Getting Quality Sleep During Your Marathon Training

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I must admit that I love to sleep. I was this way even as a child where I could sleep nearly anywhere. Even in my teenage years I would happily sleep 10 hours a night.

This started to change when I had to work 12 hour night shifts in my early years as a nurse. Then, unfortunately our oldest son did not share my sentiments about sleep and his babyhood was literally a rude awakening for me.

The first year of his life made me doubt if I’d ever sleep through the night again. Parents of young children can probably relate to this.

Now maybe you’re not as fixated on sleep as I am but most people underestimate its importance and many struggle with sleep difficulties.

Getting Quality Sleep During Your Marathon Training

The amount of sleep decreases as we age. A newborn may sleep for 16-20 hours each day while children need between 10-12 hours per day.

According to many experts the average adult needs between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. While some people can function on less than 6 hours of sleep and do fine, others need upwards of nine hours for peak performance and productivity.

Dr. Chokoroverty, a neuroscience professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Health and Medical Sciences says,

The amount of sleep needed to function the next day varies from individual to individual, and is determined genetically and hereditarily. If you look at the 1960s and 1970s, people reported average sleep times of 8-8.5 hours a night. Today, it’s much more likely to be 7-7.5 hours or less. [1]

Back before electricity was invented people lived by the pattern of the light cycles. You typically went to bed when it was dark and got up when it was light.

One winter here in MO we were without power due to an ice storm for six days. It was amazing how much more sleep we got. Once it got dark there wasn’t a lot you could do by candle light.

Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

Many people brag about how little sleep they get, but chronic lack of sleep can have consequences. Drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes a year, resulting in 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths. [2]

In fact, the recent accident that severely injured comedian Tracy Morgan was caused by a truck driver that had been awake for more than 24 hours.

We can agree that sleep deprivation is dangerous while driving but it also affects your concentration and productivity at work and can make you emotionally unbalanced, clumsy and hungrier.

Sleep Deprivation Changes Your Genes
What I thought was a little shocking is that according to the National Sleep Foundation, getting less than six hours of sleep per night can be serious enough to change your genes.

Obviously not getting enough sleep for a couple nights won’t put you at serious risk, but even one week of sleep deprivation can. Researches observed that after seven nights of too little sleep there were more than 700 genetic changes that took place—with consequences ranging from obesity to heart problems.

  • Less than six hours of sleep each night increases your risk of stroke, increases appetite, encourages you to eat more junk food, increase risk of diabetes, speeds memory loss, increases risk of cancer and osteoporosis, decreases sex drive, increases skin aging, increases depression, and raises the risk of dying at a younger age. [3]

It’s amazing how dependant our body is on quality sleep. In our increasingly fast-paced world getting by on less sleep has become a badge of honor to some people. But if you’re one of those people that looks at sleep as a waste of time it’s important to think again.

Your body doesn’t really adapt to chronic sleep deprivation and it will lower your productivity during waking hours. Sleep deprived individuals are prone to poor judgment when evaluating what a lack of sleep is doing to them. Sleep specialists say that even if you think you’re doing fine on less sleep you’re probably wrong. This is especially true if you work in a profession where mental and physical sharpness is important.

Dr. Gehrman, a sleep researcher says,

Studies show that over time, people who are getting six hours of sleep, instead of seven or eight, begin to feel that they’ve adapted to that sleep deprivation — they’ve gotten used to it. But if you look at how they actually do on tests of mental alertness and performance, they continue to go downhill. So there’s a point in sleep deprivation when we lose touch with how impaired we are.

Sleep plays a vital role in thinking and learning and lack of sleep hurts our cognitive processes in several ways. It impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning and problem solving which makes it more difficult to learn.

During the night various sleep cycles work to “consolidate” memories in the mind. If you don’t get enough sleep you won’t be able to fully remember what you learned and experienced. [4]

Since I’d guess that we all want to live a longer, healthier and more productive life, it’s important to focus on getting enough sleep.

Sleep and the Athlete

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We’ve established that sleep is very important for optimal health and functioning. But do endurance athletes need more sleep? If you’re training for a marathon you may find that you’re tired more often.

