It’s of­ten the most ne­glected part of run­ners’ train­ing regimes, but some of the greatest per­for­mance gains can come while you’re sleep­ing. Here’s how to get your­self a new PB – from bed

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( In­de­pen­dent). ‘Peo­ple who sleep less than six hours are four times more likely to catch a cold’ ( Tele­graph). ‘ Brits tend to sleep naked’ ( Daily Mail). OK, for­get that last one, but it seems hardly a day goes by with­out the me­dia claim­ing that our lack of shut­eye has reached epi­demic lev­els. And while Bri­tish news­pa­pers rarely shy from hy­per­bole, this time the stats back the head­lines: re­cent re­search by A viva H ealth f ound that we Brits are some of the worst sleep­ers on the planet, with 37 per cent of us re­port­ing in­suf­fi­cient rest. ( The top na­tions when it comes to sleep are In­dia and China.) What’s more, things are seem­ingly get­ting worse. Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est fig­ures from the Sleep Coun­cil, the av­er­age Brit now gets just six and a half hours sleep a night, with over a third of us snatch­ing just five to six hours – a seven per cent rise on the num­bers in that group three years ear­lier. In­creased use of smart­phones , so­cial me­dia, emails and tex­ting have eaten into our sleep time. And as this is when most of our phys­i­cal and men­tal re­cov­ery takes place, it’s of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to run­ners.

‘ In­suf f icient sleep, es­pe­cially over a pe­riod of time, re­sults in de­creased speed and power out­put,’ says Shona Hal­son, se­nior re­cov­ery phys­i­ol­o­gist at the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Sport and one of the world’s lead­ing ex­perts on sleep in ath­letes. Hal­son has worked with elite run­ners, the pro cy­cle team Orica-scott and many world-class swim­mers, in­clud­ing Rio gold medal­lists Kyle Chalmers and

‘ Sleep-de­prived work­ers cost £ 40 bil­lion a year in lost pro­duc­tiv­ity ’

Bronte Camp­bell. ‘It also leads to re­duced re­ac­tion times, com­pro­mises your im­mune sys­tem and is detri­men­tal to cog­ni­tive abil­ity, which is im­por­tant when it comes to fac­tors like pac­ing,’ says Hal­son.

When Hal­son eval­u­ated the sleep of ath­letes for the 12 days be­fore – and then dur­ing – a six-day net­ball tour­na­ment, she found the top two teams slept, on av­er­age, an hour longer each night be­fore and dur­ing the com­pe­ti­tion. They also gave a higher rat­ing to the qual­ity of their sleep.

In the US, Stan­ford Univer­sity sleep re­searcher Cheri Mah con­ducted stud­ies that showed when col­lege swim­mers in­creased their sleep time to 10 hours a night from their typ­i­cal six to nine they slashed an av­er­age of 0.15 sec­onds from their re­ac­tion times off the start­ing block, and sim­i­larly im­proved turn time, 15- me­tre sprint time and kick rate. Another study, in the Jour­nal of pe­di­atric or­thopaedics, sur­veyed in­jury rates among ath­letes and of all the fac­tors stud­ied, sleep (or lack thereof ) was the strong­est pre­dic­tor of in­jury – greater even than train­ing load. And re­search at The Univer­sity of Toronto, Canada, also found sleep de­pri­va­tion can com­pro­mise the re­cov­ery of mus­cle tis­sue post-in­jury.

Like its Aus­tralian coun­ter­part, the Eng­lish In­sti­tute of Sport has in­vested in this once-ne­glected as­pect of re­cov­ery and per­for­mance. In the build-up to the Rio Olympics, Luke Gupta stud­ied sleep pat­terns in more than 400 elite GB ath­letes. His find­ing that 50 per cent of box­ers were get­ting in­suf­fi­cient sleep re­sulted in an up­grad­ing of the ‘sleep en­vi­ron­ment’ in Team GB’S box­ing train­ing base. In came big­ger beds; sheets, du­vets and pil­lows had to be made from breath­able fab­rics; and ma­te­ri­als se­lected to cre­ate a hypo-al­ler­genic bar­rier to al­ler­gens were fit­ted to each bed­room.

