Marathon Training Arsenal: Catch Up on Your ZZZZs

Trying to fit in a lot of training on top of everything else?

A while back, Jinger polled the Salty readers to see how much sleep we all try to fit in so we can function.  She mentioned that she needed a good 7-9 hours of shut-eye at night, but that some people–even elite marathoners–can get by with much less.  But getting by and hitting peak race performance are not equal, particularly if you are eyeing a PR or breakout race, so today let’s talk about the importance of sleep when marathon training.

Trust me, I understand that often we feel like we have to get by with less sleep to fit in our training on top of everything else life throws at us.  Many of us have significant others, kids and work, and all are higher on the priority list than our training.   It is hard to fit everything in and still maintain a healthy sleep schedule during marathon training. Really hard!

I also know well that sleep can seem the easiest thing to let fall by the wayside when we get busy.  I admit I’ve been guilty of that many times, especially lately. In fact, that’s the reason I’m writing about it: I’m at peak training for the Chicago Marathon and really feeling it–I’m exhausted!  I know I need to do better, and I’ve noticed many other marathoners commenting on their blogs or Daily Mile about how they are tired, sick or beaten down. Seems like a prime time to discuss the important fact that:   One of the biggest mistakes we can make as endurance runners is to neglect sleep.  

English: Woman sleeping on tiled floor in Rio ...
Someone is getting some much needed sleep – wish it were me!

Let’s be honest: We would never skip our tempo runs, speed work or long runs when marathon training, right? So we shouldn’t skimp on our sleep needs either; it’s just as important as the other tools in our training regimen.  So, if you’re hitting peak stride in training, add get more sleep to your agenda ASAP and keep it there through race day.

Here’s why:

1.  We recover from our workouts during our sleep.  If we don’t get enough sleep–or enough quality sleep–we don’t recover as well.  We go through several important sleep cycles each night and we need all of them to get fully rejuvenated. The most restful cycles of sleep come latest in our sleep cycle, when we we have our deepest sleep: our blood pressure drops, our muscles relax, blood supply to our muscles is increased, tissue growth and repair occurs, energy is restored and healthy growth hormones are released.  This is why experts suggest most people get at 7-9 hours each night.  If you are training at a high level you may need even more.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes after my third hard workout of the week I may still feel exhausted even after sleeping 10 hours!  We all have different limits and sleep patterns; it’s important to learn yours, listen to your body and try to maximize your sleep so you can recover well.

2.  If we are not recovered we can’t execute our workouts as well and we are more prone to injury and illness.  Most training schedules have 2-3 hard workouts per week with easier workouts interspersed.  Just as it is important to recover between the hard efforts by cutting back the pace, we need to maximize sleep all week so we can get ready for our next hard effort.  If we are exhausted going into the interval workout, tempo run, or marathon pace run, we are going to be flat.  Even worse, we could get sick or injured.  I hadn’t had a cold in over a year (yay – my kids are finally past the weekly scourge from school/daycare) but last week I got slammed pretty hard with a head cold.  I doubt it’s coincidental that I got hit with a head cold during the peak of my training. We’ve all heard of marathon sniffles, right?

3.  If we don’t get enough sleep, more stress hormones (cortisol) accumulate.  You have no doubt heard that increased stress hormones can lead to weight gain.  It can also prevent recovery and can inhibit the growth of soft tissue (building up those muscles).  A key aspect of training is to break down our muscles and rebuild them as we progress each week.   This cannot happen optimally if we are loading ourselves with cortisol.

4.  Lack of sleep can lead to declines in glucose metabolism – the holy grail of marathoning. We run hard long runs with minimal carbohydrates to teach our bodies to hold onto glycogen and burn fat so we can run harder and longer on race day before our legs turn to lead.  We carbo-load the week before the race to fill our muscles/liver with as much glycogen as possible.  During the race, we take in sports drinks and gels.  But we can set ourselves back if we are not getting enough sleep during training and taper.  If our glycogen stores are diminished (or unable to store as much) by lack of sleep, we are much more likely to bonk on race day.

Woman sleeping
Woman sleeping (Photo credit: WarmSleepy)

5.  Simply stated, if we don’t get enough sleep we can’t train hard enough, we don’t recover well, our bodies don’t optimally adapt to training stress, and we are going to be flat on race day.  

The above reasons are probably precisely the reason U.S. elite runner, Olympic medalist, and marathon superstar Deena Kastor used to thrive on 12 hours of sleep per night during her training.  But even Deena couldn’t maintain that after becoming a mother.  So, what is the non-professional runner to do?  It is hard, but here are some tips:

  • Try to go to bed a little earlier.  Yes, the snuggle time in front of the tv with your significant other is nice, but cut the tv time short and hit the hay.
  • Turn on the pink noise in your bedroom!  Studies show that it helps encourage deeper, better sleep.  I’ve always slept with a fan on and tend to sleep like a rock.  Who knew they could be linked?
  • Cut back on computer time right before bed and if, possible, don’t work out right before bedtime.  Both can get your mind and endorphins running, which is not conducive to sleep.
  • Abstain or limit your alcohol consumption.  It can disrupt your sleep significantly.
  • If you get up early to run, don’t check your e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, news, etc and waste and hour or more before hitting the road.  Get up, get your coffee on, get out the door.
  • Identify other ways you’re wasting time.  I’m not talking about unwinding time – you need that and you don’t want to be going full throttle all of the time.  But my guess is that there’s wasted time somewhere that you could cut.  Do you have a full hour for lunch? Maybe you can lace up and run then and get a little more sleep in the morning.
Bed Jump
Bed Jump (Photo credit: jamesjyu)

Whatever you do, don’t wait until taper time to try to catch up.  NOW is the time to start getting more rest (actually, a few months ago would have been better!).  Personally, my best race times to date were by far when I was in the latter stages of my stay-at-home-mom gig.  It was a TOUGH job, but I was not pregnant or breast feeding, I was not recovering, and I didn’t have constant babies/toddlers needing my attention 24 hours a day.  Instead, they were entering preschool – even if for only a couple hours – so I was able to get more sleep, I had way less extra-curricular activities on tap than I do now and was able to nap when the kids did!  Now, I just have to make myself go to bed earlier and keep myself on task so I don’t lose precious time.  I’m ON IT!

How about you?  Do you have any tips on how to get extra sleep during peak training or any anecdotal stories to share re sleep and its effect on your training?  If so, please share – we only have a few more weeks before marathon season is in full swing and my guess is we could all improve our sleep training!

Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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4 comments

  1. Great post! I love love love my sleep and definitely use marathon training as a reason to make sleep a priority. Only thing I’d say is that I do better in am workouts when I have a bit of time to wake up before heading out the door. So, sometimes 15 minutes on the computer or emptying the dishwasher is enough to make a difference in my alertness and translates into a better run.

    1. I absolutely agree. I usually give myself at least 30 minutes to wake up, have my coffee, and get fully prepared for my run. I can jet directly out the door for a short, easy run, but I need time to wake up and get ready for a longer run or harder effort run.

  2. I always think of this in terms of tradeoffs, like so much else about training – there is so much time available, and is taking 7-8 minutes to do something else (sleep, core strength, stretching, etc.) worth more than an extra mile. My world view holds that, up to a point where my body says “enough”, the answer is no. So I’ll probably continue to get by on 5-6 hours (sometimes less), until the taper when the tradeoff shifts a bit.
    Would I be a better runner if I slept 30 minutes more per day? Maybe – but not if it comes at the price of ~20-25 miles per week of training. That math just doesn’t work.