Having trouble dozing off at night? The solution to your sleep problem could be right here – and it’s exactly what your body needs to recover quickly and perform at its best. Words by Sarah Ivory
We Brits are exhausted. Data from the University of Hertfordshire shows that a whopping 59 per cent of people in the UK are sleep-deprived, meaning that over 28 million of us – which includes millions of runners – clock less than the recommended seven to eight hours of shut-eye each night.
And it’s no secret that sleep is an essential part of an athlete’s training regime – boosting recovery, enhancing motivation, aiding focus, increasing speed and improving reaction time. Sleep is so important, in fact, that data from the U.S shows athletes need even more sleep than the average person.
How much is enough? Experts recommend an extra hour, which bumps your sleep quota up to around eight or nine hours per night. Are you getting the right amount?
The importance of slumber
Skimp on sleep regularly and you’ll likely feel the effects. One study from the Strength and Conditioning Journal reports that a gradual build-up of sleep deprivation – around 30-36 hours, which equates to a two-hour loss of sleep each night for 15 days – can reduce cardiovascular performance by as much as 11 per cent.
The deeper stages of sleep – those that occur after 10 to 30 minutes of slumber – are most important for exercise recovery, as experts have discovered that a greater amount of the growth hormone (a hormone that increases protein production and promotes bone and tissue growth) is released during these stages. “During sleep, there is a peak in human growth hormone,” agrees Sam Thatcher, health mentor at Nuffield Health Twickenham Fitness and Wellbeing Centre.
“This hormone is responsible for many of the body’s functions, such as hair growth, muscle growth, fat metabolism and tissue repair, to name but a few. Sleep is a vital part of any athlete’s arsenal.”
A loss of 30 hours or more of sleep appears to be the benchmark, with further reports showing that 30 hours of sleep deprivation leads to a decreased sprint time, and 36 hours without sleep leads to a decrease in peak power.
Many experts put a drop in performance down to an increased perception of effort. Data from the Sports Medicine Journal (Auckland, NZ) backs this – it shows that 30 to 60 hours of sleep deprivation is enough to make
exercise seem tougher than normal by increasing rates of perceived exertion.
Sleep also improves brain function. Research is showing that cognitive throughput, a.k.a how fast your brain processes information, slows down after one bad night’s sleep – hence you’re more likely to put your socks on the wrong way round after a late night.
“Athletes who get fewer than eight hours sleep are more than four times as likely to experience injury compared with athletes who frequently get eight or more,” adds Thatcher.
“Endurance runners have some of the highest injury rates in sport, so sleep is an essential part of training. If you are unable to get a full eight hours during the night, power naps can be a useful lifeline.”
A nation of insomniacs
Most of us aren’t getting enough sleep. And even when we do clock a healthy 8-9 hours of slumber, research published in the Journal of Sports Sciences suggests that the quality of sleep and time it takes to fall into a deep slumber may not be up to scratch.
In fact, the scientists discovered that athletes displayed pretty poor markers of sleep quality for their age and sex when compared to their non-athletic comrades.
“Many athletes and coaches spend time and effort putting together training programmes,” says Sam Thatcher of Nuffield Health.
“But it is equally important to programme in recovery modalities, and sleep is the only way we can fully rest and recover.” Could it be that running is making it difficult to doze off? Here’s what might be keeping you up.
1) Low blood sugar
Running can leave your energy tank low. When you run, your body needs extra energy from sugar in the form of glucose, which it acquires from the muscles, liver and blood. Blood sugar is the level of sugar in the blood which provides the body with energy, and exercise causes the level to decrease.
Spot it: If blood sugar levels are low, you may experience feelings of lethargy, irritability, hunger or perhaps nausea, and even a rapid heartbeat.
Solve it: Stop a sugar crash from keeping you up all night by eating a balanced meal after you run. A healthy dinner should consist of slow-releasing carbohydrates (sweet potatoes, oats or brown rice), lean protein (meat, fish, eggs) and fats (coconut oil, avocado, seeds).
