You can call it lazy. Experts call it effective.
It’s safe to say that the “sleep when you’re dead” mentality is a thing of the past (thanks, in part, to the wellness/self-care boom), and that’s very, very good news for your athletic performance.
“Sleep is where the magic happens,” says Phil Catudal, a NASM-certified personal trainer, and author of Just Your Type: The Ultimate Guide to Eating and Training Right for Your Body Type. “It’s when your immune and endocrine systems restore your body from the day’s work.” And since your body works extra hard when you’re training, shut-eye is even more important leading up to a race. “If you want to perform hard, sleep hard.”
“Sleeping hard” became my exact mission while training for the New York City Marathon this year. Instead of prioritizing early-morning runs at the expense of sleep, as I’ve done in the past, I’d take a close look at the sleep I was logging and skip training sessions if I was feeling depleted. I’d also try to bank an ambitious nine (yes, nine!) hours of sleep each night.
MORE FROM RUNNER’S WORLD
“Sleep and sports doctors say healthy adults need seven to eight hours of sleep, but that number goes up to eight to 10 for endurance athletes,” Catudal says. “As you put your body through more work, you need more rest if you expect to keep performing well.”
Since it’s easy for sleep to take a backseat, I knew I needed to set some ground rules leading up to the marathon:
Monitor sleep using a fitness tracker.
I used the Fitbit Versa 2, which tracks sleep in its various stages, as my source of truth: Was I really logging nine hours of sleep per night? Or was I tossing and turning? This data was crucial, because as I learned, going to bed nine hours before your wake-up call doesn’t mean you will sleep nine full hours. I ended up logging more like eight and a half hours throughout the experiment.
Create an environment conducive to sleep.
In other words, improve my “sleep hygiene.” The National Sleep Foundation defines sleep hygiene as “practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality.” For me, that meant stopping my caffeine consumption at noon and embracing sleep-promoting products like blue-light glasses and cooling sheets (more on those below).
Go to bed (and wake up) at the same time every single night.
Experts say that consistency can help signal to your body that it’s time to go to bed, helping you relax. I made my bedtime 9:00 p.m. and set my alarm for 6:00 a.m.
Now for the results:
I ran this course five minutes faster than I did the year before, a marathon PR! Of course, there are many things that could contribute to a five-minute course record, but here’s how I felt at the end of my experiment…
I was in the zone.
Half of marathon running is mental. You need to dig deep to find the will to run another step…over and over and over again. “But when you’re tired, not only is your body physically in need of more recovery, but your mind is, too,” Catudal says.
“A tired mind will set you up for failure, and studies show lack of sleep makes concentration harder.” I’ve been on both sides: feeling like I couldn’t focus when I was zapped and feeling like I could take on anything when I was rested. It was nice to feel the former on marathon day.
My cardio felt stronger.
While sleep gets a lot of attention for muscle recovery, the benefits extend to cardio, too. “Better cardio performance is a matter of mastering your heart rate, and sleep is the time when your blood pressure and heart rate decrease most,” Catudal says. “This gives your heart and lungs a rest, so they’re primed to go hard when needed.”
I had an easier time recovering.
I’m not going to act like I felt ~amazing~ after running 26.2 miles (stairs still sucked), but it was one of my easier bounce-backs (I took a strength-training class too later and felt fine). “Hormones responsible for muscle growth and repair peak at night, so sleep makes recovery easier,” Catudal says. It’s normal to want to conk out after the marathon, but make sure to load up on sleep beforehand, too, so you’re not in a deficit.
KIERA CARTER has a decade’s worth of experience covering fitness, health, and lifestyle topics for national magazines and websites.