How to Improve Your Sleep to Improve Your Running

image.w174h200f3Today’s workout: 6.6 miles easy (8:00 avg pace)  I try really hard to get to bed early. It’s a must when that alarm goes off at 4-something and I’ve got to get up and go run. Some nights my young kids are more needy than others and my husband and I haul our tired bodies out of bed multiple times to attend to them (like last night). I get increasingly cranky after too many of these nights of broken sleep and I know my training suffers.

You may not have small children.   Instead, you may work nights or stay up late for other reasons. Or perhaps you suffer from insomnia or care for others in your home who are awake at all hours.   Whatever the reason, many of us as runners are not getting the amount of sleep we need.

The Importance of Sleep:

Sleep is a critical component of proper recovery for runners. It’s so important that elite runners such as Ryan Hall regularly schedule naps during the day to ensure they recharge before heading out for an afternoon run. (Ryan refers to them as his “business meetings”)

During sleep, we go through several sleep cycles. In the 3rd and 4th cycle the HGH (Human Growth Hormone) is released from the pituitary gland and sends the signal to our body to heal itself.   HGH in its natural form helps to repair muscles and serves as a catalyst to help the body utilize fat for fuel. Without the proper level of HGH in the blood, recovery is impaired and we don’t bounce back from workouts as quickly - so it takes us longer to build our fitness.

Sleep Your Way to a PR?

One of my favorite studies on sleep is the one conducted on the Stanford University basketball team. The study tracked the players from the team for a period of several months where they added an average of two hours of sleep a night. The results were pretty amazing. With no extra training, the players increased their speed by 5% and the accuracy of their free throws by 9%!   I’m sure it’s not exactly the same, but can you imagine being able to improve your marathon time by 5% just by getting extra sleep? For a 3:30 marathoner, that would mean a 10+ minute PR! Sign me up.

How Much Do You Need?

Sleep experts recommend 7-9 hours of sleep for most people, and 8-10 for most athletes. In reality, this number can vary from runner to runner as some folks seem to perform well on less, and others need even more. To discover your own personal sleep needs you’d ideally go to sleep at the same time each night and wake up without an alarm for a week or two and compute the average hours of sleep per night from those results. But since most of us have jobs and/or families and aren’t able to perform this experiment, we can take some cues from our body and try to get as much sleep as we can in order to feel rested.

Quantity vs. Quality:

For those of that that are unable to get the full 8-10 hours recommended, there is some good news: Research has shown that the quality of sleep can be more important than the quantity of sleep.   If you toss and turn all night you may never get into those 3rd and 4th stages of sleep where HGH is released and your body gets what it needs to repair and recharge.

While we may not be able to do anything about the kids waking us up several times a night, let’s look at what we CAN control:

5 Ways To Increase Your Quality of Sleep

  • Set a bedtime – Figure out what time you need to get up in the morning for work or your run and then work backwards from there. If I’m getting up at 5am, I need to aim to be in bed at 9pm to get 8 hours of sleep. While this may not always be possible, it gives me a time to shoot for and an extra kick in the pants when it’s 8:30pm and I’m dragging my feet on doing the dishes.
  • Darken the room – Close all of your blinds and remove (or cover) all electronic devices.   The tiny light on your alarm clock can even be enough to disrupt your sleep cycle.
  • Decrease/eliminate screen time before bed – I struggle with this one.  But studies have shown that the bright light from our tablets, phones and laptops can disrupt the normal nighttime release of melatonin (a key hormone that tells our body it is time for bed) and delay sleep.
  • Utilize a “worry” list – If you find it tough to go to sleep with a million thoughts racing through your head, you might benefit from using a “worry” list. Take a few minutes before bed and do a brain dump – record any worries or items “to do” on a pad of paper before you go to sleep. Getting the thoughts out of your head and recorded on paper may help your brain to settle down and let your mind and body rest peacefully through the night.
  • Create a calming bedtime routine – Try to perform the same series of steps each night before bed – i.e. my routine is to wash my face, brush and floss, spend 10 minutes foam rolling, then read a chapter from my current book. Creating a routine that you perform each night will help signal to your body that it’s time to sleep – allowing you to fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.

I know it’s easier said than done, but getting a good night’s sleep goes a long way into helping us consistently train hard and perform at our best. If you can maximize the quantity and quality of sleep you can get, you’ll be giving yourself the best shot at fully absorbing all the benefits of all that hard work.   And those extra zzzzz’s may just be the difference between a good race and a GREAT one.

