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For many of us, sleep can be a fickle friend. Sometimes a night with little to no rest is unavoidable. Sleep can be elusive whether we want it to be or not—whether you’re up most of the night with a group of old friends or up every few hours to feed a new baby.
There’s also a psychological component for people who can’t seem to drift off no matter how badly they want to. In fact, runners can be prone to this in particular the night before an important race. A study published in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine found that athletes reported impaired sleep up to four nights before competition. Another investigation found that 70 percent of athletes reported poor sleep the night before a competition.
In those next mornings, we’re left with the fallout. We’re left with consequences and questions: Mainly, what is the best way to take care of yourself when you are sleep deprived?
First, let’s look at what sleep does before we can understand what going without it means.
The Importance of a Good Night’s Sleep
It’s recommended that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Some studies suggest that athletes might operate better with 9 to 10 hours of sleep, but more research is needed there. Whatever duration works best for you, guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation suggest that the best way to get high quality sleep is to keep your sleep routine consistent night after night.
There are four stages of sleep. The first three stages are non-REM sleep, while the last is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Stage one is a light sleep, where your breathing and heart rate begin to slow and muscles start to relax. Stage two is where your temperature begins to drop and brain wave activity slows. Stage three is a deep sleep. Stage three and four is where most repair and recovery take place. Going through the stages and experiencing the changes in heart rate and breathing help promote cardiovascular health.
If sleep is disturbed from the beginning of the cycle, you risk impacting the quality and duration of each subsequent stage, which is why your routine for falling asleep is so important. Experts recommend avoiding bright lights and loud sounds, keeping the temperature cool in your bedroom, and avoiding electronics in bed.
A good night’s sleep is also essential for mental health. It can improve your mood and decrease the risk of developing depression.
Sleep is where the magic happens. “There is no part of health that isn’t influenced in some way by sleep,” says Scott Kutscher, a sleep specialist at the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center.
Should I Run If I Feel Tired?
The short answer is, yes, you can still go for a run even if you didn’t get a great night’s sleep.
“There really aren’t many situations when I would recommend against a workout,” says Kutscher. “Remember that exercise itself has a positive impact on mood, energy, and sleep that can still be realized even after a poor night.” His one caveat: Don’t expect a stellar performance on that run.
“Sleep deprivation suppresses aerobic activity, slows reaction time, impairs concentration and judgment, decreases heart rate variability and growth hormone, increases cortisol and blood sugar, and decreases immune function,” he says.
Yep, poor sleep can increase your risk of illness and potentially injury.
And according to an article in Current Sports Medicine Reports, research suggests that sleep deprivation can inhibit performance in endurance athletes. Muscle glycogen stores (the energy your muscles use during exercise) have also been found to be decreased in sleep deprived individuals.
Hormones are also affected when you don’t get enough sleep, and those hormones can affect your training, like the growth hormone, which regulates muscle growth and is secreted while we sleep. “Sleep deprivation from multiple nights will totally crush your growth hormone responses and will definitely change your sleep-wake cycle,” said exercise medicine expert Jonathan Mike at a recent National Academy of Sports Medicine Conference talk about sleep science.
And, of course, you’ll likely tire more quickly and have less stamina on your run if you are sleep deprived.
What Can You Do If You’re Sleep Deprived?
So, how can you make that beneficial run happen? Here are three strategies to take care of yourself when you’re feeling extra tired.
Take a nap.
“Lack of rest definitely takes a toll on the body, and if you were up all night, you will feel it on your run,” says coach Hillary Kigar.
Don’t feel guilty sneaking in a nap if you need it. Experts recommend them. Just don’t nap too long or too late in the day—that could inhibit your sleep in the evening and start your sleep deprived cycle all over again.
“Power nap for 20 minutes and then get out and run easy for 40 minutes, just based on feel,” says Kigar. “As long as you’re not exhausted to the point of getting sick, a little movement might make you feel energized.”
But, as Kutscher reminds, naps are only a short-term solution and you shouldn’t need them every day. “Napping too often or too long is a definite sign of sleep deprivation, and in many cases may also be the sign of a sleep disorder,” he says.
Drink some coffee.
There’s nothing wrong with having a cup of coffee as a pick-me-up, but like naps, try to avoid too much caffeine too late in the day. The actual effect caffeine will have on you varies from person to person. “It depends on the type of caffeine and the dose,” says Mike.
But caffeine, whether you’re sleep-deprived or not, can be quite the performance tool. It’s been shown to enhance sprint performance and increase muscle recruitment. For the weary, research shows it delays fatigue and reduces the perceived level of exertion.
Dial back your training.
Kutscher recommends cutting back on either distance or intensity on those sleepy days. That way you can still get the benefits of exercise, without pushing your body too hard. “Most importantly, listen to your body. If it feels bad, stop,” he says.
If you’re really not feeling it, then take the day off. Your training will not be derailed if you give yourself an extra rest day.
After all, you can’t outrun bad sleep, says Kutscher. “So, be as thoughtful about your sleep as you are about the rest of your training,” he says. “Make a plan, practice good sleep techniques, and remember that if you are still struggling with your sleep, there are trained doctors who can help.”