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How sleep affects your running performance

The importance of sleep to runners

Extra sleep could potentially help you shave seconds or even minutes off your race finishing time. So how much sleep should you need for optimum running performance?

How much sleep is required by runners?

Every individual has different sleep requirements, and different factors such as stress can all play a part in how much sleep a person needs. What is without doubt is the fact that an increased training load requires more sleep so that their body can recover sufficiently. The marathon runner will require more sleep than a recreational runner because they are likely to be putting more demands on their body through their training schedule.

Your own sleep requirements

How do you know when you've had enough sleep? The ideal answer is to sleep until you wake naturally, rather than try to set a rigid nightly figure. For most people with commitments, this approach is not really a practical option. Instead, start a sleep chart on which you record the time you go to bed, the time you wake up, how long you slept, whether your sleep was broken, how quickly you think you fell asleep, and how refreshed you felt when you woke in the morning.

Compare your sleep patterns with your training schedule, and over a period of weeks you should be able to see a pattern emerging. Complete this data daily and over a typical representative period of several weeks. Compare when you've slept well and felt refreshed with periods when your sleep hasn't been great or you've felt a bit groggy on waking.

Sleep and the elite running athlete

British distance runner Paula Radcliffe is known to sleep for around nine hours each night, supplemented by a further two hours in the afternoon. Paula's sleeping strategy is aimed at rebuilding stressed and damaged muscles faster. In addition to getting a good night's and afternoon's sleep, it is also known that human growth hormone is secreted approximately 20 minutes after falling asleep, so by sleeping twice a day, she gets a double hit off the hormone, which accelerates her recovery.

Pre-race sleep

A regular diet of good quality sleep will support your running during your actual training, but a sleepless night before race doesn't mean that your chances of a good race or a PB have disappeared. Getting your full quota of sleep in the days coming up to the race is vitally important, even if the night before the race you struggle to sleep well.

Is more sleep better?

Training volume and intensity, nutrition, stress, domestic and work responsibilities, personality, race conditions, mood, motivation and a host of other factors all play their part in affecting your performance, so it is difficult to measure sleep against performance. Clearly achieving a PB on a one hour sleep each night simply isn’t going to happen, so sleep will be a factor. Only through experience of numerous races will you be able to build up a picture of how much sleep has an impact on your running performance.

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