One Surprising Thing That Can Make You A Better Runner

Quality sleep helps you make the most of your months of hard work and allows you to compete in tip-top shape.

It's marathon season. As an endurance runner myself, I often feel there are not enough hours to get in my training amidst a world of family, work and other obligations. On top of it all, there never seems to be enough time for sleep.

Runners who decide to enter a race (regardless of the distance) typically create training regimens that include detailed information about the mileage and pace for each run. They plan proper nutrition to fuel a run. But sleep doesn't always factor into their training plan, although it should be a critical component.

So why is sleep so important to a training plan? In a nutshell, it helps you make the most of your months of hard work and allows you to compete in tip-top shape.

Many people (including myself!) begin running for weight loss, because routinely getting a solid night's sleep every night can only work to increase your calorie burn. Sleep deprivation throws off our appetite-signaling hormones. When we don't get enough sleep, we have an increase in ghrelin (the hormone that says "eat more!") and a decrease in leptin (which tells us "stop eating!"). As a result of this hormonal imbalance, we eat more, because we have too much of a signal that we're hungry and not enough to tell us to stop. Good sleep allows us to keep these hunger signals in check, thereby enhancing our ability to stick with a diet. And when you mix a good night's sleep with exercise, you have a greater chance of losing weight and keeping it off. As an added bonus, less weight equals faster running!

A time-honored ritual of many endurance athletes is to carbo-load in the days just before a big race. Carbohydrates help provide a ready source of energy for the body when carbs are broken down by the body, the component sugars are stored in the muscles as glycogen, just waiting for the body to use it during the race. This can improve athletic performance and help delay "hitting the wall."

Sleep deprivation weakens the body's ability to store carbohydrates (therefore, less glygocen is stored). Reduced glycogen stores can lead one to hit the wall sooner than usual since they're depleted too fast. Good sleep (quality and quantity) makes that plate of pasta help you succeed on race day.

Taper time takes place two to three weeks before a long-distance event, when one cuts back on weekly mileage in order to help restore energy and recover from the tough training. This allows the legs to be fresh for race day. Although we focus so much on the eating and limited running aspects of the taper, sleep again gets overlooked, even though it's one of the most important components in a successful taper. During the deeper stages of sleep, HGH human growth hormone is released. HGH aids in repairing muscle and converting fat to fuel, and helps strengthens our bones. Less sleep leads to reduced HGH levels, impacting the speed from which we recover from workouts. Sleep deprivation also leads to increased levels of cortisol (a hormone released during stress), which in turn slows down recovery time. Taper is a time to cut back on running, eat well and sleep as much as you can.

So now that you know the basics of why sleep is important to training, here are some recommendations to help get quality sleep during your training:

  • Limit alcohol, heavy meals, nicotine and exercise (tough, I know!) within three hours of bedtime.
  • One hour before bed, wind down with something calm and relaxing that does not include a screen (TV, iPad, computer, etc.).
  • Limit caffeine within six to eight hours of bedtime.
  • Don't stress if you can't sleep well the night before a race. This is completely normal, and the adrenaline will carry you through. Try to sleep as much as you can in the days leading up to the race, helping offset the result from any pre-race jitters.
  • Get enough sleep on a regular basis. The best way to figure out your optimal sleep need is to go to bed and not set the alarm for a few days (ideally with five or more days where you don't need to wake up early). On days four and five, you can start to see how much sleep you regularly require. Most people fall within a range of about six to nine hours a night, though there's individual variation.

Good luck to all who are at the starting line this season – run fast, sleep well and enjoy your medal at the end!

Better Sleep Can Improve Your Running Performance was originally published on U.S. News & World Report.

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