Is Sleep the Best Recovery Option for Runners?

We love magic pills. And by we, I mean you and me, runners all like we love magic pills, ice baths, massage sticks, foam rollers, whatever we can do to recover faster. We love these magic pills where we say, “man, this one thing, this is going to make me better.”
Is Sleep the Best Recovery Option for Runners?

JESSE: We love magic pills. And by we, I mean you and me, runners all like we love magic pills, ice baths, massage sticks, foam rollers, whatever we can do to recover faster. We love these magic pills where we say, “man, this one thing, this is going to make me better.” But what if I told you that sleep itself may be the best recovery option for you? Would you believe me or think I'm bullshitting you? Well, I'm Jessie Funk and on today's episode of Runner’s High we're going to explore the effects of a lack of sleep on your run performance.

First, let me tell you a story of an experience I've had, and not just one experience, it's really the same experience over and over and over again, and that's the night before a race. You're nervous, it's hard to sleep, you're jittery, you can't quite relax and go to bed. I know I've done this over the number of years, I've been racing almost 20 years now, so there've been plenty of restless nights.

And this was especially prevalent when I started my triathlon career post-college running, I was just so anxious about performance that I had lots and lots of trouble sleeping.

Now, through those experiences, no matter whether I got to bed early, woke up in the middle of the night, went back to sleep, didn't go back to sleep, tossed and turned all night, whatever it was, there really seems to be very little correlation with how I slept the night before race and then the actual race itself.

And this is kind of reported across many, many people. Again, it's all anecdotal, we haven't like set together a scholarly study to do this, but I think we can say pretty definitively that the night before a race can usually be made up by adrenaline and just desire to perform on the date of a race. And you're not going to see as much degradation in performance because of one particular night. However, we want to know what happens when you have a lack of sleep on a regular basis and continue training over the long-term.

There's a commonly quoted study where a group of guys was allowed to sleep for four to six hours a night over a week. Again, we're only talking about a week here, not even that long. And by the end of this study they noticed an increase in cortisol levels. So, if you're are familiar with cortisol, it is a stress hormone that our body produces when we do things like run or just stress about things.

It does some positive things for us, and one of those things is notifying our body “hey, we need nutrients, please, you know, deliver these nutrients to these areas, that will be great.” So, cortisol is a good signal to our body to help us repair and get ready for the next thing, that stress has a positive effect for a look in distress.

If you want me to do a video on this later, let me know in the comments below, eustress versus distress. Two different kinds of stress, but there are different kinds of stress. So, keep that in mind.

But cortisol does some good things for us. The problem is when cortisol builds up and is not able to kind of go back down to regular levels or diminish, then there are some potential side effects and those can be really harmful to us. One of includes a lack of sleep.

So, if you're already not sleeping and then high cortisol from a lack of sleep and working out leads you to not sleeping, you can end up in this vicious cycle. But cortisol can lead to anxiety, headaches, weight gain, trouble digesting, a lot of different things that lead to decreased performance over time. So, we know that there's a correlation between lack of sleep, continue to workout and then decreased performance.

So, let me tell you another story, because I’ve really been through pretty much all of these things. My sophomore year of college, I kind of went through this and almost the entire year. It was, I wouldn't say the year from hell, but it sure was not great. We had a new coach, I was working really hard to become a better runner because that's what I wanted to do, I was running in college. You know, one of my dreams growing up was running on a scholarship, all of it is coming true and I'm working to be the best I can be.

But loud dorms lead to four to five hours of sleep a night. Unfortunately, people in the hall not being as courteous as they should be, blasting music one or two o'clock in the morning, way past the time it's supposed to be quiet.

I became extra sensitive to any kind of noise, it became very hard for me to sleep so that I would be, you know, in that very, very sleep deprived zone, be going to class, working out hard again, and then just raising cortisol level up, up, up, up, up, I had so many injuries that year, it was just insane.

I had to take a lot of time to help myself get back into a regular sleep rhythm, and then the following year once I kind of got that all figured out, I really had my best year in college. Not just because of the sleep, but the sleep certainly did not hurt.

The thing that was happening though is that when you have that lack of sleep you increase cortisol levels, stress levels go up, you're not taking the nutrients you need to, all of these things lead to a series of events which ends up in over-training. Now, if you haven't seen my videos on over-training and what that is, subscribe to the channel, hit that button.

But the short version is when we work out, we have this kind of a wave like line that's trending upwards, right? So, we're going like this. We work out and then that makes us go down and performance, we recover, it goes back up. We do it over again, and it kind of waves its weight upwards.

Well, when you are headed towards over-training, you work out, it goes down because you've tore up muscles and then you aren't able to recover in peak over that previous peak, you maybe get back to where you were before, sometimes it's lower and then you continue to work out and you push yourself further down. And it's like, it goes downwards instead of up.

So, that's really what happened to me and what can happen to you if you get into this lack of sleep cycle. You can't get the nutrients you need, you're stressed out, you can't perform, and then that can lead you to a place where you want to push harder because you feel like I'm not training hard enough, that's why I'm not getting better. But really, you're training too hard and not sleeping enough, and that's why you're ending up in this kind of horror zone of over-training.

One of the other downsides of a lack of sleep is a susceptibility to illness, or an increased susceptibility to illness. And if you get sick, that means you're probably going to have to take time off, and if I harp on anything over anything else on this channel is that consistency is key.

So, avoiding any kind of condition that requires you to take time off means that you're going to improve in the long-term better than somebody else who's going to have to take time off, it makes sense, right? If you get injured, you have to take time off. If you're sick, you need to take time off, you're not getting better. But in those cases you need to take time off, just go with that.

So, how did I fix my sleep? Remember that sleep can be a very individualized thing and what I do is not going to be perfect for everybody, but my particular method was just a few simple things, you'll see these suggestions in a lot of different places. Have a routine, go to bed at the same time, do the same kind of things before bed.

And then, I have a no TV in the bedroom policy. I do bring my phone in, but I make sure to have a blue light filter, it automatically sets itself around five or six o'clock, I can't remember, to filter out blue light. There are some people that suggest we should actually use blue light filters or blue light glasses after the sun goes down, or even as early as 6:00 PM, as in the summertime sun doesn't go down at that time, but that isn't necessarily for everybody. But you using those consistent things help me go to sleep and now it's like I get in bed I'm pretty much ready to go.

Everybody has a sleep routine around here, even the dog has a sleep routine. We take him out to the bathroom, he gets to eat and then it's time to get in the kennel and go to bed, so we're all in the same room. So, if you put together a sleep routine, practice it consistently, that should help you in the long-term.

The other thing is a mental component, and this is something maybe you're dealing with, but I definitely dealt with, and that's the anxiety of not getting enough sleep. You worry about not getting enough sleep, so then you don't sleep because you're worrying about not sleeping.

You have to find a place, and really I wish I had a method for you, but I don't, but you have to find a place where you accept that it's okay if you don't get enough sleep, once you can accept that it's okay not to get enough sleep, you may paradoxically be able get more sleep because you're comfortable knowing, “hey, maybe I didn't get enough sleep, I'll take a nap later or I'll take some time off.” It's okay. Whatever it is, it's okay. So, that's kind of what I did.

If you want to see more running videos, check those out on the playlist, it's coming up on the screen shortly. I'll see you next time on the next episode of Runner’s High.

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