ultrarunning overnight

Ultrarunning Overnight: Keys to Slaying the Sleep Monster

By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

As the summer racing season is in full swing, many trail and ultrarunners are taking to the challenge of overnight FKTs, 200 milers and other trail adventures spanning more than 48 hours. These longer ultras present a unique challenge of managing alertness and wakefulness as time passes. Managing the inevitable Sleep Monster and his powerful grip becomes a primary issue to contend with, particularly when the event goes into a second night.  Sleep loss from ultra endurance events will affect your performance; it is simply a matter of how much and for how long. Manage it right, and it’s merely a yawning inconvenience. Screw it up, and you will be sleepwalking on the trail and needing to take naps every mile.

Slaying the Sleep Monster is a matter of proper setup, management of caffeine intake early, and proper timing of any naps taken along the way. Do it right and hallucinations will merely be optional and relatively benign. If you actually want that experience similar to your college, um… experimenting days, complete with dragons, fairies and the like, feel free to basically do the exact opposite of the plan below. I won’t judge, but please tell me your story afterwards!

Caffeine: To abstain or not?

It is well documented that there is no need to abstain from caffeine in order to elicit a boost in performance (Gonçalves 2017). To the contrary though, abstinence from caffeine can improve alertness and mood following its reintroduction (Addicott 2009). Since multi-day ultrarunners are mainly using caffeine to improve their alertness, abstaining from caffeine in the week prior is a plausible strategy, so long as it does not impair overall sleep (and that is a big caveat, see below). So, if you have experience abstaining from caffeine and it does not affect you, go ahead and feel free to do so in the week or even few days leading up to the race. If you are unsure, or know doing so will affect your overall sleep, it is best to keep your normal routine as the potential benefit is minimal.

Start by Sleeping

If you know your event is going into two consecutive nights, do yourself a favor in advance and bank some sleep in the nights preceding nights the race. While the experts debate on the semantics of a ‘sleep bank’ vs. ‘sleep extension’, the concept in this context is essentially the same. Simply sleep more than you normally would in the 2 or 3 nights prior to the race.  I recommend my athletes stay in bed for at least 10 hours for 3 nights prior to an event. While the research is a bit messy on the exact time period and number of days sleep should be extended to elicit an improvement in performance (Kamdar 2004, Mah 2011, Taub 1971), spending a few extra hours in bed for a few days is a low cost, high reward piece of insurance against the Sleep Monster.

Early On, Keep Caffeine in Check

As you start your day, stick with your normal daily caffeine routine. This means a cup of coffee or two at breakfast if you are a habitual coffee user, even if you have chosen to abstain in the weeks leading up to the event. However, keep it at that. Caffeine from gels, chews and other sports nutrition products should be avoided once you leave the starting line. Continue avoiding all caffeine for the first 24 hours.

Forgo sleeping on the first night

Trust me, you can do it. You can suck it up and go through the entirety of night one without a nap if you have properly extended your sleep and are not on the caffeine train for the entirety of day one. Expect to feel like crap sometime around 2-4 AM, or as many ultrarunners will call it ‘the witching hour’. It’s common during this timeframe to be at your worst, so realize what you are getting yourself into and just deal with it. At a biological level, between 2 and 4 AM is where you normally would be in the deepest part of sleep. Consequently, this time on race day (or is it night or early morning?) is when you have to fight hardest to stay awake. If at all possible, continue to abstain from caffeine until closer to sunrise.

Once the sun comes up, it is finally time to indulge in some caffeine. Consume anywhere from 3 mg/kg – 9 mg/kg from coffee, gels, other sports nutrition products or some combination of all of the above within 60-90 min. If this if your first overnight foray, feel free to split the difference in this range. Performance benefits from caffeine can be seen with as little as 3 mg/kg and diminish above higher doses above 9 mg/kg (Goldstein 2010). Additionally, there is a genetic component of caffeine metabolism (Cornelis 2016, Southward 2018), so exact dosing should be individualized based on your previous experience. This sets up Day Two with a similar degree of stimulation as Day One, giving your body a small amount of consistency.

Day Two doldrums

Day Two is where things will start to get weird. Many athletes will go through a sleepiness phase sometime in the middle of the day, after they have been awake and running for longer than 30 hours. Other athletes easily can move into the next night without this phenomenon affecting them. In either case, your strategy is the same: keep moving forward. A splash of cold water on your face from a stream helps more than you’d imagine.

Night two: time your nap

Going into Night Two, you are going to need to plan your first siesta. The strategy is simple: go as far as you can so that your wakeup is timed as close to sunrise as possible. This might mean that you push all the way to 2-4 AM before allowing yourself to sleep. Plan on laying down for between 40 and 60 minutes total. This is enough time for you to set up in your space blanket or emergency bivouac (see below), toss and turn for a few minutes, zonk out for about 30-40 min and then get back on the trail.

While 40 to 60 min does not seem like a lot of time, realize that you are trying to recover your cognitive abilities more so than your physical ones. During periods of sleep deprivation or restricted sleep, many sleep deprivation studies point to about a 2-4% performance decline for endurance activities like running (Varra 2018, Science Daily 2016) but much greater declines for cognitive and skill-based tasks (Fullagar 2016). From a practical standpoint, this means any sleep during longer endurance activities should be focused on restoring your cognitive and motor skill function, and a little nap will go a long way.

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Set up your nap space

I prefer runners take a trail nap rather than use an aid station for slumber. While I know a cot or sleeping bag might sound nice, even luxurious, the energy and noise of most aid stations is counterproductive to a good night’s… errr… minutes’, sleep. Even seeing your crew tends to perk runners up so much so that they can’t take advantage of the time they are setting aside. So, if at all possible, bust out that mandatory space blanket or emergency bivouac (or both) you’ve been forced to carry around for the last two days and put it to good use. Set the timer on your watch, sleep up to an hour if you can, but once you wake up, wake up and get going.

Get up and get going

Once your alarm goes off, or you are forced up by your pacer or the cold, it’s time to get up and get going. A good dose of caffeine will be in order by this point, so indulge in some of the finest instant coffee, NoDoze or whatever caffeinated sports nutrition product you can get your hands on (with the same dosing mentioned above). Above all else, commit to get moving. Nothing will wake you up more than making progress down the trail.

Slaying – or at least managing – the Sleep Monster is a critical part of success in multi-day ultrarunning challenges. You can’t run forever without sleep, but managing your habits, efforts, and caffeine intake can help you keep running through the night.

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Comments 5

  1. Pingback: How to Train for a 200-Mile Ultramarathon - CTS

  2. Pingback: 200+ Mile Sleep Methods: Grime Napping 101 – DaoAio

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  4. Interesting, but what about those of us who can’t get through that first night without caffeine tablets (me being one)? I have tried on several occasions, with sleep banking, with poor results – needing multiple short naps, eyes closing and falling asleep while walking – while a combination of sleep banking plus a couple of judicious caffeine tablets has made all the difference.

  5. Well, that’s a great article and the suggestions might apply to most situations. This said I do believe the majority of Barkley Marathon participants would disagree with your statement “Manage it right, and it’s merely a yawning inconvenience.”

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