Out of all the important elements of training, perhaps the most important one is the simplest of all; sleep. There are many great benefits to a good night’s rest, besides just feeling refreshed on your morning run. When you sleep, your body releases HGH, the human growth hormone that helps aid in muscle and soft tissue recovery. Sleep also boosts the immune system, along with cardiovascular, brain and nervous systems. Sleep helps keep your metabolism and weight under control. When you deprive yourself of sleep, your body starts to change the way it stores and processes carbohydrates. Sleep deprived runners face problems such as decreased cardiovascular performance, decrease in the hormone leptin, which helps us control our hunger, an increase in the hormone ghrelin, which makes us feel hungry.
The number of hours of sleep necessary for each runner varies. Typically, the average person needs about 8 hours of sleep for general well-being and beneficial recovery. However, some runners may feel ten hours are necessary. Its important to note that the number of hours of sleep you need does not decrease with age, even though the number of hours slept at one time may become difficult.It is also important to have consistency with your sleep. Establishing a regular bedtime and wake up time is vital to keeping your training consistent. To ensure a good night’s sleep, and to fall asleep more quickly, make sure you avoid heavy meals, caffeine, or alcohol for 2-3 hours before bed. Also avoid using the computer and watching TV for the last hour before bed. Finally, try taking up a stress free activity to calm down before bed. Listening to relaxing music, reading, drawing, breathing exercises, prayer, and meditation are great for a bedtime routine. This is also a good time for pre-race or goal visualization. Just be sure not to get too nervous or excited by thinking about a competition before bed. Make sure your sleep environment is a quiet, dark place with no distractions. Continuous sleep all night will reap the most benefits, so silence your phone, and use an eye mask and earplugs if necessary.
When you sleep, your body cycles through five stages of sleep. The first four stages are known as non-rapid eye movement (NREM). During the first short stage, which lasts for 5-10 minutes, you begin to roll your eyes, slow your breathing and decrease your heart rate. This first stage is responsible for helping boost your immune system. Stage two is when eye movement disappears, and muscular relaxation begins. By stages three and four, heart rate and breathing slow down even more, but several other important things occur. These are the stages when your body produces growth hormones which aid in muscle recovery and growth, mental alertness, decrease in body fat, and neurological development. Finally, stage five is the rapid eye movement stage (REM). This is when you enter that deep, dream-like state. Your body actually becomes paralyzed during this stage, rapid eye movement begins, and your heart rate and breathing quickens. After about 120 minutes, stage five is complete, and the cycle begins again.
For those of you who cannot seem to get the 8 hours of sleep your tired, achy bodies require, consider taking a nap. Although many people claim to be too old, too busy, or incapable of napping, there are wonderful benefits, it’s certainly worth a try. While napping cannot replace the benefits of a long continuous night of sleep, it can be a great supplement for extra energy and time for recovery. Many professional athletes take naps even in addition to their 8-10 hours of sleep. Naps should typically be taken in the mid afternoon. Fitting a nap into your schedule isn’t as hard as you might think, there’s often time on lunch breaks, or immediately after work or school is over. As long as you keep the naps shorter than 45minutes they shouldn’t interfere with your nighttime rest. Even a 20 minute nap has benefits; it can make you feel more alert, and help you better perform simple tasks.
Naps ranging from 50-90 minutes are the ones that allow for muscle recovery, since this is when we reach the third and fourth stage of NREM in which growth hormones are released. I personally like to take these naps after hard workouts, and even throw on a pair of compression socks or tights for even more muscular benefit. However, if you’re short on time, or you don’t want to feel that groggy feeling from awaking form an hour-long nap, consider a 20-minute “coffee nap”. I’ve always wondered why one of my teammates and I are able to fall asleep shortly after drinking a cup of hot coffee, and it turns out science has the answer. Studies show that caffeine takes about 15 or 20 minutes to “kick in,” therefore drinking a cup just before a short nap allows you to sleep 20 minutes, then awake with a jolt and get you right back into your busy life as a runner. So instead of using coffee as a way to cheat on sleep, use it as an excuse to get a little more, and add an afternoon coffee nap to your training schedule today!
About the Author: Amanda Winslow, is a junior at Florida State University, and a member of the Seminoles Cross Country and Track & Field teams. She enjoys long runs on the sandy trails of Tallahassee, as well as creative writing, photography and painting (see original artwork above).