Sleep: The Missing Ingredient

A discussion about sleep and athletic performance, including tips for better sleep.

By on June 2, 2015 | Comments

We train hard and eat right in an effort to improve our performance. However, we often ignore the greatest performance-enhancing tool: sleep. By simply incorporating more of it into our daily lives we can become faster, react quicker on rough trail, power uphill, and recover rapidly. What’s more, it’s free, convenient, and legal.

The importance of sleep is nothing new to the iRunFar audience. Ian Dunican and John Caldwell wrote a comprehensive piece about sleep and running performance in 2013, and I’ve mentioned it in this broader recovery-focused column.

Though it’s easy to convince an athlete with scientific and anecdotal evidence that adequate sleep is paramount, it’s an entirely different ballgame to inspire someone to actually implement changes in their sleep habits. We know we need it, but we still sacrifice sleep in lieu of other pursuits. Our lives are busy and sleep seems to be the first activity that is cut.

In order to convince you that the simple act of lying down and closing your eyes is a vital training mainstay, I enlisted the help of Dr. Robert Rosenberg, a graduate of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. Dr. Rosenberg works at the Mountain Heart Accredited Sleep Facility in Flagstaff, Arizona, and is board certified in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine, and sleep medicine. Here are a few important points that may influence you to better prioritize sleep.

Just the Facts
When our muscles get sore or we sense an impending injury, we give our body a day off from running. The brain doesn’t get a day off. Sleep is rest for the brain and without this respite we wouldn’t survive. We need it for these key functions:

  • Bodily repairs. “It is during sleep, especially deep (slow wave) sleep that most growth hormone is produced,” explains Rosenberg. Growth hormone is produced in the pituitary gland, a pea-sized gland located in the base of the brain. “As a result this is when most tissue repair occurs. When individuals are experimentally deprived of this sleep they develop aches and pains after a week.”
  • Manufacturing the body’s power source. “The brain produces most its energy producing chemical ATP (adenosine triphosphate) during sleep,” says Rosenberg. ATP provides the power needed for cellular activities, like muscle contractions and DNA and protein synthesis. ATP drives the processes behind brain growth, development, and metabolism. Rosenberg continues, “So if you want to have the energy and motivation to exercise, you had better get sufficient sleep.”
  • Formation of beneficial training patterns. “Consolidation of memory, especially emotional memory, occurs during sleep,” says Rosenberg. “This appears to be most prominent during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep or when you do your most active dreaming. It is quite possible that during REM sleep is when those feel-good feelings about a successful run or an improved time are consolidated and reinforced.”

Runners are often meticulous about recording pace, mileage, splits, and times. These tangible data encourage us to do better and allow us to observe good or bad trends. We can do the same with our sleep. Use these online questionnaires, like you do your running log, to measure and track your quality of slumber.

Dr. Rosenberg is quick to point out that the best indicator is how we feel and to be wary of phone apps that claim to give feedback about how deep you slept. They have been shown to be very inaccurate. “If you are frequently sleepy, fatigued, have trouble concentrating, or have become increasingly moody or irritable it could be related to your sleep. If you nap excessively or have trouble getting through the day without excessive amounts of caffeine it could be a sleep issue. Finally, how do you feel upon awakening? Do you feel rested or does it take you a long time to get going? These are the best indicators of sleep quality.”

Supporting Studies
Now we know that necessary functions occur in our brain only while we sleep and we have ways to record how good the sleep is we’re getting, but how does this all relate to our performance? Is there any proof that sleep directly affects our running? “Absolutely,” says Rosenberg. “Stanford has done several studies on student athletes. These studies showed that by increasing their average sleep time by one hour, athletic performance improved significantly.” Cheri Mah, a researcher with the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, has been studying the relationship between sleep and elite athletic performance, sleep deprivation, and sleep disorders for the past eight years. Mah’s studies conclude that:

  • Sleep extension improves athlete reaction time, mood, accuracy, and sprint speed.
  • Sleep is an important component for peak performance.
  • Sleep duration and quality should be a daily consideration for athletes hoping to perform at their best.
  • Athletes are surprised at the positive effect sleep can have on their training, performance, and cognitive processes.
  • Athletes rarely track or take a strategic approach (like they do with their training) with their sleep.
  • Most athletes are not getting enough sleep.
  • Reducing sleep debt from chronic sleep loss requires more than one or two nights of recovery sleep.

Your Homework
It’s time to get down to business. You put in the miles without fail, you avoid foods that aren’t healthy, and now you can add the commitment of better sleep to your regimen. Here’s how you’ll do it.

“We all need between seven to nine hours of sleep,” states Rosenberg. “This is necessary for tissue repair, energy restoration, and memory consolidation. Most studies show that is sufficient for athletes and non-athletes.” Again, this is easier said than done. Rosenberg and Mah (as do Dunican and Caldwell) make these suggestions that might help you get back on the sleep train.

  • Set and adhere to a regular sleep schedule. This will allow your body to mesh with its natural sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm, and eliminate the accumulation of sleep debt.
  • Avoid electronics 90 minutes before bed. The brightness of mobile devices can suppress the release of melatonin, a hormone that is responsible for signaling your body that its time to sleep.
  • Don’t ingest caffeine six to eight hours before hitting the hay. It’s a stimulant and disrupts quality sleep. Read the ingredients on your favorite products and you will see that many of them contain caffeine.
  • Make your bedroom a cool, dark, and quiet place.
  • Avoid eating large meals and reduce liquid intake two hours prior to bedtime.
  • Complete one of the above questionnaires once a month and compare your answers and scores to those from preceding months.
  • Read, write, or listen to calming music for 20 to 30 minutes to prepare your body and mind for a solid night’s sleep. Wind down your day, suggests Rosenberg, with a book like his, Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day, where he goes into greater detail about sleep as the cornerstone of health.
  • “It’s often easier for people to change their bedtime than their wake time,” says Mah. “Try moving back your bedtime by 30 minutes every few days to gradually increase your sleep duration. It can be helpful to set a daily alarm on your phone to help remind you of your targeted bedtime. For example, set the alarm one hour before bedtime, which gives you 30 minutes to wrap things up for the day, and 30 minutes to wind down before bed.”
  • Rosenberg recommends, “Consider a diet high in omega-3 PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acids) or taking omega-3 supplements. They have anti-inflammatory properties and have been shown in recent studies to increase sleep duration.”

Make sleep, which is likely overlooked by your competitors, your secret weapon. Incorporate it into your training plan right along with your workouts, cross training, and races. It’s the easiest step you can take to improving your performance. In this case, if you snooze, you can’t lose.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How would you rate your quality of sleep? Do you get enough of it and is it good sleep?
  • What tips have you found work best for you in terms of getting your highest-quality sleep?
  • Can you feel a difference in your body and mind after a night of poor sleep or a more extended period of poor sleep?
Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at