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Sleep Quality For Runners

by | Sleep

‘Eat, Sleep, Run’ – the classic runner’s motif splayed across t-shirts, hoodies and mugs, guaranteed to raise a knowin smile & nod from fellow runners. And yet, how much do we truly live by that motto? We watch what we eat, we take care in organising our running sessions… but how much do we do we actually focus on our sleep, in particular sleep quality?

Of the runners I see via online consultation who are struggling with pain, injury and or performance issues, an increasingly common factor that we find when working through things together is the presence of poor sleep quality and/or quantity.

This should not really come as a surprise as modern research suggests that many of us (whether runners or not) have over the years become accustomed to living sleep-deprived lives, but for regularly active folk like runners the problem is often either missed or not addressed.

Why Do We Sleep?

Most of us have grown up to believe that sleep is a time for the body to awitch off, conserve energy, operate on ‘minimum system requirements’ in preparation for another busy day tomorrow. As a result, we believe robbing a few hours here and there during the week is fine, especially if that’s the only way to fit those all important running sessions in around work and family.

However, modern sleep science research is revealing that the truth of what services sleep provides is far more complex. Rather than seeing sleep as the third pillar of success along with nutrition and exercise, we are now discovering that sleep forms the foundations for every living process that occurs in our body.

Putting aside for one moment the effect that poor sleep quality/quantity can have on running injury & performance, studies are joining in unison to show that routinely sleeping less than 6 hours a night can:

  • weaken our immune system
  • increase risk of certain types of cancer
  • increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease
  • increase risk of cardiovascular disease
  • increase risk of a stroke, diabetes and obesity

Our internal circadian rythhm does not exist to simply ‘prompt us’ to recharge our batteries when we get a chance. The intricate processes of melatonin release and adenosine sleep pressure are finely tuned to ensure that each of the vital processes carried out in the various stages of sleep are executed correctly.

To give you an idea of how vital these processes are, studies have shown that:

  • airplane cabin crew subjected to persisent sleep disruption due to jet lag have shrunken parts of brain relating to learning and memory, and significant short term memory loss.
  • night time shift work is linked to increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes, and Cancer.

Sleep is most certainly not a state of minimum activity. During its stages, thousands of brain cells are synchronised to fire at the same time as recent experience memories are transferred to safer long term storage location. During REM sleep (see on), our brian waves are almost exactly the same as when we are awake. In fact, MRI studies show that some parts of the brain are 30% MORE active when we are in REM stage compared to awake!

Though our voluntary muscles become paralysed each night, our brain works relentlessly in an effort to ensure we are physically and mentally stronger each time we wake up.


Sleep Quantity

Given the importance of sleep to everday mental and physical functioning, it should come as no surprise that poor sleep can hinder running performance and reduce both resilience to and recovery from injury.

Studies show that consistently training on fatigued legs can increase the risk of injury. This presents a problem for runners because ‘working through fatigue’ is something we learn to do, especially if preparing for the gruelling demands of an up & coming race.

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Before you go!

Have you listened to the four podcast episodes we recorded as part of our ‘Sleep Awareness Month‘ on Runchatlive Podcast and Sports Therapy Association Podcast? All four episodes are available on popular podcast apps and also in video format on the Sports Therapy Association YouTube channel.

THE FOUR EPISODES ARE:

• ‘Sleep – The Silent Epidemic’
with Jesse Cook, Clinical Psych PhD Student. Sleep Researcher.

• ‘Sleep Trackers’
with Dr Olivia Walch, CEO of Arcascope, PhD Applied Mathematics.

• ‘Sleep: Injury & Performance’
with Dr Jonathan Charest, Director of Athlete Sleep Service at Centre For Sleep and Human Performance

• ‘In-Home Polysomnogram’
with Dr Amy M. Bender, Director of Clinical Sleep Science at Cerebra

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