‘On av­er­age, the box­ers were sleep­ing for 24 min­utes longer each night,’ says con­sul­tant coach Richie Wood­hall. ‘Over the course of an Olympic train­ing cy­cle, it could be as much as 29 or 30 days’ ex­tra sleep. That can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween win­ning a medal or go­ing out in the first round.’ It paid off, as they hit their medal tar­get.


So how ex­actly does sleep re­sult in per­for­mance ben­e­fits? And out­side the en­vi­rons of an Olympic train­ing camp, what strate­gies can we im­ple­ment to max­imise sleep?

Much of sleep’s ben­e­fi­cial effect on per­for­mance can be as­cribed to the cock­tail of hor­mones re­leased while you’re be­tween the sheets. The key in­gre­di­ent is hu­man growth hor­mone (HGH), which helps to re­pair and re­build mus­cles by stim­u­lat­ing the liver and other tis­sues to make a pro­tein called in­sulin-like growth fac­tor 1 (IGF-1). Lack of sleep equals lack of HGH pro­duc­tion equals re­stricted mus­cle growth. This is bad news for those overly par­tial to a pos­trace/run tip­ple, be­cause al­co­hol has long been known to stall your se­cre­tion of HGH, with re­search pub­lished in The jour­nal of clin­i­cal en­docrinol­ogy me­tab­o­lism show­ing al­co­hol de­creased HGH se­cre­tion by 25 per cent.

‘Sleep can also af­fect your eat­ing habits,’ says Hal­son. Again, it’s down to hor­mones. Ris­ing lev­els of the hor­mone ghre­lin sig­nal that it’s time to start eat­ing, while in­creased lev­els of the hor­mone lep­tin tell you that you’re full. And a Ger­man study, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of sleep re­search, showed that just one night’s bro­ken sleep sig­nif­i­cantly raises ghre­lin lev­els, ex­plain­ing why you crave sec­onds of mac­a­roni cheese when tired. The study also found that two nights or more of poor sleep re­duces lep­tin lev­els. This helps to ex­plain why de­creased sleep is as­so­ci­ated with in­creased weight – bad news for run­ning per­for­mance.

There’s also a psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact. We all know anec­do­tally that a bad night re­sults in lack of run­ning mo­ti­va­tion, and ev­ery step we do take feel­ing that bit tougher. In re­search pub­lished in the jour­nal Sleep, sub­jects com­plet­ing the same tasks be­fore and af­ter un­der­go­ing sleep de­pri­va­tion achieved the same re­sults, but per­ceived that the work­load had in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly. Another study, pub­lished in Per­spec­tives on Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, found in­creased per­cep­tion of task dif­fi­culty when tired. Ath­letes suf fer­ing from in­suf­fi­cient sleep con­sid­ered their drills to be more dif­fi­cult, and those with fre­quent awak­en­ings avoided the most chal­leng­ing ex­er­cises.

The mech­a­nisms be­hind this aren’t yet fully un­der­stood, but Univer­sity of New York sleep spe­cial­ist Mindy En­gle-fried­man be­lieves it’s down to your brain de­ter­min­ing whether it has the re­sources to com­plete a task, or whether those re­sources need to be con­served for tasks of higher pri­or­ity. Es­sen­tially, says En­gle-fried­man, sleep de­pri­va­tion al­ters per­cep­tion of this re­source dis­tri­bu­tion and leads to your brain mak­ing things feel tougher.

Lack of sleep also re­sults in greater stress and anger, drain­ing en­ergy re­serves re­quired for run­ning. In a study pub­lished in the jour­nal Emo­tion, when sleep- de­prived par­tic­i­pants were shown emo­tion­ally neg­a­tive im­ages, ac­tiv­ity lev­els in the amyg­dala – an area in the brain that con­trols emo­tions – were up to 60 per cent higher than lev­els in those who were rested. Sleep de­pri­va­tion ap­pears to cause the amyg­dala to over­re­act to neg­a­tive stim­uli be­cause it be­comes dis­con­nected from brain ar­eas that nor­mally mod­er­ate its re­sponse.


