Guest Post: Healthy Sleep During Training is More Important than Getting Some Shut-Eye the Night Before Race Day

Do you really need a good night’s rest the night before a big run? The short answer is yes and no.

Of course getting adequate hours of sleep the night before a race is bound to make you feel ready to take on the world in the morning. And not getting enough sleep is bound to make you feel sluggish. But how much does healthy sleep or the lack of it really affect athletic performance?

A Single Night of Zero/Poor Sleep Has Little to No Effect on Physical Performance

Yep, you read that right. Getting healthy sleep the night before a big race isn’t actually that important for physiological endurance.

While it sounds crazy, it’s also backed by several scientific studies.

In one Dutch study, a control group of men who had healthy sleep and another group of men who had zero sleep the previous night were pitted against each other in 20-minute cycling time trials.

The healthy-sleep group clocked in an average of 7.68km during their trial. And while the researchers expected considerably lower results from the sleep-deprived group, they clocked in a near-identical average of 7.62km. Other physical measurements during the trial, particularly their average heart rate, also came out near-identical.

In another study in 2007, experts from the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences analyzed a variety of existing studies on how sleep affects physical performance.

Much to their surprise, the experts found that even a few days of poor sleep translated to stable physiological markers of endurance. But while leg strength, oxygen demand at various speeds, and fatigue resistance were all unaffected by a single night of poor sleep, it was mental cognition that suffered.

And it wasn’t the first time that lack of sleep resulted in poorer mental performance.

The Brain is More Dependent on Sleep than the Rest of the Body

In a 2009 study, European researchers found evidence of decreased endurance in athletes who ran after staying awake for 30 hours. However, they also found that the 30-hour lack of sleep had a very limited effect on the test subjects’ actual cardiorespiratory/thermoregulatory function and pacing. Rather, the lowered performance was a result of their altered perception of effort.

The 11 men who were involved in this study completed 2 running trials. The first trial was after they had normal sleep. The second trial happened 7 days later, and after they were kept awake for 30 hours.

While the test subjects ran farther during the first trial, they reported feeling like they ran the same distance during the second trial. This led researchers to conclude that the decreased endurance was psychological and based mostly on their altered perception of effort (especially since they found evidence that a single night of sleep deprivation had limited effects on indicators of actual physical endurance).

Several past studies also indicate that short-term sleep deprivation can result in poorer memory, longer reaction time, and an unstable mood.

You’re certainly bound to not feel good and ready if you haven’t had enough sleep the night before a big race, but don’t let that feeling fool you. While your brain is telling you that you need sleep, your body could very well be as ready as ever to perform during race day.

If you’ve been training regularly and getting adequate sleep (at least for the past week), getting little to zero sleep the night before race day is unlikely to affect your actual physical performance and endurance.

More Sleep in General is More Important than How You Slept the Previous Night

Instead of the single night before your race, what you should really be concerned about is how you sleep on a regular basis.

In a 2011 study on Stanford basketball players, researchers found that extending sleep to 10 hours per night (for 5 to 7 weeks) resulted in increased performance metrics. They also found similar increases when the study was repeated in other sports like tennis, football, and swimming.

As Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory researcher (and study author) Cheri Mah explains, it’s not just about how you slept for one or two nights. Rather, it’s about “prioritizing sleep over the whole season.

While one night without sleep can be slightly detrimental to your endurance, there are some athletes who say that it makes no difference at all. One of these athletes is American long-distance runner Bobby Curtis, who won the NCAA title for 5,000 meters during his senior year on a somewhat irregular sleep schedule.

Curtis says that while not sleeping a few nights before the race didn’t affect his performance when he won the title, his training did suffer when he didn’t get enough sleep over the last couple weeks.

As Stanford’s Cheri Mah rightly suggests, it’s important for athletes to maintain a consistent sleep schedule that ensures they get adequate sleep.

So instead of worrying about how you’ll be too excited to sleep the night before your big race, focus on getting enough sleep during training. That’s when sleep really counts.

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