September through November in the northern United States signals the start of the fall marathon season… not just the holiday season. This is a peak training time for many runners and there’s just not enough hours in the day to train, work and live life! As an endurance athlete myself (I’m running in the NYC Marathon on 11/4) as well as a sleep specialist, my mind is currently hyper-focused more on getting a good night’s sleep and less so with running. Sleep is critical to endurance sports training, but it is just as crucial in basic exercise regimens as well. We’re always hearing about how exercise and diet can help with overall health, but we don’t always factor sleep into that equation.
Like most of my running partners, I started running to lose that stubborn “Freshman 15.” Weight loss is typically thought of as happening due to a calorie deficit (e.g. calories in vs. calories out). You eat less, work out more and burn more calories during the day than you consume. What we don’t usually think about is how sleep can enhance these results. Too little sleep throws off our appetite signaling hormones. Less sleep leads to an increase in ghrelin (the hormone that makes us hungry) and a decrease in leptin (the hormone that tells us we are full). Therefore, we eat more and don’t have a strong signal to stop. Good sleep helps keep our appetite in check, and leads to even more effective weight loss when coupled with diet and exercise.
Sleep and Recovery
Many endurance athletes follow training plans that call for a “taper period” during the two to three weeks before a long-distance event. During this time, athletes cut back on weekly mileage to help the body (and mind) recover from months of grueling training and be fresh and ready for race day. We exercise less and eat healthful meals. Sleep, though, can help enhance the effects of taper even more. And for those of you who aren’t endurance athletes, sleep is vital to help your body recover—even after one particularly challenging workout.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is produced by the pituitary gland and released into the bloodstream during the deeper stages of sleep. HGH converts fat to fuel, repairs muscle and strengthens bones. Inadequate sleep time leads to less HGH in the body and more cortisol (aka the “stress hormone) in your body. This combination makes it much more difficult for your body to efficiently and rapidly recover after tough workout sessions.
Sleep and Carbo-Loading
Many endurance athletes carbo-load during the one to two days before a race. Carbohydrates provide a quick source of energy. When they break down in the body, the component sugars are stored in the muscles as glycogen—waiting to be used up during the race. Solid glycogen stores in the body can prevent one from hitting “the wall” too soon in a race (or at all!). Too little sleep greatly impacts the body’s ability to convert carbohydrates into glycogen, leading to less glycogen stores during a race… and the “wall” comes up faster than you might want.
Glycogen is important even for challenging workouts of lasting more than 45 minutes. Though not necessarily an endurance training session, having a solid night of sleep will allow your body to properly fuel a tough workout session.
In summary, here’s some tips to help make sure you get the sleep you need to get the most out of your exercise program
1. Get enough sleep on a regular basis. The best way to figure out your optimal sleep need is to go to bed and not set the alarm for a few days (ideally with five or more days where you don’t need to wake up early). On days four and five, you can start to see how much sleep you regularly require. Most people fall within a range of about 6-9 hours a night, though there is individual variation.
2. Limit caffeine within six to eight hours of bedtime.
3. Don’t exercise within three hours of bedtime. The best time to exercise (to help you sleep) is actually four to six hours before bed!
4. Limit alcohol, heavy meals, nicotine and exercise (tough, I know!) within three hours of bedtime.
5. Limit screen time (TV, iPad, computer, etc.) within one hour of bedtime and wind down with something calm and relaxing (maybe even incorporate some gentle stretching and/or deep breathing exercises to help with stress management.
6. Don’t stress if you can’t sleep well the night before a race. Try to sleep as much as you can in the days leading up to race night, helping to offset the result from any pre-race jitters. our adrenaline will kick in on race day.
7. If you are unable to sleep well on a regular basis, or if you feel your sleep is unrefreshing, talk with your doctor or see a sleep medicine specialist. There are many effective treatments available!