Sleep is the unsung hero of athletic performance

Sleep is an essential component of our lives, yet it remains one of the most enigmatic phenomena of human existence. We spend roughly one-third of our lives asleep, and the quality of our sleep profoundly impacts our physical health, mental well-being, and overall athletic capabilities. While many focus on the miles logged and the intensity of workouts, the often-overlooked pillars of recovery and sleep play pivotal roles in achieving peak performance. After a grueling training session or race, your muscles need time to repair and rebuild.

Recovery isn’t merely the period of time between runs; it’s an active process that allows your body to adapt and grow stronger. In Las Vegas, NV I had never practiced running a long run at night, despite signing up for “run the strip at night”! It never occurred to me that running 13.1 miles at 5pm would be any different than running 13.1 miles at 7am.

Let’s delve into the intricate workings of sleep, exploring its stages, the role of brain chemicals and how lifestyle choices, such as alcohol and caffeine consumption, can influence our rest cycle. Moreover, we’ll discuss practical tools and strategies to enhance sleep hygiene, promoting better sleep quality and overall endurance running performance.

Stages of Sleep

Sleep is a complex process characterized by distinct stages, each serving a unique function in the restoration and regulation of bodily functions. The sleep cycle consists of two main types: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.

NREM Sleep:

  • Stage 1: This is the transition phase between wakefulness and sleep, characterized by light sleep. Muscle activity decreases, and brain waves begin to slow down.
  • Stage 2: During this stage, eye movements cease, and brain wave activity further slows down. The body prepares for deep sleep.
  • Stages 3 and 4: Also known as slow-wave sleep (SWS) or deep sleep, these stages are crucial for physical restoration, growth, and repair. Brain waves exhibit slow, synchronized patterns, and it’s often challenging to awaken someone during this phase.

REM sleep is characterized by rapid eye movements and vivid dreaming. The brain has increased activity, often more activity than when you’re awake! This stage is essential for cognitive function, memory consolidation, and emotional regulation. The brain uses dreams to try to solve problems that you otherwise can’t solve during logical, awake hours. This is why you may get a ‘polka-dotted elephant wearing a tie’, or some other unusual scenario as your brain tries to solve puzzle pieces. Consider REM sleep your overnight therapy.

the Circadian Rhythm

The regulation of sleep-wake cycles, also called your circadian rhythm, is influenced by various factors, including sleep pressure and brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) such as adenosine and melatonin.

  • Adenosine: Throughout the day, the build-up of adenosine, a byproduct of cellular metabolism, creates sleep pressure, signaling the body’s need for rest. Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors, temporarily counteracting this sleep-inducing effect. That morning cup of coffee is crucial to many runners, but beware not to consume caffeine afternoon, otherwise you may disrupt your sleep pressure.
  • Melatonin: Often referred to as the “sleep hormone,” melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in response to darkness, helping to regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

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How to Improve your sleep nightly

Developing healthy sleep habits, also known as sleep hygiene, is essential for achieving restorative sleep. Here are some practical tools to improve your nightly sleep ritual.

  1. Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule: Aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends, to regulate your body’s internal clock.
  2. Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine: Engage in calming activities such as reading (on paper book if possible), meditation, or gentle stretching to signal to your body that it’s time to wind down.
  3. Optimize Your Sleep Environment: Ensure your bedroom is conducive to sleep by keeping it dark, quiet, and cool. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows to support restful sleep. Your body drops 1-2 degrees as you fall to sleep, so keeping a cool environment is crucial.
  4. Limit Screen Time Before Bed: The blue light emitted by electronic devices can suppress melatonin production, making it harder to fall asleep. Try to avoid screens at least an hour before bedtime.
  5. Be Mindful of Dietary Choices: Avoid heavy meals, caffeine, and alcohol close to bedtime, opting instead for light, sleep-promoting snacks like herbal tea or warm milk.

Improved recovery and sleep leads to faster adaptation, allowing you to increase training volume and intensity over time. So, the next time you lace up your running shoes, remember: the road to half marathon greatness is paved with equal parts sweat, rest, and rejuvenating sleep.

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