Sleeping Better to Run Better

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As discussed in the opening of my first blog post on sleep, we often ignore the impact of sleep on athletic performance, and instead prioritize workouts and nutrition. While hard efforts and smart nutrition go a long way towards making you a better athlete, you need to recover to reap the benefits of your hard work. The best way to recover is to sleep!

What Not to Do:

Quilt by  Mary's Custom Quilts ;   Singlet ,  Socks , and  Shorts  by RLY

In my running career (now 19 years and counting if we go back to the start of my freshman year of high school), I’ve been fortunate enough to only have ever gotten two stress fractures. Both of these were a result of my not using common sense--adding too many miles too quickly, or attempting to train on virtually no sleep. The first I got during my freshman year of college during spring break; I was coming back from some random muscular injury and decided it was a great idea to run 50 miles that week as my first week back with my two teammates, who were in the middle of, rather than just starting, their track season. The second stress fracture I got was at the start of my Ph.D. program. (Sensing a trend here? Side note: be extra careful to not be extra dumb during your first year of a new routine in a new place!). In my early years of grad school, I was part of a wonderful post-collegiate running team that also happened to practice at the crack of dawn. I was SUPER excited to be in Charlottesville, which is like Running Heaven, USA. Trails! Great weather! Fun urban routes to be run! Most importantly: I would no longer be subject to the winters of South Bend, Indiana!!! I also very immaturely decided to bump my mileage way up into the 50s and 60s too quickly, but I know what really did me in was this one workout I did on essentially no sleep whatsoever. Enthusiasm is a great training asset, but it doesn't make you invincible. I was up until just past 3am doing work on a Wednesday night, and then woke up at 6am to go run 12 miles as a hard grass interval workout or something of that nature. I could just tell I was in trouble as soon as I was done. You live and learn, but take it from me, so that you can just learn and not live this: poor sleep, particularly when combined with intense training, equals poor running (or maybe even no running at all)!

What to Do Instead:

Likewise, if we look back at my running career, the times I have been most successful are those when I have prioritized sleep and a good bedtime routine. In college, I was probably a little too strict about this: one year for Lent (remember, I was at Notre Dame), I decided to be in bed by midnight every night. This was honestly quite challenging at first—I’m not one to be able to put down a project just because bedtime rolls around—but after a couple weeks, this then morphed into my religiously (pun intended) going to bed by 10pm on the dot. I actually really liked this, because I saw firsthand how much stronger I felt in workouts!! Woo, energy! I felt invigorated at practice instead of like the typical tired college kid! The downside was that if I ever was stuck out past 10pm, say, while traveling with the team, it would be as though someone had drugged me the instant the clock hit 10! I would be half-asleep wherever I was and it was sort of awful attempting to function like a reasonable human being. Now, with my post-collegiate running career, I think I have a good balance between keeping a reasonable bedtime and not insisting that I be tucked away in my covers at a specific o’clock. I think, as in many aspects of life, a little mental flexibility balanced with discipline goes a long way. This sort of balance is not always an easy place to find; here are some tips to make bedtime a little more relaxed and a little more chill.

  1. No electronics late at night. Avoid the bright screens of your smartphone and laptop whenever possible, or be sure to build in a buffer of time between your screens and your covers. I rather accidentally noticed that I fell asleep much faster when I wasn’t furiously typing away or reading on my laptop right before, and now it’s something I try to consciously practice when life allows it. And, when I have to be working late at night, I am sure to take 20 minutes to NOT look at a screen right after, whether that means I read or do some additional restorative yoga.
  2. Get the Sleep Cycle App (or a similar sleep app). I've written before about the magical nature of the Sleep Cycle App--besides tracking your sleep patterns through your phone, it's a great way to keep yourself from being mindlessly on your phone when you should really be in bed.
  3. Know how your body handles adrenaline. My husband loves watching Netflix shows at night—I am fine with The Crown but less fine watching Turn and then immediately trying to go to sleep. (FYI: we don’t even have a TV right now and I don’t watch a lot of shows….but, Turn is a dramatic, suspenseful show about the American Revolution that’s worth checking out!) In other words, if you’re one of those people that gets way too into things and has to avoid scary movies or books, try to especially avoid scary movies or books before bed. I will never forget when my post-collegiate teammates tricked me into watching this horrible movie about evil monsters who lurked in caves where people went spelunking by telling me it was “about hiking” and then I had to return alone to my basement apartment and attempt to sleep!
  4. If the first two tips here are about what to possibly avoid before sleeping, you should also try to figure out the flip side of this for YOU: know what helps you to feel calm and relaxed and actually ready for bed. Sometimes I do 10 minutes of yoga. Sometimes I read, and I never fall asleep reading (because I get too into my book), but when I can no longer keep my eyes open, I always sleep especially well after I do read. Yoga and reading work well for me! Figure out what works for you.
  5. Take charge of your sleep environment the best you can. Of course, there will always be things beyond your control. (Apartment dwellers, I feel for you here. I will even more never forget the one time I lived below a girl who vacuumed for HOURS and HOURS from approximately 3am to 6am for several days straight near the end of EVERY semester, and didn’t respond to taps on the ceiling to stop. We can only assume she couldn’t hear because of the volume of the vacuuming, which from below, sounded like a small locomotive plug plugging away into every nook and cranny 45 times over.) Anyways, do whatever you can to make your bedroom and bed as comfortable as possible. Things I recommend to that end:
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  • a quality pillow (even places like Macy’s have good ones and they often go on sale). This is one thing I always bring with me when I travel to races--yes, it's kind of big and annoying to tote around, but I've never regretted it! You just can't beat a good pillow!
  • fresh sheets and blankets. It just makes sleeping so much more luxurious, have at least two sets so you always have a spare and never run into the problem of having to put sheets on the bed when you’re too tired to do so.
  • an essential oils infuser (warning: these are almost addictive in their calming nature)
  • making the bed in the morning (getting into a made bed is more relaxing than getting into a rumpled bed)
  • good pajamas for the time of year (I definitely have a lot of pajamas for the different seasons, and I LOVE sleeping in socks!)
  • actual shades or window coverings (I actually still need to work on this! The sun has been waking me up!)
  • smaller blankets to put around your face (this is definitely something I personally do, but it keeps me from sleeping with my head totally turned to one side or the other, and is very comfortable!)
  • a good mattress and bed (if you read my first post, you've heard about my new mattress! I also slept for YEARS on a mattress on this old box spring thing, and then it finally broke, and so I literally slept on a mattress on the floor. You better believe that one of the first things I convinced my husband to buy in our new house was an actual bed!)

With just a little thought and energy, you can ensure that your sleep is deeper and more restful, and thus get more energy out of your tomorrow for your run, your fun, and everything else in your life.

Next up in this blog post series: “yoga to do before bedtime”!