Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sleep and Recovery

Recovery: It's the biggest deal in running today. The better and faster you are able to recover from a hard effort, the stronger and sooner the next hard effort may be. But recovery is not just for the body - it effects your mind and motivation and coping skills just as much.

Recently, I've been suffering from temporary mild freak-out episodes, where everything feels like it's coming down around my head: I don't have a moment to think, to write, to reflect, to enjoy life. I'm just going going going...and I proclaim, for all to hear, that something must give or else I will snap.

What the hell is my problem? I've got a good life: A loving and supportive family. A job (actually multiple jobs) that I find rewarding and stimulating (usually). I've carved out time for my passionate pursuits - and yet, I feel just plain w-o-r-n  d-o-w-n to the bone.

What I've come to recognize and accept is that I am not getting enough shut-eye! Sleep often is sacrificed for so called "greater ends" - but at some point you hit the wall. You drag yourself through your day. There's no vim, no vigor in your spirit - You are unable to sort through the moments and happenings of your days and weeks. You feel completely overwhelmed.

We runners spend so much time talking about ice baths, and recovery drinks, and foam rollers, etc. but we're missing THE most important part of recovery. Perhaps it's the key to a flourishing life. A necessary, though perhaps not entirely sufficient ingredient for a good life: adequate, quality sleep!


How fast and how well you recover between hard workouts can make or break a training cycle. Recover well and quickly, and you may reap the benefits of hard runs. Recover poorly, and find yourself slipping into over training, exhaustion, depression...and ever slowing times even with greater effort.

Many runners succumb to the idea that if I just keep working harder I will get stronger, faster - I will become awesome - I just need to do more, run faster...If one VO2Max workout isn't bringing down my times, then I'd better add another. I've just gotta get my lazy butt in gear and push, push, push. But the question is: Does this approach really work?

Work, stress, effort - without recovery means only that you will tear yourself down and never build yourself up. The benefit of a particular run is both the work (which will result in muscular micro-tears) and the rest that allows stressed muscle to heal and become stronger in the process. If that healing does not happen, you will only get weaker, slower, and more susceptible to injury - and of course you're going to be depressed because the harder you work the crappier you feel!

Recently I attended a weekend Coach Training seminar with the Lydiard Foundation. We spent a fair amount of time on recovery and the 12 significant predictors of recovery. Dr. Peter Davis, who served as Exercise Physiologist beginning in 1981 with Nike's Athletics West and later (among other notable appointments) was recruited by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to direct their Coaching and Sport Sciences Division, made a comment that cut through the air and hit me square between the eyes: Sleep is the number one, most important factor for recovery. And it is the most under recognized factor today, for everyone, for health and well being.

Now, I've known for a long long time that I haven't really given sleep its due, and I always say "tomorrow night I'll go to bed earlier", but let's face it - that doesn't happen. But this comment shook me from my dogmatic overachieving insomnia, and caused me to dig deeper and find out more. Could this be one of my problems?

So, what are some of the effects of sleep deprivation?

Nervous system
  • Metabolic activity of the brain decreases significantly after 24 hours of sustained wakefulness
  • Drowsiness, reduced concentration and memory
  • Hallucinations and mood swings
Immune system
  • Reduced immune system function, measured by white blood cell count.
Cardiovascular system
  • Increased heart rate variability
  • Decreased in body temperature
  • Decrease release of growth hormone.
  • Depression

And here's the kicker - while most adults require at least 8 hours of sleep per day, athletes require more, upwards of 8-10 hours of sleep per night. Add to this that research also indicates that all sleep is not equal - WHEN you get the sleep matters - and the more sleep you can get before 12 a.m. the better. So sleeping from 9 p.m.- 6a.m. allows for a better, more restorative sleep than sleeping from 12 a.m.- 9 a.m.

