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The Ultimate Guide to Sleep for Runners

We’ve gathered everything you need to make over your sleep routine and finally catch the rest your body needs (and deserves).

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Imagine that there was a new supplement on the market that could help build bone and muscle, enhance metabolism, sharpen concentration, and tweak your perception to make hard exercise efforts feel easier. You would likely at least be a bit curious, if not telling a supplier to take your money already, wouldn’t you?

Turns out, there is. The mysterious coma that we slip into each night called sleep does all of that and more. Sleep is a powerful tool in improving your running and overall health. Yet even with all the benefits, we still don’t seem to be masters of downtime. We’ve gathered everything you need to make over your sleep routine and finally catch the rest your body needs (and deserves).

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The Power of Zzz’s

Despite the seemingly cure-all benefits of a good night’s sleep, our culture has taken on a peculiarly apathetic attitude toward shut-eye. In fact, the World Health Organization has declared a sleep loss epidemic across industrialized nations. What’s more, most studies have found that athletes fail to obtain the recommended amount of sleep. And, unfortunately, runners can be prone to insomnia, particularly during vigorous training cycles when they need rest the most.

It can be easier said than done at times, but if you’re serious about running (and feeling) your best, it’s imperative that you prioritize getting a good night’s sleep as if it were written into your training plan. That in turn creates a beautiful cycle: “Sleep can enhance performance and performance can enhance sleep,” says Dr. Alan Schwartz, adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. In other words, if you sleep well, you’ll be less prone to injuries and you will perform better physically and mentally. Need more convincing? Read on for a shortlist of the impressive gains runners can score from sleep.

Repair Tissue and Build Muscle

If you’re logging a lot of miles, you’re depleting your energy and fluid stores and breaking down muscle tissue. We all know that hydration and proper fueling are necessary parts of recovery after training, but sleep is one of the most important (yet overlooked) components of the recovery process. Particularly during tapering before a big race.

“During the deeper stages of sleep, HGH (human growth hormone) is released,” explains Shelby Harris, a marathoner and author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia: Get a Good Night’s Sleep Without Relying on Medication. “HGH is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland and released into the bloodstream. HGH aids in repairing muscle, strengthening bones, and converting fat to fuel. Less sleep leads to lower HGH levels, impacting the speed from which athletes recover from workouts.”

Through this process with HGH, sleep replenishes, repairs, and regenerates tissue damaged from the day’s workout and builds muscle and bone so that you can be ready for the next day’s effort. Moreover, if you’re doing particularly hard efforts, your body may secrete greater quantities of HGH while you sleep if you need it. Additionally, HGH helps convert fat into fuel. Without adequate sleep, your body has a hard time properly recovering from workouts and efficiently utilizing energy.

Athletic Performance

A sleep deficit means that your athletic performance will almost certainly take a hit. In 2011, a group of researchers from Stanford University published a study in the journal SLEEP detailing their findings on how shut-eye can improve athletic performance. The study had Stanford basketball players maintain their typical sleep schedule for up to four weeks. They were then asked to sleep 10 hours every night for five to seven weeks. The researchers found the participants’ speed substantially improved, going from 16.2 seconds to 15.5 seconds for 282-feet sprints. Plus, the players’ shooting accuracy improved, and they said that they felt their practice improved after six weeks of tacking on extra hours of sleep at night.

While the study was performed on basketball players, not runners, it does suggest that sleep is imperative for top-notch performance and that reducing an accumulated sleep debt can benefit any athlete.

Perception of Effort

A well-noted side effect of sleep deficit and endurance activities has been that athletes have a higher perception of effort for a given degree of exercise excretion. For example, a 2014 study looked at the effect of sleep deprivation in a group of healthy participants. They found that participants who were required to stay awake for 24 hours in a lab underestimated their capabilities to perform physical tasks (such as stepping over a bar) as compared to the control group. Another study, published in 2020, found that sleep deprivation in 10 healthy, active men resulted in increased perceived fatigue and perception of effort, lower energy expenditure during regular daily activities, lower blood glucose, and reduced maximal exercise performance.

Simply put, not getting enough sleep will make physically taxing actions like running (and everything else) feel much harder than they actually are.

Hormonal Balance

According to Harris, sleep deprivation also disrupts our appetite-signaling hormones.