2) Restless Legs Syndrome
A staggering 60 per cent of us have woken up in the night with cramping pain, according to a new report commissioned by RealMag Legs. One of the biggest pains? Nocturnal leg cramps, also known as ‘restless legs’, which data has linked to low levels of the electrolyte salt magnesium.
“Magnesium can be lost through sweat and urine, and exhaustive exercise, such as running, can increase magnesium losses by as much as 10 to 20 per cent,” explains Dr Emma Derbyshire.
“Once the body’s stores become deficient, running performance can become affected and muscle cramps, spasms, weakness and fatigue may set in.”
Spot it: Restless legs is usually an irresistible urge to move the legs, as well as spasms or pain in the calf muscles and small muscles in the foot. It tends to be a result of sudden but intense, involuntary muscle contractions and is often worse at night.
Top up your electrolyte levels after an evening run with magnesium-rich foods, such as whole-grain rice, sunflower seeds and almonds. If you can’t get enough magnesium through your diet, try a food supplement like RealMag Legs (£8.99, Holland and Barrett).
3) Unexplained underperformance syndrome (UUPS)
Did you know that around 10-20 per cent of elite endurance athletes suffer from unexplained dips in performance, often cited as ‘staleness’, ‘overtraining’ or ‘sports fatigue’?
Scientists call it Unexplained Underperformance Syndrome (UUPS).
“Invariably, UUPS is associated with an imbalance between stress [whether from training, work or life] and recovery,” explains Prof Greg Whyte, a former Olympian and sports scientist. “While those suffering from UUPS require rest, the syndrome can lead to disturbed sleep that exacerbates the problem.” It’s a vicious circle.
Spot it: UUPS is defined as a persistent, unexplained lag in performance that exists despite a fortnight of rest. Besides disturbed sleep, sufferers may feel tired when training, catch infections, have sore muscles and notice a loss in competitive drive.
Whyte recommends paying attention to your bedtime environment. Make sure the room is the right temperature, it’s dark and that there are low noise levels. Avoid using mobile phones or watching TV right before bed, and try using wearable technology to monitor sleep quality.
4) Pre-race nerves
Do you find yourself tossing and turning the night before a big race or run? You’re not alone. A study
in the Journal of Sports Behaviour shows that those in individual competition, such as triathlon or running, are more likely to feel competition anxiety than those in team sports like football.
The trouble is that many athletes sleep poorly the night before an important run because nerves can cause a surge of adrenaline as the body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Not conducive to a restful night!
Spot it: Competition anxiety can cause an array of physiological and cognitive symptoms. You might feel irritable, forgetful, negative, tense, sweaty or nauseous. Chances are, however, you know if you’ve got the pre-race jitters.
Relaxation techniques, such as this Pilates routine (right), will help to ease symptoms of anxiety. It’s also beneficial if you avoid caffeine.
“Try to stop worrying about sleep the night before a big event as this will stress you out,” adds Dr Nerina Ramlakhan
“Stay as restful as you can even if you are awake. Many athletes have gone on to break world records after having not slept well!”
Want to maximise recovery time? Silentnight sleep expert, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, explains how to sleep to noticeably improve your athletic performance
1) Start daydreaming
“Drift off to sleep by visualising success – top athletes do this all the time. Close your eyes and imagine doing something really well, whether it is a particular event or just a certain situation where you felt powerful, strong and successful.”
2) Snooze earlier “Try to get to sleep before midnight – before 11pm is best – three or four times per week. The 90-minute sleep cycle before midnight is vital for rebalancing the adrenal and thyroid glands and reducing day’s adrenaline build-up.”
3) Try napping
“It’s not always achievable but try to take an afternoon nap – ideally, sometime between 2pm and 4pm. A 20-minute nap will sharpen up concentration, while a 40-minute (but no more) will boost muscle recovery and optimise physical performance.”