200+ Mile Sleep Strategies: Dirt Napping 101

For races that require multiple overnights, here are some science-backed sleep strategies to help runners maximize performance on multi-day events

Photo: EFF PACHOUD/Getty Images

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As more and more runners decide that 100 miles just isn’t enough anymore, 200 mile races have drastically increased in popularity. From the iconic Triple Crown of 200s, to the beastly Tor Des Geants, multi-day single push efforts are becoming almost normal. It is not uncommon for runners to tackle three, four, five days in a row during these events and because they are not stage races, there are no set guidelines or requirements for sleep. 

From the moment the runner crosses the start line, a clock does not stop until they cross the finish line. Unlike Marathon des Sables or the Dragon’s Back race where runners run a set distance per day and sleep at a designated camp, a runner in a non-stop race can push deep into the stages of sleep deprivation. Extreme sleep deprivation can lead to hallucinations, impaired judgment and decision making, drastic declines in pace, increased sense of perceived effort, and delayed reactions amongst many other negative responses. But, there are ways to combat these effects, and one of the most useful tools at our disposal is the glorious and glamorous dirt nap.

Ways To Bank Sleep Before Races

Before we get to the art of the dirt nap, there are ways that runners can prepare for multi-day pushes prior to standing on the start line. The first is a well researched and oft utilized strategy called sleep extension. Dr. Borja Martinez Gonzalez in his comprehensive PhD thesis

Sleep Deprivation and Ultra-endurance Performance: Assessment and Countermeasures, writes, “Sleep extension, defined as a deliberately longer sleep duration than habitual with the aim of banking sleep, has been proposed in the literature as a potential tool to reduce the negative effects of sleep deprivation, and therefore, improve endurance performance (Walsh et al., 2020).” Sleep extension is cited as one of the best tools for combating sleep deprivation and preparing a runner for the grueling task of running 200 miles. Taking the time to sleep more than usual in the days and even a couple weeks prior to the event could pay dividends later on in a race. 

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To further the credibility of sleep extension, in the article Running on Empty: Self-Reported Sleep/Wake Behaviour during Ultra-Marathon Events Exceeding 100 Miles by the authors Bianchi D, Miller DJ, and Lastella M, they advocate sleep extension over other forms of training or preparation for 200 mile races. In the article, they write “consistent with previous findings [6], the athletes in the present study reported sleep extension as their preferred pre-race sleep strategy. Sleep extension has been shown to be effective in improving performance in ultra-marathon competition compared to other strategies such as training in a sleep-deprived state [13].” While it is important to understand how your lighting system, hydration, nutrition, and general gear strategies work at night, purposefully training in sleep deprived states has not been proven to aid later performance. The costs of delayed recovery, and increased mental and physical fatigue, among other effects, are not outweighed by any performance benefit from sleep deprived preparation runs. Instead, spend the extra time resting and recovering and banking sleep for what’s to come. 

The goals and experience of the runner often determine the amount of sleep delegated during the race. Runners shooting for fast times and podium spots will often forego sleep as much as possible throughout the duration of the race. This could mean sleeping as little as 30-45 minutes in a 60-70 hour period. Other runners who are out for the experience or are shooting for a strong finish should opt for longer sleeping periods to aid in recovery and reduction of mental fatigue. The deeply sleep deprived runner can begin to sleep walk or sleep run which can quickly become a death march with little forward momentum or purpose. Gonzalez writes, “over the course of the race, reductions in speed are observed resulting from an increased perception of effort due to the combination of accumulated sleep debt and fatigue. Similar to mental fatigue, RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) increases when performing endurance exercise in a sleep deprived state.” The difficulty of staying awake, colloquially referred to as “the sleep monster,” slashes at runners forward progress and can turn an easy section of running into a zombie slog. Sacrificing just a bit more time to sleep can result in greater enjoyment of the course and an overall faster time with increased moving speeds that make up for the extra sleep time. 