“When we sleep less, we have an increase in ghrelin, the hormone that makes us hungry, and a decrease in leptin, which tells us we’re full,” she says. “As a result, we eat more because we don’t have a strong signal to stop. Good sleep helps to keep these hunger signals in check, leading to an easier time sticking with a diet.” Furthermore, the accumulation of a sleep debt has been linked to decreased production of glycogen and carbohydrates that are stored for energy use during physically strenuous activities, like running. In other words, less sleep throws off your body’s ability to know how to fuel itself and effectively use that fuel.

There is research to suggest that sleep deprivation can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol are correlated with slower recovery times and other unpleasant side-effects such as fatigue, poor focus, weight gain, and insomnia—creating a cycle of sleeplessness. —Molly Hanson

Photo: Getty Images
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Factors that Affect Your Sleep Quality

Assuring a good night’s sleep starts the minute you wake up, or even earlier. That’s because you have a powerful internal 24-hour “clock” that affects your behavior and bodily functioning, including digestion, body temperature, and the sleep-wake pattern. “The biological clock that regulates sleep does so by sending alerting signals of varying strength across the day,” explains Molly Atwood, assistant professor of psychiatry in the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

These signals mirror body temperature, which typically reaches its lowest point around 3 a.m. and rises throughout the day, Atwood says. When body temp starts to drop, we naturally feel drowsy, and as it rises, we feel more alert and awake. But that’s only the case if you’re sleeping in a bubble. In the real world, many other factors work together with your body clock to help, or hinder, your sleep-wake cycle. Here are some of the most important ones:

Your Schedule

“The biggest positive for sleep is regularity,” says Jamie M. Zeitzer, associate professor at Stanford University’s Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. Say you go to bed at 10 p.m. and wake up at 6 a.m. for a run Monday through Thursday. But, on Friday night you stay up till 1 a.m. binging the latest season of The Crown on Netflix and end up sleeping in until 9 a.m. the next day. That throws your circadian rhythm out of whack, making it harder to go to bed at 10 p.m. the next night and easier to hit snooze instead of getting up for your workout.

Beyond your wake-up time, regular meal times, office hours, and more work together with your body clock to help you keep a stable sleep-wake pattern, Atwood explains. Yes, that means you should try to get out of your ever-changing WFH hours habit and set a more “normal” schedule.

Your Bedroom Set-Up

“Your sleep environment needs to be quiet, dark, and safe, and its temperature should not be extreme,” Atwood says. Most sleep experts believe that the ideal sleep temperature is somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. According to a National Sleep Foundation poll, 73 percent of Americans say the darker the room the better. Experts agree: “Even dim light may interrupt or shorten your sleep,” says Atwood. A study published in the journal Psychiatry Investigation found that exposure to dim light at night was enough to decrease total sleep time in women. (Consider using heavy shades, curtains, or blinds to block unwanted light.)

Another thing to block: noise. A study in Sleep Science suggests that “noise pollution” (like that motorcycle that zooms down your street at 1 a.m.) is a significant cause of sleep disturbances.

Your Workout Timing

Exercise can be a double-edged sword, improving or worsening sleep quality. “In most cases, it can improve sleep by reducing stress and increasing fatigue,” says Zeitzer. But when you work out vigorously too close to bedtime, it can have the opposite effect. “We’re not sure why, but it probably has to do with changes in thermoregulation that make it more difficult to lose heat at the beginning of the night,” Zeitzer says. (Remember: Your circadian clock is intimately linked with your body temp.)

If you have to choose between an easy routine run and getting a good night’s sleep, choose sleep over the run, says Harris. “You’ll get more long-term benefit.”

Your Stress Levels

With concerns about COVID-19, feeling stressed is inevitable. But it’s how you respond to that stress that really impacts your sleep, according to Zeitzer. “There isn’t any one single way for people to cope with these,” he adds, noting that finding the right outlet usually requires some trial and error. Stress’s impact on sleep isn’t just limited to the time before bed, either. “For some, it’s finding smaller ways throughout the day to reduce the build-up of stress,” Zeitzer says.

Your “Coffee Time ’til Wine Time” Mentality

You know this: Caffeine is a stimulant that may disrupt sleep. But did you know that its effects may last for several hours after you consume it? “The half-life of caffeine, which is the time it takes for it to reach half its potency, has been reported as four to five hours when modest amounts have been consumed, and it is even longer after higher levels of intake,” says Atwood, who advises you cut the caffeine after lunch, not before happy hour.

Speaking of Booze…

Yes, alcoholic beverages tend to be relaxing and to induce drowsiness. “However, as the effects of alcohol diminish, sleep becomes fragmented and restless, and subsequently it is far less refreshing than normal,” Atwood says. The good news is that a glass of wine with dinner is not likely to negatively impact sleep. But multiple glasses closer to bedtime almost definitely will.

