Check out the excellent article by Tim Gorichanaz “Sleep: The Low Hanging Fruit of Recovery” from Trail Runner magazine.
You have seen the advice about getting enough sleep to better your running performance, most recently in the October 17 post, “Run Faster Without Adding Steps”. Since it seems like such an easy prescription for improvement you might not pay much attention to this component of recovery and write it off as likely to result in only minimal benefit. However, as this article indicates, “peak performance isn’t just about training hard.” It also involves allowing our body enough “downtime” to “mend and make itself stronger”. Sure, low volume running weeks, easy run days, and cross training serve this purpose, “but sleep is the body’s ultimate rebuilding process”, Gorichanaz asserts.
The article is aimed at trail runners, but it applies to all endurance runners and walkers who are following aggressive training schedules as well as athletes in other sports. One of the sources for his piece, Dr. Tim Noakes, suggests adding an extra hour of sleep each night “during periods of heavy training.” This may seem to be out of your reach, given work and/or family obligations. But before disregarding this tactic, remember that sleep deprivation can have a detrimental effect on cardio-metabolism, meaning it may also contribute to insulin resistance, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and weight gain.
A research study (possibly the one mentioned but not specifically cited in the Trail Runner article) “The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players” by Cheri D Mah and colleagues at Stanford University, backs up these assertions. Study work was performed over 2 NCAA Basketball seasons (time period 2005-2008) and the results were published in the journal Sleep in July 2011. The 11 study participants were male varsity team players (9 African American and 2 Caucasian) ranging in age from 18-22 years. Eight guards, 2 forwards, and 1 center were included.
Players were instructed to maintain their normal sleep pattern for a 2-4 week period (baseline period) in which sleep duration was to fall roughly between 6-9 hours/night. Next they spent weeks 5-7 in a sleep extension period (research program). The research program goal was for participants to sleep as long as possible each night with a minimum target of 10 hours in bed/night. Because of schedule disruptions due to team travel days and games, if sleeping 10 hours per night was not possible, the subjects were told to nap during the day. Caffeine and alcohol were to be avoided.
The resulting increase in sleep time was about 110 minutes or nearly 2 additional hours. “Measures of athletic performance specific to basketball were recorded AFTER EVERY PRACTICE”. One of those measures, all of which improved with sleep extension, was shooting accuracy. Free throw (FT) percentage increased by 9% and 3-point field goals (3FG) by 9.2%. The individual player data showed that those who improved did so by 1-2 FGs in 10 attempts and 1-4 3FG in 15 attempts. The study reported that “improvements in shooting percentage, sprint times, reaction time, mood, fatigue, and vigor were all observed with increased total sleep time.”
One of the most interesting aspects of this study was the change in the athletes’ perception as noted by the study authors, who said players considered themselves to be at peak performance levels at the BEGINNING of the study. They had completed pre-season training but not yet started regular season competition. “However, after experiencing improvement in physical performance and mood following sleep extension” during the regular season, “subjects acknowledged that they had previously misperceived the amount of sleep required to perform at their peak both physically and mentally.”
Optimal sleep time, this study suggests, is best integrated into a “daily training regimen”. It may not only be required for athletes to reach full potential, but aid in speedy recovery after intense competition, enhance weight and conditioning training during the season, and decrease injury risk as well.
The authors contend a “common assumption in most sports”, is that “athletes become increasingly tired and fatigued throughout a season.” However, they argue that their study shows sleep extension can help players avoid the “negative mood changes” and “assumed cumulative effects of a lengthy” competitive season, by changing the perception of tiredness and fatigue.
What does this mean for runners? As mileage increases over a training plan and each new week’s work is built on the progressively more difficult preceding week’s sessions, it’s not uncommon to feel increasingly tired and fatigued. This research provides hope that by integrating an aggressive sleep plan into our training regimens, runners, like the basketball players in this study, can experience improvement in physical performance and mental attitude as the race draws near and training gets tougher, and perhaps have a better chance at avoiding injury.
Those of us who are NOT tall, young, male varsity basketball players in the middle of their competitive season should aim for putting in the recommended 7-8 hours per night of quality sleep. As Gorichanaz’ title tells us, getting sufficient sleep is “low hanging fruit” for running recovery.
BRIDGE TO PHYSICAL SELF
Running, walking, and fitness activities enable us to experience our physical selves in a world mostly accessed through use of fingers on a mobile device.
EARNED RUNS is edited and authored by me, runner and founder. I began participating in road races before 5Ks were common. I've been a dietitian, practiced and taught clinical pathology, and been involved with research that utilized pathology. I am fascinated with understanding the origins of disease as well as health.
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