Advice for Sleep-Deprived RunnersPosted on Aug 25th 2009 4:00PM by Jennifer Fields
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I mentioned Moody and her ability to function well on little sleep to Dr. Lewis Maharam, sports medicine specialist practicing in New York and medical director of the New York City Marathon. "That's good for her," he said. "But generally if you're sleep deprived you're not going to do anything as well," he added.
Now, the idea that you actually need sleep to function optimally is probably a big no duh, but what is surprising is that what constitutes sleep deprived really depends on you. "Everyone is a research project unto themselves," says Maharam. "Some people really need eight and 10 hours of sleep, some only need six. It's up to you to figure out what you need to perform your best." Good news for you late-night TV fans, like myself: If you've been forcing yourself to go to bed earlier thinking that additional miles requires additional sleep that may not be the case.
Another surprising finding from my talk with Maharam was regarding sleep aids, which until now, I thought were a big pre-run no-no. If you worry that your Tylenol PM may slow you down on your morning run, Maharam says to relax. Most over the counter sleep aids, like Tylenol PM and even some prescription ones, like Ambien, are not likely to have a lingering effect on performance. "These are very benign sleep aids that get out of your system quickly and are very helpful in some instances," he says. One caveat: Do not take them the night before a running event because you can't sleep, unless, he says, you always do.
As for why you're not sleeping in the first place? Take a look at your running routine. Running overall can improve sleep, but running close to your bedtime can actually cause insomnia. "When patients come to me and tell me they can't sleep, the first thing I ask them is when they run. Often, the answer is after dinner," Maharam says. "The body needs about one and a half to two hours to cool down, calm down and relax in order to sleep. A run and a hot shower before bedtime won't help with that," Maharam says.
Another culprit in the case of your insomnia could be caffeine. There have been a lot of mixed messages about whether caffeine helps your run, dehydrates you, hurts your heart or slows you down. Maharam says he is "dubious about all caffeine" for these very reasons. But, aware that many runners rely on a Diet Coke or coffee in small amounts for a little extra energy, he cautions that it could be another reason you can't sleep, especially if you're drinking up before an evening run.
Back to that pre-race sleeplessness. The cause is usually anxiety and the fix starts weeks before the race, when you should start mentally rehearsing what will happen on race day. Practice getting up at the same time as you will on the big day, wear the same clothes and follow the same routine. A few weeks of this drill should help alleviate some anxiety.
And if your regular routine happens to include six hours of sleep, a cup of coffee and a Tylenol PM, there's no need to think your performance will suffer for your habits.
Want more help sleeping? Try these 13 tips to sleep well.