The problem here is not a couple nights of bad sleep. The problem is when we consistently get inadequate sleep. In our go-go-go culture, this is often the case for many of us. We make due and get by on 4-5 hours of sleep and solider on. I've heard many many runners say "You can sleep when you're dead". But this attitude is undermining all of our other efforts! Overtime, long term inadequate sleep results in changes in hormone levels, particularly those related to stress and how we deal with stress, muscle recovery, and mood. Sleep deprivation also leads to elevated levels of cortisol and human growth hormone which may interfere with tissue repair and growth, and glycogen synthesis decreases. Hence, there's a constant breakdown with out the necessary rebuilding and refueling. Over time, this can lead to injury and overtraining as we constantly make demands on our bodies but never allow for repair to take place.

So I'm doing EVERYTHING I can do to get more sleep. If it means I don't have the cleanest house in the world, so be it. If it means I need to scale back on some activities, then that's what it's gotta be. It isn't easy. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But I've been consciously and conscientiously working on this for a several weeks - and the effort continues...

Get stronger - be happier - sleep more. Start today!


Here's some interesting studies and articles on this subject:,7120,s6-238-267--13281-0,00.html


  1. Great post! I have been building up my miles the last month and have felt so tired on my normal 6-7 hours of sleep. I almost feel guilty (lazy!) sleeping more than seems like society today almost views sleep as a weakness. I realize that just as i have been careful with nutrition and building miles for my fall marathon, i should also be sleeiping more.

  2. Society seems to view productivity and accomplishment over self-care of any kind, even in its most basic form -- sleep.

    When I'm assessing client's one of the first thing I ask about it sleep. It has so much to do with so much.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. I've seen this post's title for a few days and saved it to read when I had proper time. This was a kick in the pants I needed too. I love sleep, but often at night there are things that come up that I give a higher priority. Not this training cycle! 9:30 p.m. will be my goal every night, and when I can, 9 p.m.

    How are you doing with this four days after your post, by the way?

    1. Well, this has been a month long process - and I have to say that I'm doing better, but still not good. One problem I have is with dealing with the noise of other people. Case in point: Sunday is my day to sleep in. This morning I was woken up at 6 by a guy training his hunting dog in the open space that my house backs to. He's been out a bunch early in the morning and he uses a training whistle (blowing it constantly) and yelling commands at his dog! Barking dogs (we have lots in the neighborhood) and music and planes! Oy. I think I need a white-noise machine.

  4. I have to hand it to you runners that have young children and jobs with strict schedules. I have NO idea how you guys do it!

    I feel I need a lot of sleep and am very fortunate be able to get all I need. Luckily I don't have any little kids at home(son is grown & on his own in NYC) and I have a nice, undemanding boyfriend that lives 10 miles away in his own house.

    Not sure how active I would be if I had to actually look after people. Hopefully, your focus on this will equal you feeling more rested and refreshed.

    and that really sucks about the guy with the training whistle.

    1. I often think about my life before kids and a mortgage and the freedom I had then - and I did that for a long time. I do wish I had more time in my day and didn't feel like I'm always running in a million different directions, and I do envy those who have the luxury to not work - and around Boulder there are a lot of those - And I'm not talking about stay at home moms because that is work (!), But what can you do? I think the frazzled state I've been in is more my own doing and my attitude. I'm trying to change that. Old habits are hard to break.

  5. How does this work for someone who works night shift (midnight-8am)? I usually go to bed around 9:30am and sleep until my body wakes me up (no alarms clocks unless I have a meeting or something). Some days that might be 5 hours, some days that might be 10 or more. It does make for some interesting marathon days, as my bedtime usually falls halfway through the race... but it comes in handy for driving overnight to events instead of paying for a hotel LOL.

    1. I don't have the answer on this one since I'm not the sleep expert, I'm just reporting the results - But it probably means that you need more sleep because it generally will not be as good. There's been lots of research on 2nd, and especially 3rd shift workers, and the research all suggests, at least for 3rd shifters, that their life span is reduced! That's obviously not good news, but it's also a reality for our 24 hour culture. Obviously some things need to be done 24/7 (hospitals), but do we really need Slurpies as 3 a.m.??? I think we all need to look at this closely and decide what we are and are not willing to sacrifice for our jobs - That's individual, need driven, and difficult!!!


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