of that deeper stage of sleep after exercising.

This is one of the reasons why medical professionals often recommend exercise for those struggling with sleep.

So running does in fact boost your sleep quality. 

A study that looked at over 1,000 London Marathon runners and Canadian National Team Athletes found that in general, runners don’t tend to suffer from as many sleep issues as other athletes or the general population.

So, that sounds like good news for us runners!

However, those stats don’t make you personally immune to poor sleep.

If you suffer from poor sleep, you may have considered using sleep tracking devices to help you on your journey to becoming a well-rested runner.

How to track your sleep

Us runners are known for wanting a down low on the stats side of things. So, to satisfy your data needs, you may gravitate towards tracking your sleep via a sports watch

How to track your sleep stages

So, you want to spend more time in stage 3…

Many sports watches claim to tell you exactly how much time you spent in each of the different stages of sleep.

But, in reality, watches aren’t the most accurate for tracking your sleep stages (although they are becoming increasingly more so).

In fact, in order to track your sleep stages properly, you need to measure the electrical activity of the brain using EEG or encephalography.

…probably not something most of us has hanging around the home. 

The advice from sleep experts is to not worry too much about how much sleep you are getting in each of the stages, and instead to focus on tracking how much sleep you are getting overall.

How to track the number of hours you sleep

It may seem like this would be more straightforward. And it is. But you still need to be careful. 

Your expensive sports watch may still not be able to differentiate between the amount of time you spend lying in bed reading or scrolling before you go to sleep, and the amount of time you spend actually sleeping.

If you want accurate stats from your sports watch when tracking hours slept, it’s a good idea to get into bed when you want to sleep, and to get up and at ’em when your morning alarm goes off.

6 tips for a good night’s sleep

Instead of focusing on the stats, you’re better off investing your energy of those things within your control.

Here are some great strategies you can implement into your own life that can help you to become a stronger, well-rested runner.

It’s a bit of extra effort, but remember- sleep is a key part of running training!

1. Sleep in complete darkness.

If street lights shine through your curtains, consider investing in black-out blinds.

2. Wear blue light glasses.

These help your body get into a regular sleep cycle by reducing disruption to the production of melatonin- a sleep hormone.

3. Get into a routine.

Having a regular sleeping pattern is one of the most impactful things you can do for your sleep health.

Set an alarm for the same time each morning and commit to a regular bedtime.

4. Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed.

Look, I’m not saying that you should drink wine in the morning. But both caffeine and alcohol are known to disrupt sleep, so be mindful of consuming them late into the evening.

5. Avoid sugar before bed.

Sugar is notorious for the way it spikes and then crashes our energy levels.

Because of this, it is not recommended that you eat sugary treats before bed.

Doing so could wreak havoc on your body clock, and poor sleep only leads us to gravitate towards energy-rich sugary foods, keeping us in an unhealthy cycle.

6. Steer clear of screens.

We all know it’s not good for us, but here’s another reminder.

Looking at a screen suppresses the sleep hormone, melatonin, making it harder for you to fall asleep.

It is advised that you go screen-free for at least one hour before you go to bed.

More on recovery…

So you know all you need to know about sleep for runners.

But there are more facets to maximising your recovery as a runner.

Click here to check out our Marathon Training Recovery Guide.

Photo of author
Maria Andrews is a runner, adventure lover, and UESCA certified Ultramarathon Coach. When she's not running around the woods or plotting adventures, she's spending time with her nearest and dearest, cooking up a storm, or working on Marathon Handbook's sister website, yogajala.com :)

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