The Runner And Sleep

Do you find yourself running in your sleep? Photo courtesy of oneeyeland.com.

One of the worst sounds is an alarm clock. One of the worst feelings is rising from the bed after hitting snooze one more time on said alarm clock. I’m a sleep snob. For me, sleep is a sweet escape. It’s probably the only time my body is fully relaxed. I’m sure if I wasn’t hypothyroid, sleeping wouldn’t come so easy to me. And when I was in tip- top shape this winter, sleeping was even easier!

Over the years, I’ve learned that I am fully functional with 7-9 hours of sleep a night. While I can get by on less come Friday morning (there’s something about Fridays that make it easy to thrive off 5 hours or less of sleep), I cannot on other days. And if I sleep too much (10+) on the weekends, I am dragging by the end of the day. What intrigues me the most, though, are those people (and runners) who can get by on less than 7 hours of sleep a night consistently.

At the extreme end, there’s Tera Moody, a 2:31 marathoner who struggles with chronic insomnia. A few years back, Runner’s World chronicled her struggle to get sleep. Moody’s struggle is not too uncommon but compound it with her intense training and one begins to wonder how she functions! That said, there are multiple sleep disorders on the extreme ends that Oddee.com recently outlined, like the girl who sleeps for ten days at a time! I’m sure if I could, I would sleep for ten days at a time. Oh, peaceful feeling.

Tera Moody at the Chicago Marathon. Image courtesy of letsrun.com

Nonetheless, serious sleep disturbances require advanced medical consultation. However, if you find yourself somewhere in between the spectrum, such as occasional difficulty with falling asleep, some remedies that do help include a melatonin supplement, using a relaxing sound machine, and prioritizing sleep, just as you would with other things in your schedule, such as running. This means establishing a bedtime routine no matter what your age. As I write this, James is taking a “ten minute” nap with his laptop, the lights still on. We have a habit of taking “ten minute” naps that turn into four hour sleep segments broken up into the night. It’s probably best to avoid “ten minute” naps as much as possible if you are trying to prioritize! Lastly, good ol’ fashioned counting sheep can also help as it allows you to let go of the day’s stresses and tomorrow’s worries. Many of sleep problems are due to stress spilling over into a time when your body is screaming for a break. Let it rest!

When counting sheep, try not to overanalyze. Image courtesy of offthemark.com.

Who I admire the most are those running parents (and especially the new ones) who juggle everything and often survive off less than 7 hours of sleep a night. Or the career focused runners who have action packed schedules and still find time to train, many at an elite level. I know I can never be one of them. My love for sleep is one of the reasons I chose a job that’s not 9-5 and one of the reasons having children is low on my checklist. Yes, I’m selfish. Especially when it comes to sleep.

What about you? What is your optimal sleep schedule?  If you sleep less than 7 hours a night, how do you do it?

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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17 comments

  1. Sleep – this is such an issue in my house. The reason – four kids, under the age of six. When my twins were born I had four kids under the age of 4. Seven hours of sleep a night would be an absolute dream for me. I usually average anywhere from 5-6 hours a night. A good night is 6 hours of sleep. The past winter has been hell. HELL. We maybe had one night a month were all four kids slept through the night. I also work full time. How do I do it? I get asked that question all the time. I just do…I don’t have any other choice. I choose to run in the early am hours (like 4:15 am early) so I can have time to spend with my kids after I work a full day and before they go to bed. Running is my second passion in life right underneath my family. It ranks before my job (I am a teacher). Running is how I do it…that is what maintains my sanity. I am also very lucky to have a training partner who is willing to meet me at the crack of dawn. We motivate each other. It is so much easier to get up that early when you know someone is waiting for you. I am literally counting the days until my summer break ( 20.5 school days to be exact). Schedules are much more relaxed and we can all sleep in.

    1. Wow Michelle! Do you find that over time your body has just adapted to six hours? I know as you get older, scientifically speaking, you need less sleep, so I often wonder when adding kids and work in the mix, if your body adapts. Or are you in a constant state of sleep deprivation?

      1. Ginger- yes, your body does adapt to getting less sleep. I used to have to have at least 7 hours of sleep. Now, I usually feel rested with 6 hours. Coffee – that is my go to secret ingredient. Without it I would be in a constant state of fog. There have probably been a total of 10 nights over this past school year where I only got about 3-4 total hours of sleep (those were probably nights were most of my kids were sick). The next morning was frightning. I felt worse than hung – over. I couldn’t think straight. I think the only thing that kept me healthy was my running and eating as healthy as possible.

    2. I feel you Michelle! I get up early to run or get work done much of the time. I thought I was going to go insane when my kids kept waking up at 6 and interfering with my plans! They’re back to sleeping in to 6:50 or so so once I don’t need 9 hours of sleep to feel even remotely human I can go back to early morning writing. I miss it so much! But seriously. You are amazing! I think I’m insane for having 3 in 4 years and I don’t work a straight job! The kids will be in school soon and a little more independent so hopefully you’ll have more sleep and you time soon!

  2. Jinger you’ve done it again! Seems like every time I read one of your posts I’m always experiencing whatever it is you’re talking about! I’m at work on a movie this morning and positively EXHAUSTED.

