I think it’s a generally accepted rule that runners are very driven and motivated people with Type-A personalities. We tend to want to be the best at everything and aren’t satisfied if we aren’t going 110% of our best efforts 24/7. We fill our schedules from sun up to sun down, and if we’re not moving, we’re not happy. Sleep? We can sleep when we’re dead.
Unfortunately, it often takes something drastic happening — like getting beset with an injury or an illness — before reality comes crashing down on us. Something catastrophic has to happen before we realize that we’re human, that we’re fallible, and that — perhaps most importantly — we’re not machines.
It’s often not until something bad happens to us that we realize that as runners — even the most driven and Type A among us — we have to slow down from time to time. If we want to get better at running, in particular, we can’t simply give 110% of ourselves every.single.day. Some days, we need to take things easy. Other days, we need to take off completely from running and simply rest. And every day — every single night — we absolutely have to sleep.
Sleeping: it’s probably missing from your training
We runners pride ourselves on our mileage volume, our splits per mile, our elevation gains, and all types of other running-related metrics, but one thing that we often don’t talk about is our sleep. For most of us, running is a hobby, not a professional pursuit that’s allowing us to pay the bills.
We squeeze in our runs when we can, which often means waking up early to squeeze in a run (sacrificing sleep in the process) or doing it at night after we put our kids to bed (again, sacrificing sleep in the process). For most of us, most of the time, if given the option between sleeping for an extra hour in the morning or losing an hour to go run, most of the time, we’ll choose to run more and sleep less.
Sleeping — when your body is at rest — is actually when the “magic” of training happens. We know that sleeping is important for all humans, for all types of reasons, and sleeping is especially important for endurance athletes. It’s when your body is at rest that it will reap the benefits you sow from all the grueling training you put your body through.
Sleep fills your “cup” during training
Perhaps an easy way to understand the importance of sleep during a training cycle is to envision a cup filled with water. Throughout the day, as you expend energy, you empty your “cup.” When you are training hard for a race, you substantially empty your cup more than you would if you were, say, running leisurely or casually. At the end of each day, you’ve essentially emptied your cup.
In order to start the next day with renewed vigor and energy — and with sufficient enthusiasm to tackle your next run or workout — the best, most effective ways to refill your “cup” is by sleeping. True story. There’s no magic potion, elixir, superfood, smoothie, supplement, or injury prevention gadget out there that is as effective or important as sleeping.
If you want to think of your body as a battery, it’s when we’re at rest, when we’re asleep, that we get to “recharge.” We dwindle down our energy levels all day long, and eventually, we get to a point where we’re working with diminishing returns. Instead of “fighting” it, we’re better off finally turning in and getting some ZZZs.
Taking a cue from the professionals
Unless you have a very flexible schedule (and perhaps an impressively understanding boss!), chances are unlikely that you can take a two-hour nap each afternoon as professional runners do. Because professional runners are doing this stuff as their full-time job, they stress the importance of adequate rest and recovery following each run much more than we amateurs do.
Read any interview with a professional runner, and it’s very likely that he/she will admit to sleeping 7-10 hours each night and taking a daily nap each afternoon. Sleeping is as much a part of professionals’ training program as their impressively high weekly mileage.
Even if you can’t take long naps each day, you can still take a cue from the pros and try to get more sleep each night. Keep it simple initially and try to get in bed 15 minutes earlier than usual. Initially, this may be hard to do — and especially if you waste time on your phone or other electronic devices — but the experience will eventually show you that it’s worth the effort. Your body will thank you.
Changing the narrative on sleeping
Particularly in American culture, getting enough sleep can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. We tend to be most impressed with people who burn the candles at both ends, folks who stay up into the late hours fulfilling their many personal and familial obligations and who still wake up at 4 am every day to complete their runs before the sun rises.
It’s rare that people acknowledge that this type of living is deleterious to our health. Sure, every once in a while, we may find that we have to stay up late or wake up early, but making it the rule — not the exception — will do us no favors, especially when it comes to our running.
It can be really difficult to change the narrative and culture related to sleeping, but it’s crucially important for our health. We cannot continue to sacrifice our sleep health — especially if we want to improve as runners — and vow to “sleep when we’re dead.” In fact, if we are serious about our health and about our running, one of the most important elements we can prioritize is consistently getting enough restful sleep.
So, how important is sleep to runners?
The next time you begin a new training cycle when you’re enthusiastic about chasing down and realizing some Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals (BHAGs), prioritize your sleep during your cycle just as you would your mileage volume and your nutrition. Lots of research suggests that sufficient sleep may allow you to recover from each day’s hard work and will help ensure you remain injury– and illness-free, too.
Given everything we’ve talked about, how important is sleep to runners?
In a word: very.