Sleep really is the ultimate performance enhancer, yet it’s one that is often neglected. When training hard, we all benefit from more sleep, yet studies show that even elite athletes tend to lack the requisite number of hours in bed. A great simple little formula to remember is WORK + REST = GROWTH. Most of us are great at putting in hard efforts on the road or trail; we can motivate ourselves to push hard on that last interval, but how many of us really prioritize sleep? It’s ironic, because the gains from all that hard work are really only realized with adequate rest. When we sleep well, we optimize the release of important rebuilding hormones. Testosterone and Growth hormone are particularly important, allowing our damaged muscles to recover and adapt to training stresses. When we are sleep deprived, not only do we hamper recovery and fail to realise these gains, but we now know that chronic sleep deprivation causes a multitude of health problems; sleep-deprived athletes suffer more infections, more injuries and are more prone to overtraining syndrome. Fortunately the short term sleep disruption that many of us experience the night before a race, due to nerves or an early start, doesn’t seem to hamper race-day performance, so don’t worry too much about a restless night before your marathon.
A few tips that I employ before a big effort:
Bank a few extra hours of sleep during your taper. The evidence for the ability to ‘bank’ sleep is a bit controversial, but there is no doubt in my mind that it helps. Try to grab an extra 30 - 60 minutes of sleep per night during your 2 week taper.
Grab a power-nap when you can. A quick 20 - 30 minute nap in the afternoon, if you get a chance, can really revitalize you if you’re feeling sleepy! I have a small cup of coffee immediately before I nap. The caffeine takes about 30 minutes to kick in, so I wake refreshed and ready to go, and there is evidence to recommend this practice, though be careful not to consume caffeine too late in the day.
Lastly, make sleep a priority! Put your phone down a few hours before bed if you have trouble sleeping, and google ‘sleep hygiene’ for additional tips to maximize your sleep quality.