Your Bedtime Snack

Midnight snack, anyone? Maybe not: “It is generally not a good idea to eat heavy foods too close to bedtime or to eat anything if you wake up in the middle of the night,” says Atwood. “Your digestive system slows down during sleep and foods that have not been completely digested can cause digestive discomfort that might disturb sleep.”

Sleep Disorders

“There are specific sleep disorders that are common in young women who are relatively fit,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Periodic leg movements and restless leg syndrome are fairly common maladies that can interfere with your ability to sleep at night,” he says, noting that sleep apnea and snoring are also more prevalent in the young and fit crowd than you might think.

If you struggle with sleep disorders, you might need to clean your room. A 2015 study suggested that those surrounded by clutter are more likely to have a sleep disorder.

Does Your Sleep Position Matter?

There is no “best” sleep position for every runner, but some are more optimal depending on your specific situation or condition, says Matt Briggs, physical therapist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Here are five scenarios that may warrant switching up the way you slumber.

If you have lots of miles on your legs: Sleep on your side, with a pillow between your knees. It can relieve tension on the spine by distributing compression in the body more evenly on the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and intervertebral discs, says Briggs.

If you have a sore back and aren’t comfortable on your side: Sleep on your back or stomach—with pillows. Remember: The best sleep position for you is the one that will actually help you sleep well. On your stomach, add a pillow under your hips. On your back, put one under your knees.

If you have tight hip flexors: Sleep on your stomach. “This may be helpful in keeping your hips open and extended,” says Briggs.

If you’re pregnant: Sleep on your side, especially after the first trimester. It optimizes blood flow to the baby.

If you’re in chronic pain or have trouble sleeping on the regular: Get individual attention. Consider consulting with a physical therapist or sleep doctor for a personalized treatment plan and recommendations.

Photo: Getty Images
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Simple All-Day Habits for a Better Night’s Sleep

Do these seven things and ensure you wake up ready to rock your run.

Stick to a Sleep Schedule

Yup, that includes Saturday morning. “People should maintain a consistent wake time to help stabilize their circadian clock,” says Atwood. It’s so important that you can now set up your sleep schedule in Apple Health and lock in your alarm in the Clock app.

Rise and Shine—Literally

“Get exposure to natural light first thing in the morning,” says Atwood. A study published in the journal Sleep Health found that workers who sought out light first thing slept better at night. And they reportedly felt less stressed and depressed than those who (literally) didn’t see the light.

Cool Down Early

Afternoon workouts are fine, but avoid too much activity in the hours before bedtime. “Exercise tends to jazz you up by getting the adrenaline and blood flowing,” says Dr. Schwartz. It also raises your core body temperature, which sends a signal to the brain that it’s time to wake up. So much for the myth that warm baths make you sleepy: “Hot baths or warm showers immediately before bedtime can also get adrenaline flowing and tend to wake people up,” he says.

Limit Naps to 30 Minutes

Naps are proven to improve things like mood, fatigue, and even logical reasoning, but that doesn’t mean you should start logging two-hour afternoon siestas. “Taking long naps too close to bed can interfere with sleep at night by lowering sleep drive,” says Atwood. “Naps should be limited to morning or early afternoon and should last no longer than 30 minutes.” The exception to this is if you’re regularly not logging enough zzz’s.

Choose Evening Screen Time Wisely

Screen time before bed isn’t necessarily bad, says Zeitzer. “If you get enough light during the daytime (especially outdoor light), the light emitted from screens will be insufficient to directly impact your sleep.” Phew. Cleared to cue up The Queen’s Gambit from bed? Not so fast. “The content on these screens can have a major impact,” Zeitzer says. “For example, binge-watching your favorite show might make you forget just how late it is and cause you to be unable to get enough sleep.”

Social media and games have also been designed to keep your eyes on the screen. The key is to be aware of your habits and how they impact your sleep. Maybe certain types of TV lull you to sleep while other shows stress you out; scrolling through Instagram may be soothing, but your Facebook feed is anxiety-inducing. “If watching a show or checking out your social media account relaxes you, great,” says Zeitzer. But know this: “More often than not, these things will unwittingly stress people out.”

Create an Evening Ritual

“We encourage people to maintain a 30- to 60-minute window between their daytime activities and turning out the lights at night,” says Dr. Schwartz. “It’s an opportunity to turn down the jets a little bit and chill, and get into a frame of mind where you can put some distance between your day-to-day concerns while you’re awake and your ability to clear your mind and go off to sleep.”

