running

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.

How to Pace Yourself

Learning to run properly can be challenging enough, which is why learning to how to pace yourself is important to get right.

If you’ve ever laced up your shoes and headed out the door unsure of what pace to run; you’re not alone. Here are some tips to help you figure out how to pace yourself.

Whether you’re a beginner, elite, or anywhere in between, we can all face the same problem in any given week. The schedule says Tuesday should be hard, Thursday should be steady, and you have heard that most of your long runs should be at an easy effort. You find yourself asking as you run down the road, what is hard and how should this feel? How can a long run ever be easy?! No matter how slow I run, it NEVER seems easy!

Here’s an easy way to figure out and look at effort levels.

Contrary to popular belief this sport doesn’t have to be exhausting, and each run shouldn’t leave you tired for days. Your early runs where you’re learning to cover distance and time should be completed at the speed of chat. Meaning you should be able to talk to the person next to you while running. This is called the “talk test” and is one of the most common ways to gauge effort level.

For those who are more experience, running at “the speed of chat” is how your easy runs should feel in a training week. You should feel totally in control, relaxed, and able to talk while running. Easier to check while running with a friend, but if you’re by yourself, you may find you are running along the street talking to yourself; not a bad thing as long as it helps you gauge your effort! If you want to give this running a score as an effort level 1-10 (1 being the easiest), it could be a 6/10.

The next level

Steady running. This is the backbone of training for the more experienced. It’s not complicated but does require you to be completely honest. You can push this area too hard and run junk miles that leave you too tired for clever sessions that we’ll cover next. This area is perhaps a 7/10 on your scorecard and is still conversational, although the chat is slightly strained.

Threshold running

We can all train like Mo; even if you’re new to the sport, and this is how you do it. This is called “uncomfortable running” or “controlled discomfort.” The key is that you can still talk between each breath, but it’s only 3-4 word answer effort. If you can utter a couple of distressed words; you are working too hard, and conversely, if you can say most of a sentence, you’re not working hard enough. This is running uncomfortable, but with control! It’s certainly not sprinting or running to exhaustion.

You might only be ready to include a few 3-minute blocks of this in a run each week, but it can grow; you can build the volume over the months. We call this running the bedrock to becoming a better runner, and it feels like 8-9/10 and 3-4 word answer effort.

An experienced runner using a heart rate monitor might run near to 85% of their maximum heart rate to remain in this zone. To know exactly how high your heart rate should be; grab a lactate & Vo2 max test from your local Sports Science department or university.

A couple of examples of threshold running sessions are:

5 x 5 minutes at threshold effort built into a 45-50 minute run with a 90-second jog recovery between each block.

This can build to a 6 x 5 minutes then 3 x 10 minutes and eventually you could be running 25-30 minutes of continuous threshold in the last part of a 45-minute run each week. The key is to keep feeling like a 3-4 word answer pace and not progressively harder until you feel like you are in the final stages of a 5k or 10k. Stay in control.

Interval Training & 5K-10K race paces naturally follow on from threshold as being the next level of pain.

It’s time to visit the hurt locker; although if new to running, your 5k or 10k effort will be your easy running pace or maybe threshold if progressing and a few races further down the road.

To a certain point, how the 5K/10K effort or interval training feels is up to you. You could be wise and hold back slightly letting the pace and intensity prescribed build the pain for you, or you could be the headbanger who loves to hit it harder and hang on. The choice is yours but remember to be consistent in this zone.

It’s meant to hurt and sessions such as 6-8 x 1km or 6 x 4 minutes off 75-90 seconds recovery can hurt. They will boost your VO2 max, and make your heart stronger. Keep in mind though that you can’t visit this zone too often; maybe once a week in a training plan once already experienced, running threshold each week and feeling good.

Little Tip –

Join a running group, club, or friends to complete these sessions. Completing weekly interval sessions with others adds competition, company, and disguises the pain and mental strength required.

So next time you leave the house; have a planned route and know what you want from your training. Have a purpose and listen to your body.

Just remember these four levels/zones:

  • Easy Run – Fully conversational at the speed of chat and about 6/10 (60-65% max heart rate).
  • Steady Run – Conversational, controlled, but slightly strained and about 7/10 (70-75% max heart rate).
  • Threshold Running – Controlled discomfort and 3-4 word answer pace or 8-9/10 (80-85% max heart rate, but get tested to be sure!).
  • Interval Training & 5K/10K effort or quicker – No time to chat here and 9/10 or more as the session progresses. It’s 1 or 2 word answer time and perhaps more of a grunt (85 – over 90% max heart rate… ouch!)

Make every run count!

What’re Your Thoughts?

Ally Gonzales is the creator of RunningSoleGirl. The go-to place for everything healthy lifestyle and conditioning for running. She’s a runner, speaks a total of five languages, and is a soon-to-be college freshman majoring in Exercise and Sports Science.

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Ally Gonzales is the creator of RunningSoleGirl. The go-to place for everything healthy lifestyle and conditioning for running. She’s a runner, speaks a total of five languages, and is a soon-to-be college freshman majoring in Exercise and Sports Science.

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Ally Gonzales is the creator of RunningSoleGirl. The go-to place for everything healthy lifestyle and conditioning for running. She’s a runner, speaks a total of five languages, and is a soon-to-be college freshman majoring in Exercise and Sports Science.

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Ben is a former semi-professional cyclist and current kimchi lover. When he’s not eating, or thinking about food, he’s writing about food over at The Online Grill.

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Ally Gonzales is the creator of RunningSoleGirl. The go-to place for everything healthy lifestyle and conditioning for running. She’s a runner, speaks a total of five languages, and is a soon-to-be college freshman majoring in Exercise and Sports Science.

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Ally Gonzales is the creator of RunningSoleGirl. The go-to place for everything healthy lifestyle and conditioning for running. She’s a runner, speaks a total of five languages, and is a soon-to-be college freshman majoring in Exercise and Sports Science.

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Ally Gonzales is the creator of RunningSoleGirl. The go-to place for everything healthy lifestyle and conditioning for running. She’s a runner, speaks a total of five languages, and is a soon-to-be college freshman majoring in Exercise and Sports Science.

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Ally Gonzales is the creator of RunningSoleGirl. The go-to place for everything healthy lifestyle and conditioning for running. She’s a runner, speaks a total of five languages, and is a soon-to-be college freshman majoring in Exercise and Sports Science.

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Ally Gonzales is the creator of RunningSoleGirl. The go-to place for everything healthy lifestyle and conditioning for running. She’s a runner, speaks a total of five languages, and is a soon-to-be college freshman majoring in Exercise and Sports Science.

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