Written by Kaitlyn Kelley, a contributor at Tuck Sleep

Why Sleep is a Vital Stat for Runners

Most runners can tell you their 5K personal record (PR) or how long they ran on their last “long run,” but how many can tell you how much they slept the previous night? You may not think of “hours of sleep” as being as critical to your success as your “minutes per mile.” However, how much you sleep at night can affect how well you run the next morning.

Experts recommend sleeping at least seven hours per night, but many people don’t rest that long. Limiting your sleep may also limit your performance. During sleep, your body performs essential functions, like healing muscles and invigorating your immune system. If you allow more time for sleep, your body can respond dramatically.

Rest Improves Performance

Want to increase your sprint speed? A group of college basketball players ran faster after extending their sleep time to ten hours per night. They also shot baskets more accurately and had faster reaction times than they did on a “normal” night’s sleep. While the physical benefits are notable, the mental benefits of more sleep were also impressive. The players reported a greater feeling of psychological well-being during games during the sleep extension.

There’s no definitive formula for calculating how much sleep you need for optimal performance. To take advantage of the performance boost that rest can give you, start small. Go to bed half an hour earlier and see how you feel. Adjust your sleep time as needed to get the results you want. This program works better if you have a consistent bedtime from day to day. Your body will adjust to it over time and start feeling sleepy at your set bedtime.

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Your Muscles Repair During Sleep

Every runner knows how good it feels to flop into bed after a long run. The next day, you might still feel sore, but your body has been busy repairing your muscles. The exact mechanism by which sleep helps rebuild your body is being explored, but getting sufficient rest does appear to play a key role in improving athletic performance. Scientists recently hypothesized that sleep debt (or deprivation) can actually lead to muscle loss. Conversely, it makes sense that sleeping more hours may help you build muscle.

Sneaking in a few more hours of sleep may require some changes to your training plan. Although many runners are forced to train in the late afternoon or evening because of work hours, an earlier workout may allow you to go to sleep easier. The adrenaline and other hormones released during a hard training session can make it challenging to sleep if you go to bed too soon afterward, so try to schedule your workouts in the morning or mid-afternoon.

Resting Keeps You on the Track or Trail

Have you ever started to taper for a race and then immediately gotten sick? Your whole training regimen can be thrown off by a little cold. Arm yourself during the winter months by sleeping more hours. It may reduce your likelihood of catching a cold. When volunteers were exposed to a cold (or rhinovirus), those who slept less than seven hours per night were nearly three times more likely to get sick. The length of time that people slept made a difference, but so did their sleep efficiency, or how well they slept. People that slept less “efficiently” were five times more likely to get sick. So how do you sleep more efficiently and avoid those sidetracking colds?

Developing a bedtime routine may help your brain prepare for sleeping efficiently. If you’ve already set yourself a consistent bedtime, you’re on the right track. However, if you’re working on your computer or drinking coffee late at night, you may not be falling asleep when you slip beneath the covers. Try to take at least a half an hour before bed to do some relaxing activities. Take a bath, gently stretch your muscles with basic yoga poses or meditate. Also, take time to address any sleep issues, such as snoring.

Adding sleep to your training plan may help you shave seconds off your race time and keep you feeling healthy.