When runners are trying to improve speed or endurance, the first idea that comes up is adding more miles, faster miles, harder miles. Because obviously working harder will mean better results. But being a runner, or any athlete, is more complex than just how much you sweat in a day. It also depends on the nutrition you put into your body, including a good night’s sleep. Just like when you were a kid: you need to go to bed to grow big and strong.
Several research studies have proven the various ways that sleep impacts runners (Millard, 2019). Endurance athletes who participated in a year-long study experienced significantly more injuries when they were getting less than 7 hours sleep. In another group, over 11,000 elderly women were tracked and it was found that those who consistently slept over 5 hours had better bone strength. And a group of elite athletes completed mood assessments and those with poor sleep habits were more often the same people who struggled with mood disturbances (as well as poor hygiene and general health struggles).
Sleep matters, there is no doubt about that. So, the next step is to figure out if sleep is a problem for your running.
Kuzma (2018) recommended several ways to see runners are getting enough sleep. One common idea is to track how many hours of sleep you get over the course of a few weeks. This can happen with an app, a smart watch, or at least writing down when you go to bed and when the alarm goes off. Adults need 8-9 hours sleep every night for best performance the next day.
A really fun proposal was to take one week without an alarm and just see how much you sleep. Instead of setting your alarm each day for some early morning miles, enjoy a restful morning and run later in the day. Again, see how many hours you are in bed each night and when your body is telling you to get up. Your legs, lungs, and other body parts will thank you.
There will still be nights when you will not get enough sleep. Instead of stressing about one night, focus on the week as a whole (Millard, 2020). Plan for long runs on mornings you can get extra sleep and easy runs or rest days for when you might be running short on time (pun totally intended). If every week is a struggle to get enough sleep, that might mean needing to restructure your running goals for a few months.
Other times, the focus will have to be on quality instead of quantity. If you are too tired for a morning run after a restless night, take a quick nap at lunch and get out in the evening. Or consider using the day for some cross-training through yoga, Pilates, or a more recovery-focused workout.
Overall, one bad night’s sleep will not ruin you as a runner. But a lifestyle of bad sleep will set you up for injured, sluggish, grumpy running. If you want the strength and speed of a champion, you’ll need the sleep of one too.