Thoughts About Running
Each issue, our new columnist Madeleine Cummings, a runner and journalist living in Edmonton, will explore a challenging question that faces all runners.
I’d Better Sleep On It
Successful runners don’t skimp on sleep. Deena Kastor, who ran a masters recordbreaking 2:27:47 at the Chicago Marathon this fall, has long said she gets at least 10 hours of sleep a night. Ultramarathoner Josh Cox once called napping “as important as eating.” And American marathoner Ryan Hall said naps were so important to his training that he marked them as “business meetings” in his calendar.
I get it – but I don’t, really. I know that sleep is important, but I’m never ready to relinquish my day to it. The problem has always been the plentitude of more interesting activities I could be doing instead of sleeping. Just about anything, I have found, is more fun than lying in bed and doing nothing.
I have long hoped that I might be part of the one-to-three per cent of the population who are “short sleepers” – “the sleepless elite,” as the Wall Street Journal once called them – who get by on just five or six hours a night. I realize that most people who consider themselves in this category are deluded, but why couldn’t it be me?
It struck me, though, that lack of sleep could be holding me back as a runner. So I decided to log my sleep for one month and try to get an ambitious eight hours in every night. I picked eight hours as a goal because it was well above my normal amount and I remember reading somewhere that most adults need between seven and nine hours. Let me tell you, the month was hellish. Even on the nights I slid into bed early, the fates intervened to keep me awake. On the second night, I set an alarm for 8 a.m., but woke up in a panic at 2:30 a.m., 6:30 a.m., and 7:30 a.m. By Day 4 I was no longer waking up feeling like I was being summoned by demons in Paranormal Activity, but sleep was still fitful. And I wasn’t feeling fresh during my runs either.
In order to get an expert’s opinion, I called Dr. Charles Samuels, a physician and medical director for the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary. Samuels has studied the relationship of sleep on elite athletes’ recovery and performance. He’s also helped Olympians develop sleep strategies during training and leading up to competition.
Samuels told me both insomnia and stress about not getting enough sleep are common among the athletes he works with. He had two main suggestions:
The first was to nap. Napping helps athletes reach their weekly sleep goals by making up for time lost during nightly sleep sessions. Samuels recommended I read the book, Take a Nap, Change Your Life! by Sara Mednick, but I remained skeptical. My three attempts to nap during the month so far were all failures. Trying to nap when I am not feeling tired is like thinking about friends of mine who have given birth. I know other people’s bodies are capable of it but not mine right now, thank you.
Samuels’s second suggestion, which I found more attainable, was to identify my natural sleep cycle and design a training and recovery plan that works with it.
Since I have what’s called a “delayed sleep phase” (i.e. I’m not a morning person) he suggested going to bed later, waking up later, and doing the majority of my running in the afternoon or evening.
I had hoped my month of discipline would help lead to healthier habits. And I did realize that seven-and-a-half hours of sleep, instead of eight, felt better and was easier to obtain. But the next week, I immediately slipped back to my old ways. Instead of panicking as 10 p.m. approached, I kept cruising through the feeds on my phone.
This must be why the elites speak so seriously about their sleep schedules. Because getting enough sleep is incredibly hard, requiring organization, willpower and careful monitoring. It’s more work than I’m usually willing to put in, to be honest, but at least I know now what the “right” amount is – for me – and some strategies for sticking to it.