During that time you should do things that are relaxing and mellow. Maybe screen time works for you. If not, consider journaling. “Processing the day’s events decreases the likelihood that these thoughts will intrude into sleep,” Atwood says.

Make Your Bedroom a Sleep Sanctuary

Black-out curtains or a mask can keep any amount of light from disrupting your sleep; some white noise can filter out any environmental noise that could rouse you from your slumber. “This can be achieved by running a fan, setting the TV to flip between stations, or using a specially designed white noise device,” Atwood says.

Finally, leave the damn phone in the kitchen or living room. “One of the big disruptors to sleep is people waking up and checking their phone,” says Zeitzer. “Everyone wakes up multiple times each night, but the anxiety and stress that are associated with checking one’s phone can often lead to much longer awakenings, making it difficult to reinitiate sleep.”

Photo: Getty Images
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How to Get the Best Sleep with the Time You Have

You should get eight hours of sleep at night, rising promptly with the sun (no snooze button!) and forgoing caffeine of any sort. LOL, right? For most of us, this “ideal” scenario is far from realistic. Nurses have to work ever-changing schedules, new moms must wake at all hours of the night to tend to their babies, and some women struggle with insomnia or have crazy-demanding jobs that require them to work into the night.

The good news is that you can offset some of the negative effects of an erratic sleep schedule. Here’s how, depending on your situation.

If Your Work Schedule Conflicts with Your Circadian Rhythm… Shift Your Circadian Rhythm

Everyone has an internal “clock” that determines when they feel most alert, and when they feel sleepy during the day. You’ve probably heard about early birds and night owls—this is the more scientific way of talking about that.

So let’s say you’re a night owl, but your job requires you to wake up at 5 a.m. during the week in order to be in by 6 a.m. “You can shift your circadian rhythm to make that early wake-up call less terrible with a few strategies,” says Dr. Schwartz. First, get bright light exposure in the morning (use a light box if it’s still dark when you get up), which tells your brain that it’s time to get up. For the opposite reason, use bluelight-blocking glasses at night to cue to your body that it’s time to start winding down. Finally, don’t let your circadian rhythm slide back on weekends, Dr. Schwartz warns. Consistency is key, so even if it’s super-tempting, resist the urge to sleep in more than one hour past your usual wake-up time, even on Sunday morning.

If You Regularly Get Less Than Seven Hours of Sleep at Night… Nap Daily

“If you’re short on sleep at night, then you want to figure out when is the best time for you to supplement with a nap during the day,” says Dr. Schwartz. Keep your nap as separate from your actual bedtime as possible so you don’t end up creating more problems for yourself (for example, not being able to fall asleep the next night since you got in a really great nap at 5 p.m.) And nap either 90 or 180 minutes (if you’re crazy sleep-deprived) since 90 minutes is the length of a full sleep cycle meaning you’ll get the benefits of all the different phases of slumber.

If You Get One Night of “Bad” Sleep… Don’t Sweat It

“Our body’s sleep system naturally compensates after a night or two of less sleep by increasing the amount of time we spend in deep, restorative sleep,” says Atwood. Just get back on track the next night.

If You Wake Up in the Middle of the Night and Can’t Fall Back Asleep… Do Something Boring

“First, get out of bed and go into a separate, dimly lit room,” says Atwood. You want to teach your body and brain that the bedroom is only for sleep. Then, do something relaxing, pleasant, and engaging enough that you don’t feel frustrated about being awake, but not so engaging that you have difficulty noticing when you feel sleepy (reading a paper book is good for this). “Return to bed only when you’re tired again and ready to go back to sleep,” Atwood says.

If Your Sleep Schedule Is Entirely Out of Your Hands… Focus on What You Can Control

“While lots of folks out there cannot fix their bedtime, they can work on their bedtime routine,” says Zeitzer. “Ritualizing the hour before bed can prep the brain for sleep, even if it is something simple like brushing your teeth then doing a crossword for five minutes.” That way, you’ll be able to fall asleep faster and maximize the time you do have between the sheets.

If You Consistently Have Trouble Sleeping and Feel the Effects All Day… Consider Professional Help

“Chronic sleep deprivation can compromise health and functioning,” says Atwood, noting that strategies such as drinking caffeine and even taking naps cannot fully compensate for sleepiness or reduce the effects of insufficient sleep. “If you are having difficulty balancing sleep with the demands of life, it might be helpful to see a psychologist or a behavioral sleep medicine specialist,” she says.