7 Motivational Tips for Early Morning Runs

Early morning motivationToday’s workout: 7 miles easy + strength training later at the gym Today was one of those mornings. One of those mornings where that snooze button looks oh-so-tempting and your sleep-deprived brain starts to rationalize why you should skip your run. (“You ran yesterday!” “Skipping ONE run won’t hurt…” “I’m sure you can find time to fit it in later!!”) For me the sluggishness this morning was a result of almost hourly wakeup calls throughout the night by my little ones and the fact that I knew it was going to be HOT and HUMID even at 5am.   Most runners are familiar with our brain’s attempts to sabotage our running schedule, whether through sleeping in or that extra glass of wine or two at dinner the night before a run. But I find that once I’m out the door, the early wake up time and the run itself isn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared – and I’m always proud of myself when I finish those runs that I didn’t particularly want to start.

But there are definitely days like today, where I’m tired and grumpy before I even lace up my shoes, that I need a bit of an extra boost. Here are the tips I reach for when I’m trying to find that motivation to get out the door:

1)   Buddy Up – This is the number one tip for me – and the one that makes it the easiest to get out the door no matter how I am feeling. If I’ve called a friend and promised to meet someone for a run, I’m going to show up.   It’s a lot harder to ignore that alarm when you know someone is waiting on you. And it’s also a happiness boost when you know you’ve got a friend to run with to make the miles fly by.

2)   Set a delayed alarm – I set two alarms each night. One is right by my bed and is at the time I want to wake up. The other one is set for 5 minutes later, and is far enough away that I have to get out of bed and go walk to it. In order not to wake up (and therefore irritate) my husband, I’ve got to turn off the first alarm quickly, and then get out of bed and turn off that second alarm before it goes off. Once I’m up out of bed, it’s easier to get dressed and ready to run.

3)   Shoes on alarm clock – I like this one in theory (the first thing you touch is your shoes so you’d better get up and go run!) and it may work for some folks, but all I’ve managed to do is knock over my shoes in my attempt to turn off my alarm. What I like instead is to lay out everything I need the night before (shoes, socks, outfit, body glide, etc.). I also put out all of my stuff in one spot downstairs (watch, headlamp, water bottle, etc.) so that I can grab it and go without asking my still-sleepy brain to think too much.

4)   Make a playlist – A new music playlist (or Pandora station) or even a great book on tape can sometimes get me through a motivational dry spell. If I know I have new tunes waiting on me in the morning, it’s often enough to make me a bit more excited about getting out the door. If it’s not safe for you to run with headphones where you live, save this one for the treadmill.

5)   Run a new route – I’m pretty limited as to what routes I can run from my house, so occasionally I’ll spice things up by driving 10-15 minutes to run somewhere different. While getting up even earlier to fit in the drive time isn’t always fun, I’m always happy to run somewhere new since it livens things up a bit.  If you don’t have time to drive, try running your normal loop in reverse.

6)   Plan a reward – Know you have a tough week of training coming up?   Or a very challenging workout? Promise yourself a little “reward” for making it through. If coffee or chocolate is your favorite, treat yourself to something yummy. If you’ve been eyeing a new piece of workout clothing (and your budget allows!), go buy it after you knock out a particularly tough week. My “treat” is usually a cup of Starbucks later in the morning after I’ve completed a tough tempo run that I’ve been dreading.

7)   Give yourself a challenge – This can be as simple as “run my standard 5-mile loop a minute faster than yesterday” or “spot 5 different animals on my run”. I was lacking in motivation recently and decided to issue myself the challenge of taking a photo (using my phone) of something on each run that made me smile or that I’d consider beautiful.

These are some of the things that work for me, but I’d love some more ideas!

What tricks do you use to get yourself up and out the door when your motivation is lagging?

4 Ways to Maximize Your Running Recovery

Today's workout:  8 miles at recovery pace (today that was avg. pace of 9:19), Body Pump class later on at the gym

Between the speedwork on Wednesday and yesterday’s hilly, hot and humid long run, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that my legs were feeling decidedly less than peppy today.   We’ve all had it happen: You roll out of bed on Sunday morning and instead of feeling ready to go, your legs feel like someone has attacked them with hammers while you slept. The 8-mile run you have planned does not sound the least bit appealing. You know the long-run you had the day before took a lot out of you, but you thought you’d be fine by the morning. What happened? Recovery, or in this case the lack thereof, is the issue.

Throughout our training as distance runners, our bodies are in a constant state of remodeling. We break down our muscles with grueling workouts and place stress on our skeletal system every time we lace up our shoes and head out the door. But the key to getting stronger over time can be summed up in one word: RECOVERY.   Recovery is where the magic happens. It’s where the body adapts and sends the signal to cells to rebuild those muscles and bones into stronger, better versions of themselves. Without proper recovery, you don’t improve – you don’t get faster.

So if we want to be better runners, we need to ask how can we maximize our recovery and give our bodies the best chance they have to repair and rebuild those muscles and bones.   It’s a great idea to practice these recovery tips after every run – but it becomes increasingly important after especially hard workouts, or especially long runs. That’s the time when your body needs the most TLC and you’ll get the greatest recovery “bang for your buck”.