Like many things sleep- re­lated, the re­lease of HGH as we snooze is gov­erned by our cir­ca­dian rhythms. ‘This clock of ours, deep within the brain, reg­u­lates our in­ter­nal sys­tems, in­clud­ing sleep­ing pat­terns,’ says Nick Lit­tle­hales, a lead­ing sleep con­sul­tant who has worked with many run­ners, in­clud­ing Team GB Olympic sprinter James Dasaolu and for­mer elite marathoner Mara Ya­mauchi. ‘Our body clock also reg­u­lates things like alert­ness, mood and di­ges­tion

Lack of sleep also re­sults in greater stress and anger, drain­ing en­ergy re­serves re­quired for run­ning

in a 24- hour process evolved to work in har­mony with the Earth’s ro­ta­tion. Our in­ter­nal clocks are set by ex­ter­nal cues, chief among them be­ing day­light.’ Of par­tic­u­lar rel­e­vance here is the se­cre­tion of the sleep-in­duc­ing hor­mone mela­tonin in re­sponse to the tran­si­tion from light to dark, but re­cent re­search has re­vealed that the func­tion­ing of our bod­ies is af­fected far more ex­ten­sively by cir­ca­dian rhythm than was pre­vi­ously thought. In fact, we now know that one in ev­ery 10 genes in hu­man DNA op­er­ates in 24-hour cy­cles. Un­der­stand­ing those cy­cles won’t just help you sleep bet­ter, it’ll help you op­ti­mise en­ergy lev­els and per­for­mance when you’re awake.

In Lit­tle­hales’ book Sleep (Pen­guin), he fea­tures a 24-hour clock show­ing key bi­o­log­i­cal mark­ers through­out the day. Around 2-3am is the time of your deep­est sleep; 5pm is when your car­dio­vas­cu­lar ef­fi­ciency and strength are at their peak; around 10.30am is when you’re at your most alert. This varies among in­di­vid­u­als, how­ever, with peo­ple gen­er­ally fall­ing into one of three cat­e­gories – larks, night owls or in- be­tween­ers. ‘ We call it your chrono­type,’ says Lit­tle­hales. ‘Es­sen­tially, your sleep char­ac­ter­is­tic.’

Your chrono­type doesn’t just in­di­cate what time you want to go to bed and get up – it high­lights when your body is best equipped to per­form func­tions guided by cir­ca­dian rhythms. Chrono­type is ge­netic and you’ll prob­a­bly be aware of yours al­ready, but if you’re un­sure, use the Mu­nich ques­tion­naire on­line as­sess­ment (eu­clock. org) for a de­fin­i­tive an­swer. Know your chrono­type and plan your runs in har­mony with your nat­u­ral rhythms – you’ll reap the re­wards. ‘ Stud­ies show that train­ing to suit your chrono­type re­sults in bet­ter sport­ing per­for­mance and fewer in­juries,’ says Lit­tle­hales.

Cy­cles are also cru­cial while you sleep, says Lit­tle­hales. ‘ In a clin­i­cal sense, 90 min­utes is the way you mea­sure sleep,’ he says. ‘ It takes 90 min­utes to run through a sleep cy­cle, of which around 20-25 per cent is deep sleep.’ Con­se­quently, Lit­tle­hales’ R90 pro­gramme, which he uses with both elite and recre­ational ath­letes, breaks sleep down into nu­mer­ous 90-minute cy­cles, with the aim of wak­ing at the end of a sleep cy­cle, when the body and brain find wak­ing eas­i­est. How many cy­cles should you aim for per night? ‘ Your op­ti­mum is a very per­sonal thing but, broadly speak­ing, five cy­cles, to­talling seven and a half to eight hours is suf­fi­cient for op­ti­mum phys­i­cal and men­tal re­cov­ery,’ says Lit­tle­hales. ‘But the R90 pro­gramme is more about rein­tro­duc­ing the idea of polypha­sic sleep, where you give your mind and body mul­ti­ple chances of re­cov­ery – and not just a night.’

Many elite run­ners, in­clud­ing Mo Farah, Paula Rad­cliffe and nu­mer­ous East Africans nap dur­ing the day when train­ing, and stud­ies have show day­time naps re­store alert­ness and en­hance per­for­mance. In fact, a NASA study on mil­i­tary pi­lots and as­tro­nauts found that a 40-minute nap im­proved per­for­mance by 34 per cent.

Of course, while nap­ping may be de rigueur in Rift Val­ley train­ing camps, it’s gen­er­ally frowned upon at your desk. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to Lit­tle­hales, your mid­dle- of-the­day phys­i­cal and men­tal re­gen­er­a­tion doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily have to mean ac­tu­ally go­ing to sleep – just slow­ing things down can be enough. ‘All you need to do is zone out,’ says Lit­tle­hales. ‘ You don’t even need to leave your desk. Lis­ten to re­lax­ing music or a mind­ful­ness app. Fo­cus on breath­ing so that, men­tally, you’ve left the room. If you can drift like this for just 15 min­utes a cou­ple of times a day, it can re­ally help you to men­tally and phys­i­cally re­cover.’