Since sleep improves all areas of brain and cellular health it follows that it will improve your athletic performance as well. Professional athletes are well known for their sleep schedules. Runner’s World even has an article entitled “Sleep Your Way to a PR.” [7]

But many runners have to get up at 3 or 4 in the morning to get training runs done before work. Or they may burn the midnight oil to get in workouts in the evening. We got a Speak Pipe question from Marco who does his training runs around midnight.

Dr. Gazzola, a physician and marathoner, says,

Sleep is really important when training for an endurance event, during sleep a lot of important things are happening to aid in the recovery process. Besides just feeling more rested and ready to tackle the day ahead, adequate sleep – at least seven hours, uninterrupted – can make a big difference in your recovery.

The third stage of a typical sleep cycle is when the body heals itself. Human growth hormone (HGH) is released at this time from the pituitary gland and it plays a key role in building and repairing muscle tissue and bones, as well as helping the body use fat as fuel. Without the right amount of HGH in the blood, recovery from workouts is hindered which prolongs the time it takes the body to get and stay in good shape.

When a person is chronically sleep deprived their level of HGH decreases and another hormone, cortisol (also called the stress hormone) increases. High levels of cortisol can be dangerous because it may prohibit the body from recovering fully and it can also interfere with the repair and growth of soft tissue. [7]

William O. Roberts, M.D., associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine and medical director of the Twin Cities Marathon says,

Sleep plays a critical role in restoring the body, especially after bouts of exercise. Although sleep needs are individual, a person training for a marathon generally needs more sleep than someone who isn’t. Lack of sleep can also compromise your immune system, which is already vulnerable during marathon training: Those who get six hours or less of sleep have 50 percent less immunity protection than those who get eight hours per night. [8]

You can also be setting yourself up for injury if you’re chronically sleep deprived and continue to train hard.

How They Sleep

  • Elite marathoner Ryan Hall has said that he sleeps nine hours a night plus a nap of 1-1.5 hours.
  • Paula Radcliffe, winner of the 2004 New York City Marathon and women’s marathon world record holder, gets nine hours of nighttime sleep plus a two-hour afternoon nap when she’s training.
  • Deena Kaster and Shalayne Flannigan routinely log 10 hours of sleep per night. (10)
  • Then there’s ultramarathoner and endurance machine Dean Karnazes, who says he functions fine with just four hours of sleep per night. I would say that he’s the exception rather than the rule.

Skip Stolley, the director of Track West, a USA Track & Field elite development club in Santa Monica, California, says most runners fall somewhere in the middle.

“A runner who’s running every day and training for a marathon should be getting a minimum of eight hours of sleep.” [8]

Some coaches will go so far as to say that getting quality sleep is as important as getting in quality workouts.

Better Sleep Better Performance
Cheri Mah of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory has been following the sleep patterns and athletic performance of Stanford athletes for years. Her research continues to show that getting more sleep leads to better sports performance for all types of athletes.

One study she authored, in 2009, followed the Stanford women’s tennis team for five weeks as they attempted to get 10 hours of sleep each night. Those who increased their sleep time ran faster sprints and hit more accurate tennis shots than while getting their usual amount of sleep.

In earlier studies, Mah found that getting extra sleep over several weeks improved performance, mood and alertness for athletes on the Stanford men’s and women’s swim teams and men’s basketball team. [9]

sleepTake Action
Even if you don’t get the ideal amount of sleep every night there is some benefit to logging extra hours of sleep in the weeks leading up to a race. Spending some extra time sleeping in the 2-3 weeks that you’re tapering before a marathon can pay big dividends on race day.

We all know that it’s hard to get quality sleep the night before a big race. It can be hard to shut the brain off and I often wake several times per night and look at the clock to make sure I didn’t oversleep. But if you’re well rested from focusing on extra sleep the week before then the lack of sleep that one night won’t hurt your performance.

In the next post I’ll give you nine tips for how to improve your sleep.



Also Mentioned in this Episode

Three great websites to find marathons in places you want to go.

2 Responses to Getting Quality Sleep During Your Marathon Training

  1. Terrell Johnson July 11, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

    Thanks for the shoutout, guys! I run HalfMarathons.Net and came across your site today, and it was really nice to hear the mention. Great podcast, and great work.

    • Trevor July 12, 2014 at 9:40 am #

      Hi Terrell,

      Thanks for stopping by the blog. And thanks for providing a great resource!

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