    Sleep is a real complicated issue for me. When I’m working I usually don’t have any choice but to get between four and six hours a night, and then I cash in my deficit on the off days. It’s a lot worse too when working on overnight shoots-they really mess with my body’s schedule!

    One of the reasons it’s so hard for me to run when I’m on a steady job is that I barely have time to sleep. Regardless, I try to run as often as I can because I think the exercise makes the sleep deprivation easier to handle.

    1. Cinnamon! I see you! Haha. I do have a similar sleep schedule some weeks where naturally I will just stay up really really late even if I have to get up early the next day because I know I can make it up later in the week. I haven’t had a typical 9-5 sleep/work schedule in a long time and now I don’t know if I could ever go back! And yes, exercise makes the deprivation a lot easier, once you get out the door! It sounds like with your schedule that some nights getting sleep first is the best choice.

  3. As a chronic insomniac like Tera Moody I have to wonder — how?????? Being tired always makes me feel a step behind mentally and I get really bad dead legs after a night of bad insomnia. Forget intervals or hills, I’m lucky to get through my favorite easy 3 mile loop. Plus, my heart rate goes all wacky when I’m severely sleep deprived. Although I do agree, if you can get through the easy 3 (even if you have to yawn a few times while you’re trying to run) it makes the day better.
    Interesting fact: sleep deprivation causes short term memory loss (it makes it harder to learn to things essentially) BUT vigorous exercise increases memory ability. So there ya have it, fight that brain fuzz with a morning run!

  4. I do think that most can condition themselves to get by on less sleep. Much as Michelle experienced, we went through a lengthy period of sleep issues from our oldest (autistic) son. I didn’t balance running and dealing with that as she did, but rather just started taking advantage of the “conditioning” for less sleep by getting up at 4:00 AM (most days) to run.
    I recognize that I might be a better runner if I slept more, but I think in terms of mileage as my currency – would 10 minutes of sleep help my training more than running 1-1/4 miles? I think not, so I tend to run, at least until the point where sleep starts impacting my ability to maintain focus and patience throughout the day (which thankfully doesn’t happen often).
    Like any physiological trait, people are highly variable, and it irks me when the “7-8 hours a sleep per night” is tossed around like a religion. Some of us do fine with less. Or maybe I’m irked because I’m not getting enough sleep?

    1. You do bring up a good point, Greg. I know plenty of folks who get by on less than the standard 8. As a result, I wonder if my functional level is more mental or if my body does really need more sleep. Maybe in a follow up post, I will test my hypothesis!

  5. I wish I could get to bed earlier in the evening, but it’s hopeless. I’m one of those people who are constantly on the go….high energy level you could say. Basically, I run in the later afternoon, and no matter if it’s an ‘easy’ run, long/short, tempo…I’m very pumped up afterwards. I don’t really begin to relax until 8:30pm, and then I might do some paper work, read or watch CSI or Mad Men (usually two out of the three mentioned.) All in all, I rarely go to bed before 11:00pm, but always before 12:00am. Fortunately, I don’t get up until 7:00am. The only problem I have – and this is NOT uncommon in us OLDER folks – with all the hydrating I do during the day, I ALWAYS have to wake up between 3:00 and 5:00am, and I don’t fall back into a really good sleep. Thus, I literally NEED my Starbucks coffee to get me going in the morning…then, I’m good to go!

  6. Ironically while writing my SR post this week and staying up too late I came across my own sleep post from back in the day! http://runwithelizabeth.blogspot.com/2010/05/what.html

    I am really struggling to get on a normal sleep schedule right now. It sucks! I want to find a happy medium between my night owl no sleep nights and my sleep 12 hour and throw in a 2 hour nap days 🙂 I think the sweet spot for me would be 7-8 right now but I am being much too erratic and not following your schedule advice!

  7. aaahhhhh sleep! Just like you, my bed and sleep is my favorite thing! When I sleep well that is! I’m someone who needs sleep based on my level of activity. I get in six 1.5-2.5 hours workouts each week. By rest day, I’m beat if I’m not making sure to get a solid 7 hours each night. I’m lucky though because I can sleep until 7-8am depending on what I’m doing that morning. Most of my workouts are in the evening, so that pushes back dinner time, laundry, grocery shopping etc. So I try to get in bed by 11pm but I’m usually not in bed until 11:30-12. I have hypothyroid and have a really hard time keeping my medication correct to keep me moving. If my dose is too high I obviously need less sleep.

    Like Barb was saying though, I usually am up once or twice throughout the night for bathroom breaks. If my week gets hectic and I’m only getting about 5hrs of sleep, I try and get 9 hours one night on the weekend and I seem to feel recharged.

    As much as I dream of having a family one day, it sure is nice to be lounging in bed hitting the snooze and 9am on a Saturday! 🙂

    1. I hear ya on the thyroid meds. When I first started taking them, I quickly had trouble sleeping and would be up at 5am like clockworth. For the last six months or so though, I have found a good balance with my dose (25 mg every other day). Turns out my doc told me that I am most likely a “switcher” between hyper and hypo. I think it’s called Hashimoto’s syndrome? Anyway, good luck with your sleep and training! Love hearing from other fellow hypo runners…I guess it’s pretty common, even among the pros (Galen Rupp, Adam Goucher…).