If you do have an op­por­tu­nity for a gen­uine nap, take it, and con­sider this nu­tri­tional strat­egy to bounce back into the day: ‘Con­sume caf­feine just be­fore nap­ping so that when you wake up, you can get back into it a lot quicker, as caf­feine will be peak­ing in the blood­stream,’ says Dr So­phie Killer, lead per­for­mance nu­tri­tion­ist for the Bri­tish Olympic track and field team. ‘Have a cof­fee, nap for 20-30 min­utes and you’ll wake up alive and kick­ing.’


Nu­tri­tion plays a role in max­imis­ing sleep be­yond nap­ping, too, though Gupta cau­tions that the re­search on some foods that sup­pos­edly en­cour­age sleep is equiv­o­cal at best. ‘While it’s ac­cepted that avoid­ing some foods and drinks – for in­stance, caf­feine – can help sleep, there are fewer stud­ies on foods that can fa­cil­i­tate it,’ he says. ‘There is, how­ever, some re­search to sug­gest that foods high in mela­tonin – tart cher­ries, wal­nuts, toma­toes – may help sleep.’ Rice, toma­toes, barley, sweet­corn and bananas are fur­ther mela­tonin-rich foods.

Hal­son re­it­er­ates the im­por­tance of not eat­ing – or drink­ing – too much prior to bed to avoid alarm calls of na­ture in the night, but also cau­tions against swing­ing too far the other way: ‘I know a lot of ath­letes who go to bed hun­gry be­cause they’re try­ing to lose or main­tain weight,’ says Hal­son. ‘They be­lieve it’ll help with fat burn­ing but re­strict­ing calo­rie in­take has a neg­a­tive im­pact on sleep.’ Again, how­ever, it’s not a case of the more the bet­ter: a study by Killer found that switch­ing to a high-car­bo­hy­drate diet dur­ing in­tense train­ing didn’t sig­nif­i­cantly im­prove sleep.

What you eat can help the ben­e­fi­cial pro­cesses that oc­cur while you sleep, though. Pro­fes­sor Luc van Loon of Maas­tricht Univer­sity, the Nether­lands, who spe­cialises in pro­tein syn­the­sis, stresses the im­por­tance of evening pro­tein inges­tion on build­ing mus­cle. He has stud­ied the effect of pro­tein on mus­cle re­pair, re­gen­er­a­tion and growth via mus­cle biop­sies, and con­cluded that con­sum­ing 40g of ca­sein pro­tein around 30 min­utes be­fore sleep is ef­fec­tive. Ca­sein-rich foods in­clude milk, cottage cheese and yo­ghurt.

Lit­tle­hales is the ar­chi­tect of cy­cling out­fit Team Sky’s sleep kits, which the team take to all their races – they have helped Bradley Wig­gins and Chris Froome claim four Tour de France ti­tles be­tween them. The kits com­prise por­ta­ble beds made up of two or three mat­tress top­pers –

A NASA study on as­tro­nauts found that a 40- minute nap im­proved per­for­mance by 34 per cent

thick­ness of foam and num­ber de­pend­ing on the weight of the ath­lete – with a body com­forter on top. This is wrapped in a re­mov­able, wash­able cover, com­bined with a shal­low pil­low and linen, all squeezed into a be­spoke back­pack.

‘They were im­por­tant be­cause the rid­ers would sleep in a dif­fer­ent, of­ten poor, ho­tel each night,’ says Lit­tle­hales. ‘ We could con­trol their rac­ing gear and their nu­tri­tion, but not their sleep.’

A por­ta­ble sleep kit may seem ex­ces­sive for des­ti­na­tion races, but if you want to kip like an elite be­fore the Torquay 10K you can pur­chase a cus­tom-made one from sport­sleep­ Of more value would be ap­ply­ing the sci­ence to your home set-up, start­ing with your mat­tress (R90 mat­tress, from £297). ‘My first piece of ad­vice is to spend £300 on a mat­tress ev­ery cou­ple of years rather than £1,000 ev­ery 10 years,’ says Lit­tle­hales. ‘They can de­grade fairly rapidly so fre­quency of changes is pre­ferred.’

