sleep and athletes

A Smarter Way for Ultrarunners to Combat Sleep Deprivation

By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

With longer events such as FKTs, multi-day adventures and personal projects all the rage, many athletes are wondering what they can do to become better while being sleep deprived. We all know athletes who can seemingly run for two (or even three) consecutive nights without issue. Navy SEALS are renown for the ability to stay up for 5 days with little or no sleep during training. And, solo winners of RAAM have been known to sleep as little as 2 hours a night for 8 nights in a row.  The opposite side of the spectrum exists as well, as we all know athletes who seemingly can’t go through one night without sleep and constantly look for excuses for a dirt nap.

When you are trying to run from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, there is an obvious aversion to going zero miles an hour while curled up in a sleeping bag. As a result, many athletes try to train specifically to stave off sleep as long as possible, or to minimize the amount of sleep needed to complete their goal. Some try overnight runs and others simply stay up for a couple of days in a row, powering thorough life with a few extra cups of coffee. Many feel that the experience of being a new parent better prepares them for sleep deprivation. This begs the question CAN you actually improve this aspect of performance?

Is there some physiological improvement you can create in training that stimulates your body to adapt and become better when sleep deprived? The answer is a resounding no. You can’t train sleep deprivation simply by going on an overnight run, like you train a muscle to be stronger by lifting heavier weights. The strategies mentioned above are experiential. They will help you grow accustomed and familiar with the sensation of sleep deprivation, which can be helpful, but whether or not you the experience actually makes you better at performing while sleep deprived is another question entirely.

Therefore, I advocate that athletes only do one or two overnight runs at the very most, and sometimes not at all. The toll you pay for these bouts of sleep deprivation are high, and the benefit is slim to none.

So, what can you do?

Sleep Extension

While you might not be able to ‘train’ sleep deprivation in a classic way, you can undertake strategies in advance of an overnight event to help mitigate issues. Sleep extension (sometimes referred to as sleep banking) is a simple and effective way to improve any performance where sleep deprivation might become an issue. Researchers have studied this strategy for decades and have found that in general, one week of extending sleep by as little as an hour per night can improve cognitive function and performance. Additionally, and more relevant for longer ultramarathons, sleep extension appears to have a positive effect on performance during sleep deprivation bouts that occur immediately after the extension, particularly from a cognitive perspective. This is great news for anyone going into a >24 hour event where decision making, navigation and mood will be important for success.

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How to do it

Fortunately, sleep extension is easy. Most research protocols have centered around a 1- to 2-week sleep extension protocol where total time in bed is 10 hours/night. If the time commitment is problematic for you, don’t fret. There does appear to be a linear dose response for sleep extension protocols up to 10 hours. Meaning, if you habitually sleep 7 hours, even an extension of 1 hour for one week will have some positive effect. While I would love for every athlete that I work with to be able to sleep 10 hour a night, let’s face it, it’s a time suck. From a practical point of view, what I have had my athletes do is target 9 hours of sleep per night for 2 weeks leading up to a big overnight race.  To get to the 9 hours, it’s preferable and usually the most practical (but not necessary) to get to sleep earlier as opposed to staying in bed longer. Nine hours of sleep a night for one week seems to have a moderate and tangible effect on their ability to stay awake and alert during an overnight event, provided that they weren’t chronically sleep deprived to start out with. Nine hours per night also blends the efficacy of the sleep extension without being too intrusive on one’s daily schedule, so it’s a win all the way around.

If you are undertaking an event this summer that will require you to go a whole night or more without sleep, skip the sleep deprivation training and slay the sleep monster a smarter way. Rearrange your schedule so you can sleep more leading up to the event.  Keep it simple, add one to two hours to your normal sleep routine for at least one week.

Comments 2

    1. Agree with Mike W. Particularly as we age this does become a struggle. At 63 I LOVE getting into bed for a nights rest. What I don’t love is waking up at god knows what hour and not being able to get back to sleep. I’m pretty happy to lounge in bed for a bit in the morning but I’d much prefer it if my mind didn’t start thinking about things and just let me sleep. Theory makes sense but in practice it’s a little more difficult. Training for sleep…now there’s something we need to figure out 😊

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