Geeks on Feet

Geeks on Feet

for the love of running

Sleep to Recover and Perform

Part 3 of Recover to Perform series. How sleep improves recovery & performance, science of sleep, benefits, hacks for better sleep and more

Team GeeksOnFeet

7 minutes read

How well we sleep, transcends in our performance. Sleep is one of the most important, and often neglected aspects of the path to peak performance. Great athletes know about the importance of sleep to achieve performance. Eliud Kipchoge, undoubtedly the greatest marathoners of all the time, sleeps for ten hours everyday. His training schedule includes eight hours of sleep at night, and a two hour nap during the day.

Why is Sleep Important?

Sleep is the single most important recovery tool. As we train to improve, we subject our bodies through significant stress (both physiological and psychological) as stimulus to adaptation.

Here is how sleep helps us in multiple ways for better adaptations and in recovery:

  • Sleep is the time when our body rests and repairs itself. Sleep has a restorative effect on both the endocrine and immune systems of our body. Non-REM phase of sleep increases growth hormone release which is key to adaptive responses of our muscles to training. During the sleep, generation and distribution of immune cells is at its peak.
  • Sleep assists in the recovery of the nervous and metabolic cost imposed by the activity during the day. While scientifically not proven, toxic byproducts of oxidative processes, which happen after intensive activity are removed during the sleep.
  • Sleep plays a vital role in learning, memory, and brain plasticity. Neuromuscular coordination, stabilization and other motor skills that we practice during training activities like interval training, cadence training and balance training continue after the training session through the processes that occur during sleep. Sleep in the initial 24 hours after practicing skills such as mid-foot strike or a good body lean is crucial to master these.

Sleep and Physiology

One needs to understand the stages of sleep. We go through multiple sleep cycles through the night each lasting for 90 minutes to 120 minutes.

  • Stage I - NREM (Non Rapid Eye Movement): When we hit the bed and are in light sleep, it takes around ~20 minutes to enter the next stage of sleep.
  • Stage II - NREM: Brain waves slowdown, our eyes stop moving, muscles start to relax, while blood pressure and heart rate lowers.
  • Stage III - NREM: Very slow brain waves called delta waves are experienced during this stage of deep sleep. Endocrine system releases hormones, including growth hormone, which are critical to training adaptations and to push tissue repair into high gear. Here is when memory processing takes place.
  • Stage IV - REM: Often coming 70 to 90 minutes into the cycle. We consolidate memories and ingrain skills, which are obviously important for our athletic performance. Training that involves motor/cognitive skills, this phase of sleep is crucial.
Sleep stages

How much Sleep Do We need?

The answer to how much sleep do we need is very individualistic. Increase in mileage by every km, needs an additional one minute of sleep. Assuming one sleeps 7-8 hours/day and clocking 50 kms/week; increase of mileage to 70 kms/week requires an increase of sleep by 20 minutes/week.

As most recreational runners also have day jobs and other responsibilities, it is very common to skimp on sleep. Lack of sleep, builds on our “Sleep Debt”. Sleep Debt is the actual amount of sleep a person needs versus the amount they actually get. Building on significant sleep debt can affect us in many ways -

  • Curtailed sleep causes adverse effects on glucose uptake and cortisol levels (engaging the sympathetic nervous system). Reduced glucose uptake leads to reduced refuelling before,during, and after workouts.
  • Our motor response is dulled, making us sluggish and injury prone during the workouts.
  • Motor and cognitive skills impaired and ingrain inefficient neuromuscular patterns leading to bad running form and performance issues in races.
  • Growth hormones are affected resulting in suboptimal adaptations from training, reducing effectiveness of all the hard work put in the training.

Monitoring our sleep debt, ensuring that we contain it quickly is very important for performance and also preventing injuries and other longer term health issues.

Napping is an effective way to reduce sleep debt. Depending on the time one has and whether one is carrying any sleep debt the length of your nap may vary. A short nap of 20 minutes will give you a period of NREM2 sleep, while a longer nap of an hour and a half or more can take you through the REM cycle.

Setting Up For Better Sleep

As we say, humans are creatures of habits, thus setting a uniform bedtime and to wake up around the same time every morning helps in improving sleep. Holds true for all 7 days through the week.

What you do in the few hours before sleep affects your ability to unwind and to stay asleep. Eg: It is noticed if one is not accustomed to socializing in the evenings, an evening out can hamper sleep due to the activated senses from the socialising. This should be watched out a week before the race.

A relaxing, unwinding ritual can help prepare you for better sleep. Things like

  • Cup of chamomile tea ideally half hour before bedtime
  • Soak in a warm bath
  • Do a few restorative yoga poses
  • Focus on your breathing and meditation

Exactly what one does is less important than the ceremony of doing it. In time, one will associate this ritual with bedtime, and it will cue to fall asleep.

Hacks that can help sleep better

  • Identify the ideal temperature
  • Shut electronic devices 30 minutes before sleeping
  • Light Read - print books are preferred over digital books, as it is found that those staring at a screen had suppressed melatonin levels, a delayed body clock, and reduced alertness the next morning.
  • Not to check the watch in the middle of the night when you wake up for your bio break or water. As it recruits more brain cells and wakes them up and makes it more difficult to go back to sleep

Nutrition Hacks

  • Foods that produce high tryptophan are known to help with better quality of sleep. Foods such as milk, meat, fish, poultry, beans, peanuts, cheese, and leafy green vegetables are rich in tryptophan.
  • Protein synthesis happens during sleep which helps repair muscles for better adaptation. Protein ingestion before sleep is effectively digested and absorbed, thereby increasing muscle protein synthesis rates.
  • While Magnesium has benefits for runners, one of the key benefits is that it aids activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for getting us calm and relaxed. Magnesium also regulates the hormone Melatonin which is key to improving sleep. By helping to quiet the nervous system, magnesium helps in better sleep.
  • Even moderate consumption of alcohol before 30 to 60 min may result in sleep disturbances, and reducing the quality of sleep.
  • Caffeine as an ergogenic stimulates our central nervous system, hence its consumption can affect sleep
  • Hydration strategy may affect sleep by causing us to wake-up several times during the night to urinate. After intense workouts it is good to take fluids throughout the day rather than large volumes late in the evening.

Before a big race

Any discussion on sleep and runners is not complete, without talking about sleep before the race day. It is natural to have anticipation, nervousness, before a big race, thus having bad sleep before the race day. Hence, resting well through the week before the race is more important.

Number game

Paying attention to sleep is healthy, but fixating too much on numbers can backfire.Quality of sleep matters more than the number of hours slept.

Orthosomnia- a condition where we are fixated on our sleep data making us unduly anxious about how we are sleeping.

How you perceive your sleep has lasting effects on your sleep cycle, if you believe you are having a good night sleep, you will in turn sleep better as compared to the contrary as in all other cases.


Compiled by Team GeeksOnFeet for the love of running


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