The 4 Keys to Recovery

  1. Refuel:   This is a multi-step process. Hopefully you’ve been properly hydrated and fueled during the run through a mixture of water and possibly a carbohydrate replacement (i.e. Gatorade or gels).   Once you finish the run, it’s time to get serious about refueling.15-30 minutes post-run: Aim to take in some food or drink with both carbohydrates and protein (a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein is ideal). If your stomach can’t handle food directly after your run, try chocolate milk or a protein/recovery drink. I’m a big chocolate milk fan, but also like Picky Bars on the days my stomach seems to be more accepting of solid foods. The key is to get this down right away after your long run or workout. Refueling within that 30-minute window allows your body to replenish glycogen stores at a 50% faster rate.  Which translates into muscles that are less sore and stiff the next day, allowing you to be ready to train again.   Make sure to pack your post-run fuel in a bag or cooler so that you’ll have it ready and waiting for you once you finish your run.2-4 hours post-run: Try to eat a healthy meal to help fully replenish your fuel stores and prime your body for additional recovery.   A good mix of carbs and protein with some healthy fat is ideal. Your body will continue to use those nutrients throughout the rest of the day to rebuild your tired muscles.
  2. Hydrate: Raise your hand if you are tired of hearing “Drink more water!”. Yes, me too. But in the hours after your run it’s one of the best things you can do for your body. Staying hydrated will help keep your muscles bathed in fluid – reducing friction (and therefore soreness).   Experts suggest drinking 20-24oz. of fluid for every pound lost during exercise. If you don't feel like weighing yourself before and after your run, an easier rule of thumb is to continue to hydrate until your urine is a pale lemonade color.
  3. Foam Roll/Massage: The foam roller might be my favorite tool in the recovery arsenal. Formally titled “self-myofascial release”, rolling out your muscles with the foam roller helps break up trigger points and helps coax the knotted, bunched up muscle fibers back into a smoother orientation. Foam rolling all muscle groups helps restore range of motion and keeps you the muscles moving smoothly. It’s definitely a “hurts so good” feeling at times (especially when you hit that IT band!) but it does wonders for returning some pep to your muscles and keeping you injury free. I aim for 10 minutes directly post-run and 10 minutes or so at night before sleep.   Don’t have a foam roller? Time to invest. Good news - they're fairly cheap! Here’s the one I have, but there are a ton of variations (see here, here and here).
  4. Sleep - As athletes, not getting enough sleep has a much bigger impact than simply making us cranky. It decreases our energy, slows our reflexes, and messes with our hormones (specifically the growth hormone responsible for repairing our tired bodies).   It’s crucial that we give our body the amount sleep it needs.   For athletic adults, that’s a recommended 8-10 hours a night. While it may be a challenge for most of us to get to bed early enough to hit that amount (um, yes), it’s a goal worth pursuing. If your schedule allows, you can also take a cue from professional runners and try to nap during the day to give yourself an extra recovery boost.

Sometimes, even though you’ve been a good little runner and done all the steps above, a workout will leave your legs feeling like toast for a few days.   If I’ve followed the steps above and I’m still sore for a day or two after, I’ll reach for my extra special super recovery tips below:

Bonus Recovery Tips – a.k.a. Time to Bring Out the Big Guns

  • Compression socks (or compression shorts/tights) – If my legs are feeling especially beat up post-run I’ll throw these babies on and wear them for an hour or two. The verdict is still out on whether or not these provide a benefit during the run, but research supports that they help speed recovery afterwards.
  • Epsom salt bath – A good friend of mine (and super-fast Olympic trials qualifier) gave me this tip. Buy some Epsom salt (aka magnesium sulfate) from the drugstore and add several cups to a hot bath. Get in and soak for about 15 minutes or so. Your body absorbs the magnesium and sulfates through the skin, and research supports that an increase in magnesium levels helps improve circulation, ease muscle pain and flush out toxins from cells.
  • Hydrotherapy – Have access to a pool? Take the kids or go on your own and get in the water. Active recovery (gentle swimming/walking) in water has been shown to be effective in both reducing muscle soreness and helping to speed the return of the muscles to full strength.   I’m always surprised at how much this method really seems to work.

Trying to improve your running and stay injury free means working all the angles – and proper recovery is a big one. It’s an easier one to neglect since let’s face it – after running for more an hour on any given morning we may not always want to take extra time out of the day to do more running-related stuff. But if you can find a few minutes to foam roll, refuel and hydrate post-run, it’ll make a big difference.   As for me, I’ll be over here drinking my post-run smoothie, foam rolling, hanging out with my trusty water bottle and trying to convince my little daughters to go to bed early so I get just a few more zzzz’s.   Fingers crossed for peppy legs in the morning.

What are your favorite ways to recover post-run?