He sug­gests adding a body com­forter (Clus­ter­full mat­tress top­per, from £66) or a mat­tress top­per (R90 Pos­ture­max 50, from £149), which should be washed reg­u­larly to min­imise chances of in­fec­tion. You should also use hy­poal­ler­genic and breath­able bed­ding (Mi­crovent linen pack, from £95), whether you have al­ler­gies or not, to keep out po­ten­tial im­ped­i­ments to sleep and reg­u­late tem­per­a­ture. And while it may not be the case for all things bed­room-re­lated, when it comes to sleep, size mat­ters: ‘Go for the big­gest bed you can fit into your room,’ says Lit­tle­hales. ‘Dou­ble beds are re­ally de­signed for one per­son; in fact, a su­per-king mat­tress is the min­i­mum size a cou­ple of run­ners should con­sider for their own space and a good night’s sleep.’ This ex­tra cost should fo­cus on the mat­tress be­cause, as Lit­tle­hales says, the frame is ba­si­cally dec­o­ra­tion.

You could also con­sider a PJ up­grade: Un­der Ar­mour’s Ath­lete Re­cov­ery Sleep­wear (cur­rently avail­able only in the US, but should be here soon) claims to use ‘the world’s most ad­vanced sleep sys­tem that ac­tu­ally re­builds your body while you rest.’ A soft, bio­ce­ramic print on the in­side ab­sorbs the body’s nat­u­ral heat and re­flects Far In­frared (FIR) – a type of en­ergy on the in­frared spec­trum that has sev­eral ben­e­fits for the hu­man body – back to the skin. In­de­pen­dent stud­ies by re­searchers from Har­vard Med­i­cal School and Mas­sachusetts Gen­eral Hospi­tal, both in Bos­ton, US, have found that sleep­ing en­vi­ron­ments could be im­proved by FIR.

Hal­son of­fers more tra­di­tional ad­vice: ‘There are many in­ter­ven­tions that can help a run­ner sleep, in­clud­ing eye masks and ear plugs, tem­per­a­ture of the room, noise and light,’ she says. ‘Stay­ing off bright-light de­vices like smart­phones is use­ful, too. That light stim­u­lates the body clock and tells you to stay awake. You want as dark a room as pos­si­ble in the hour be­fore bed be­cause it primes the body for sleep.’


So how do you know if all this is work­ing? Drop­ping off face down in your corn­flakes is ob­vi­ously one mea­sure, but in the more tech­ni­cal sphere, sleep-track­ing fea­tures are now near- om­nipresent on fit­ness watches. These track move­ment, with a cer­tain amount cor­re­spond­ing to be­ing awake and still­ness reg­is­ter­ing as sleep. How­ever, there’s de­bate on the ac­cu­racy of the data they pro­duce. One study found wrist actig­ra­phy, as it’s known, ‘can be quite ac­cu­rate when it comes to es­ti­mat­ing in­for­ma­tion such as to­tal time asleep, sleep per­cent­age and how long af­ter sleep wak­ing oc­curs’. But crit­ics ar­gue they mis­take mo­tion­less­ness for sleep, and more re­cent re­search, pub­lished in the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Be­havioural Nu­tri­tion and­phys­i­calac­tiv­ity con­cluded that the ma­jor­ity of smart­phone sleep apps ‘over­es­ti­mated or un­der­es­ti­mated’ sleep. ‘Al­though rel­a­tively cheap and con­ve­nient to use, there are very few sleep-mon­i­tor­ing de­vices that have been shown to validly as­sess sleep against gold stan­dards of sleep as­sess­ment,’ says Gupta. Still, be­cause that gold stan­dard in­volves two nights in a lab with elec­trodes at­tached to your head to mea­sure brain ac­tiv­ity, you may want to set­tle for the slightly less ac­cu­rate, wrist- based op­tion. It’s also very use­ful to keep a sleep di­ary (see Mon­i­to­ry­oursleep, p50) to track your sleep pat­terns over the longer term.

Put all this to­gether and per­fect­ing your sleep can join train­ing and nu­tri­tion as the third cru­cial el­e­ment of a com­plete plan for im­prov­ing your run­ning. Sweet dreams.

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