While there is much to be learned and studied in sleep strategies for 200 milers, the most adapted strategy is pushing through the first 24+ hours without sleep and opting for a longer nap the second night. Not only is the first night often the most chaotic if you are using an aid or sleep station, but the excitement, banked sleep, and general freshness can most often carry a runner through the first night without sleep. The second night is crucial though for restoring cognitive function and maintaining body regulation. If possible, Jason Koop in his article “Ultrarunning Overnight: Keys to Slaying the Sleep Monster” suggests the following strategy for the second night. He writes, “go as far as you can so that your wakeup is timed as close to sunrise as possible. This might mean that you push all the way to 2-4 AM before allowing yourself to sleep. Plan on laying down for between 40 and 60 minutes total.” Pushing this nap to align with the sun rising helps the runner feel more refreshed when waking up and also has an impact on the circadian process of sleep. Bianchi D, Miller DJ, and Lastella M write on this process, “sleep is regulated by (1) a circadian process that increases the drive for sleep depending on time of day, and (2) a homeostatic process whereby the drive for sleep (i.e., sleep pressure) increases as sustained wakefulness increases [3]”. By pushing to a natural waking time, a runner can decrease the drive for sleep as well as decrease the overall sleep pressure by taking a nap. 

After the second night nap, depending on the predicted finishing time, the runner may be able to push through to the end with micro naps or no naps at all. If the runner is looking at several more days of racing, it is worth adding in more of these longer sleep sessions (looking closer to 2+ hours for a nap) to your sleep strategy. Sleeping is crucial to safety and cognitive function, and taking extreme risks by severe sleep deprivation is not advisable. 

RELATED: Do Afternoon Naps For Athletes Improve Performance?

The Art of Napping

Now we get to the fun part, the art of napping. For longer naps, many runners shoot for a sleep station which is an aid station specifically set up with cots or other places for runners to sleep, a crew car at an aid station or another area that is soft, warm, and comfortable for the runner to crash. It is crucial the runner understands the specific rules of their race as every 200 miler is different. Some races will disqualify runners if they sleep in a crew car, while others do not allow a runner to sleep outside of an aid station for more than 20 minutes. 

Here’s How to Get the Most Out of Your Nap:

  • Choose a quiet, less trafficked area if possible to reduce sleep interruption.
  • Have some food beforehand so your body can digest it.
  • Make sure you are warm and dry, possibly even take a quick wet wipe shower to clean off dirt and sweat to prevent chafing.
  • If available, clean clothes can make you feel like a new person and help with sleep hygiene.
  • Set a timer and try to stick with your plan as much as possible.
  • When the timer goes off, get up and get going so you don’t waste time whether that means eating more, drinking caffeine or getting your gear together.
  • If you have crew, have your crew utilize the time you are napping to charge watches, headlamps, pack your food etc., and be ready to get you right out the door.

While the first few minutes after the nap may feel tough, the longer nap can help you reset and get moving at a much faster pace than previously. Just be prepared and try to avoid as much excess time on either side of the nap. 

The second type of nap, often conducted in the dirt, is the micro nap. These naps range anywhere from just a few minutes to 15 or 20 minutes at a time. These naps, while not as restorative as the longer naps, are crucial for quick resets to snap the runner out of zombie mode. Many runners experience hallucinations while they are deep in the throes of sleep deprivation, and a quick dirt nap can help runner’s temporarily stop the hallucinations. If you are struggling to differentiate between reality and your hallucinations, it’s probably time for a dirt nap. 

Here’s How To Maximize Your Dirt Nap:

  • Find a safe place to sleep, far away from cliff edges, on top of summits, or places you could run into trouble.
  • Find someplace relatively dry, comfortable, and warm so you can best utilize the sleep time.
  • Get out a safety blanket or extra coat or something that will keep you warm. Especially as fatigue increases, your body temperature will plummet quickly when you stop.
  • Set an alarm and stick to the time frame you have planned for yourself. 
  • Set out a directional stick or use your poles to make an arrow to point you in the correct direction on the trail. Especially later in the race, you can become disoriented and forget which direction to go. 
  • Have a snack before you fall asleep so your body can process it while you are napping.
  • If later in the race and you tolerate it well, use caffeine to help you wake up from the nap and get moving.

There is still much to be learned about sleeping during 200 milers, so it is crucial for you to have your own sleep strategy and most of all, to move safely through the mountains. Extreme sleep deprivation can cause accidents and dangerous situations. Don’t ignore the signs and take the extra few minutes to sleep and reset. Not only will you feel better, but your pacers and crew will get extreme enjoyment out of taking funny photos of you passed out during a race. Remember, we’re paying for the privilege to sleep in the dirt.

RELATED: A Trail Runner’s Guide To Getting Really, Really Good Sleep



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