The importance of sleep for runners

Overtired, overtrained and struggling to concentrate? A good night's rest is vital for athletic performance says Sleep Physician Dr Jim Brown.

The importance of sleep for runners

Why is sleep so important?

On average people sleep for 6.5-7 hours a night. But for most people, around 8 hours is the right amount. Progressively we’ve been getting less sleep as a society. The burden is only just starting to be realised.

All mammals sleep to some degree and it is ubiquitous across all species. In the past, sleep was considered to be for wimps, but it is an essential part of our physiology. We don’t fully understand what sleep is but we know that it is essential for health and wellbeing.

From a medical perspective sleep has an enormous knock-on effect on one’s life and wellbeing. Sleep deprivation can lead to diabetes and heart trouble, problems at work and poor performance. It can also cause depression and social problems. Road traffic accidents are often linked to tiredness.

From a medical perspective sleep has an enormous knock-on effect on one’s life and wellbeing. Sleep deprivation can lead to diabetes and heart trouble, problems at work and poor performance. It can also cause depression and social problems. Road traffic accidents are often linked to tiredness.

How important is exercise with regards to sleep?

We recommend exercise as it improves the quality and onset of sleep. However, the timing is important. If you do vigorous exercise late in the day, then it can disrupt your cycle. The cues that tell you when to sleep are your body temperature, as your cortisol levels will be high, so you have to be mindful of exercising just before bedtime.

How important is sleep for recovery?

For recovery – there hasn’t been a huge amount of research and it is quite a topical research area now for elite athletes and how it affects performance. Based on a US study, If you take a  number of moderately good collegiate athletes, it affects their performance hugely.

If you extend sleep up to 10 hours, it significantly improves performance. Looking at college basketball, if you increase their sleep, it increases their shooting accuracy to 10-15 per cent. The same study with swimmers, they increased their sprint time, just by increasing their sleep time.

What is slow wave sleep?

Slow wave sleep is the deepest portion, and it is essential for recovery from exercise. If you take someone who has just run a marathon, they have much more slow wave sleep after the marathon. It is essential for recovery, as the growth hormone is released during this time.

If you don’t sleep properly, you get something similar to overtraining syndrome, including a decrease in performance. If you continue to sleep badly you reach ever decreasing performance, as you are not resting and restoring and getting deep sleep.

What is the correct amount of sleep?

There is no right answer on the correct amount to sleep; it is very individual and specific to each person. The thing to take into consideration is an individual’s chronotype. We all have a circadian cycle which is specific to oneself. Built into your body circadian clock is when you should be going to sleep or waking up.

What are the links between nutrition and sleep?

When you are sleep deprived, it affects your metabolism and so you crave sugary foods and carbohydrates. You then become reliant on sugar and caffeine to get you going in the morning and you get stuck in a cycle of overeating. People are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes if they have poor sleep; it’s a vicious cycle.

Craving sugar is a problem, as is caffeine which is hidden in a number of things such as tea, chocolate and energy drinks. People that struggle sleeping, I tell them not to have caffeine until after midday. The level of caffeine in your blood will halve every five hours. If you are topping that up then it will have an impact on your sleep.

Why do we wake up in the night?

People wake up due to their sleep hygiene. Perhaps they need a wee, their phone goes off, or their partner is snoring. There are certain things you can do to adjust your environment. It is best to go back to your relaxation technique and the state where you can drop off to sleep.

Do something quiet for 15 minutes until you are tired and sleepy and ready to fall back off to sleep again. For most people it shouldn’t be a regular issue, but if it is then something needs to be addressed.

What is sleep debt?

There is a concept of accumulating sleep debt that you have to repay at some stage. If you have been working to a deadline, it is a very real phenomenon to get your catch up on the weekend. It is not a helpful way, you will be chronically sleep deprived for 5 days out of 7. It is not good for you in the long term.

Do power naps work?

If you have insomnia, it is the wrong thing to do. But for people that have had a disruptive night sleep, a nap has been shown to improve all sorts of things. Similarly, with athletes if you have a big game or event in the evening, having a nap will then get you ready for the next stage. If you’ve woken from slow wave deep sleep, you can feel groggy and terrible. Short naps are refreshing! Check out our tips to help you power nap your way to running success.

Try these sleep tips

  • Sleep hygiene is important, so make sure you are the right temperature and have the right mattress.
  • Make sure you are not exposing yourself to blue light, which comes from smart phones. Diarise on paper, so you can shelve any concerns.
  • Have half an hour before sleep, and have a warm shower, before a drop in temperature which makes your body release melatonin.
  • Read a book, something calm and quiet.
  • Get out of bed if you’re not asleep within 15-20 minutes. Only go back to the bedroom when you are ready.
  • Use the bedroom only for resting and restorative sleep. These techniques are far better than sleeping tablets.
  • Try meditation. Even 10 minutes just concentrating on your breathing can really help. Insomnia is a persistent state with multiple awakens, with the inability to fall back asleep. Addressing that is important for people’s quality of life.

For more tips, read our article on how to get to sleep more easily.

A sleep physician at the centre for human health and performance at 76 Harley Street, Dr Jim Brown treats sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea and pathological disorders such as insomnia. For a formal sleep study to optimise your health and performance visit

Join now for free!

Get fitter, stronger, faster with The Running Bug.

Trending now

  1. How to get buns of steel: 5 easy steps for runners

  2. Everything you need to run your first 10K race

  3. 6 benefits of running for just 30 minutes

  4. 30 day core challenge

You might also like


You must be signed in to view or add comments.

Sign in or Join


Oops, something went wrong.