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For many of us, sleep is something we do reluctantly—perhaps even guiltily. There’s just too much to do. Who has time to indulge in sleep? Not long ago, it was common among high performers to brag about how little they slept.
But that mindset has changed, especially among elite performers. Ultrarunner and coach Zach Bitter calls sleep one of the most important recovery tools. “It’s definitely quality over quantity, so getting a routine that allows you to get deep sleep, especially in peak training, is key to absorbing the hard training efforts needed to get faster and stronger.”
Outside of sports, Arianna Huffington’s newest book, Thrive, touts sleep as one of the keys to, well, thriving, and she admits her days of sleep deprivation were detrimental to her success.
The Recovery Frontier
It is no coincidence that the new focus on sleep comes at a time when we’re beginning to understand the importance of recovery. Peak performance isn’t just about training hard: It’s also about having downtime between workouts, letting the body mend and make itself stronger. Our training schedules include low-volume weeks and recovery runs for this purpose, but sleep is the body’s ultimate rebuilding process.
When you sleep, all the cells in your body run their repair processes, replacing damaged components and doubling their defenses. Your hormones also take the opportunity to rebalance, which is vital to countless bodily operations, including appetite and weight management, stress modulation and cardiovascular function.
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Improve Your Performance
Sleep is especially important for trail runners. During training, athletes wreak havoc upon their bodies, and not taking enough time to rebuild can lead to injury. Even if you don’t get injured, not getting enough sleep might be silently hurting your performance. Also consider that during intensive training, your body may need more sleep in order to maintain the status quo. In his tome Lore of Running, Dr. Tim Noakes suggests budgeting an extra hour of sleep per night during periods of heavy training.
Indeed, while a lack of sleep can be hurtful, getting more sleep can be helpful: A study on runners at the 2013 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race found that those who adopted sleep-management strategies prior to the race ended up performing better. The strategies included scheduling naps, increasing sleep at night and receiving training in sleep deprivation leading up to the race.
In another study on the performance-enhancing effects of sleep, Stanford basketball players were followed during a week of normal sleep and then during a week in which they got as much extra sleep as they could. During the week of extra sleep, their sprint times and shooting percentages improved. Not only that, but they reported increased energy, better moods and lower levels of fatigue.
Are You Under-Sleeping?
How do you know if you’re getting enough sleep? You’re probably sleeping too little if you often wake up tired and feel fatigued throughout the day. When it comes to running, you may find your performance hitting a plateau and your motivation slipping.
Not getting enough sleep over a long period can lead to serious conditions like depression and memory loss.
If you’re under-sleeping, what can you do? It may be helpful to reframe sleep as an active recovery tactic rather than a passive activity you engage in merely out of biological compulsion. Give yourself more time to sleep around tough workouts, and work in naps after your long runs.
A good rule of thumb: When you finish your run, rehydrate, stretch out and let yourself cool down, and then take a 30-to-90-minute nap. You’ll wake up refreshed and ready to go on with your day (the stretching and cool-down period help prevent you from waking up stiff and sore). Post-run naps are particularly beneficial if you find it hard to concentrate after long runs.
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Shining a Light on Sleep Quality
It’s important to remember, though, that sleep quality is more important than quantity—welcome news for those of us who can barely find time for a few hours of sleep. A paper in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research synthesized two studies that tracked participants over a week, correlating their sleep logs with surveys that measured things like health, life satisfaction, depression, anger and fatigue. Both studies found that low sleep quality contributed to persistent sleepiness more than low sleep quantity.
One of the biggest things you can do to improve your sleep is to consider ambient light. “Light is the most powerful factor in whether your brain feels sleepy, or wide awake,” says sleep expert Dr. Lisa Shives.
A review of the research on circadian rhythms with regard to shift workers revealed that the most important factor in manipulating the circadian system is the exposure to and avoidance of bright light at specific times. The takeaway: Sleep in a room that’s as dark as possible. Block out any lights, especially green or blue ones. Consider getting a sunrise alarm clock, which uses a gradually brightening light instead of a suddenly blaring alarm, to help you wake up in the morning.
Also, importantly, monitor your exposure to light even before you go to bed: Stop using electronics with screens two hours before you go to bed. These devices emit light that’s meant to mimic sunshine, which makes colors look natural, but it’s a problem for sleep. If you need light, try to use candles, red lights or old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, dimmed if possible.
You work hard to perfect numerous aspects of your training and recovery, but don’t miss the low-hanging fruit. Make getting quality slumber part of your training plan. You can literally recover in your sleep.
Tips to Improve Your Sleep
Don’t consume any caffeine (unfortunately that includes chocolate) after 2 p.m. You might think caffeine doesn’t affect you, but it may impact your sleep quality without you even knowing it.
Avoid high-stress activities in the evening. (That includes watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones.) Opt instead for things like reading and casual conversation.
Think of your sleep routine as beginning a few hours before you actually go to bed. No rushing. Try drinking herbal tea. Rest-inducing herbs include chamomile, kava, peppermint, jasmine and lavender.
Cool it down! We sleep best around 65 degrees.
Read some dense literature or poetry to help you fall asleep. Think The Sun Also Rises, not Fifty Shades of Grey. “Definitely don’t take a detective novel to bed,” says sleep expert Dr. Lisa Shives.
Best Sleep Apps & Devices
Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock (iOS/Android): Track your sleep quality and let your phone wake you up at the perfect time. sleepcycle.com
Oman (iOS/Android/Web): Access relaxing audio tracks to lull yourself to sleep, guide your meditations and more. omvana.com
Beddit: Put this paper-thin device under your sheets and let it collect data on your heart rate, respiration, sleep cycles and more, sent to your smartphone automatically. beddit.com
Fitbit (Wearable): This activity tracker can also gauge your sleep quality. fitbit.com
Tictrac (Web): This online service combines data from multiple sources. Bring in your sleep data from Sleep Cycle, Fitbit or another tracker and see how your sleep impacts your performance. tictrac.com
Melon (Wearable): This groundbreaking device tracks brain activity and sleep. thinkmelon.com
Sleep Genius (iOS/Android): Developed for NASA, this wearable-compatible app offers a suite of sleep-enhancing functions. sleepgenius.com
This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue.