Sleeping my way to success

Running is an all-encompassing activity. It is not just about getting out and shaking your legs at each other. It involves the food you eat as fuel, your heart and lungs, the dedication, perseverance, and motivation of your mind, your time, and the strength of your entire body. Part of the success of this whole body activity also involves the means to sustain it.

I have written about my Achilles tendinitis that had forced me to cut back my running volume.  With it slowly improving, I was again side-tracked by a sudden bout of stomach flu. Most of my time was spent sleeping and I realized how this is such a natural way for the body to recover.

Running (like strength-training or being sick) is a process of stress and recovery. You force the body to do more than is normal and then allow it to recover. It is in that recovery that the body heals, stabilizes, and grows stronger.

Let Sleeping Children Lie

Recovery – the techniques we can use to help speed up the body’s process of getting back to normal – can seem more common sense than high-tech science. General practices encourage us to drink more water, eat well, limit stress, and get a good night’s sleep.

Giving your body time to recover is key to improvement. People in training for longer distances find that initially their sleep quality improves as they train. Their bodies are comfortably fatigued and they fall asleep without a problem. Often their bodies are in such a balance that they find themselves needing less sleep. As the distances increase and the stress on their body increases, sleep needs increase: both in duration and quality.  In this way, having regular naps helps the body speed up the process of recovery.

Ironically, we often do not have time to sleep more at night. Our bodies establish a regular cycle and our lives and responsibilities (including watching TV)  interfere with increasing this sleep cycle. Having a nap, however, even as short as 10-20 minutes helps the body initiate the process of recovery and healing. (You may need to get your kids and partner on board with this one but when everyone sees how much happier you are they may encourage more than complain.)


Napping seems like something of a luxury; something we would all  do  if we had more time. But once we plan for and schedule a nap, another worry may be that we won’t actually be able to fall asleep. Much like running farther or faster, changing your diet, or lifting more weights, it may be something we need to learn. Our bodies may need to adjust and respond to the signals to relax and rest.

Stopping what we are doing does give our body a break, but real healing and recovery happens when we sleep. Using this as a strategy in our training may help with a faster PR; at very least you will feel better. Having a nap is one of the least-stressful and beneficial ways to help achieve success. It’s hard to say no to something that is so easy.

(Photo credit: stewickie),  (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)


35 thoughts on “Sleeping my way to success

    • I’ve never been a good napper either. When I had newborns and I was supposed to “sleep when the baby sleeps” all I did was toss and turn.
      Now, however, I am learning. The first time I thought there was NO WAY I would fall asleep and I slept a solid 20 min. It takes practice, but it’s well worth it.

  1. I find myself defintely needing more sleep, I think I get at the most 4 hours though and then I’m up to run plus do weights before going to work, so still looking for that balance 😦

    • You sound like me with your schedule. Napping might definitely be something you could try. It really makes a huge difference, especially as you get to the end of the week and your stores get depleted.
      Let me know how it goes!

      • Believe me when I say it is very much depleted, Come the 4th day of these short sleeps and I feel mentally drained. I only worry that If I nap I might not be able to sleep tonight, have you ever had that problem?

      • I did the constant depleted state for years. With young kids on top of this, it really started to affect my mental health and well-being.
        I do set an alarm for my naps. On the weekend I nap early afternoon so I can sleep longer if I need to and it won’t affect my night sleep. It can take some getting used to, but it’s about taking care of yourself, not just “getting it all done.” I’m still learning.

  2. This past weekend I began suffering from pain in my IT bands and I’m not even a real runner. I *run* about 2 miles 2-3x per week and now my IT bands are flaring up? What gives? I told this woman in my office, who like you, is a serious runner, that someone like me shouldn’t be suffering from something like this. It just doesn’t add up. 😦 Lately I can barely walk so that meant skipping ballet class last night.

  3. I’m not a runner, although I sometimes dream about running, I do know about stress and…naps. Restorative and re cooperative, highly recommended by my friend Frances who is in her seventies and able to work circles around people a quarter of her age.

    • I often wonder why it takes us most of our lives, and sometimes considerable stress, to figure out what people in their 70s and 80s happily embrace as the norm.
      Sleep is beneficial for us all, runners and otherwise. We all have enough stimuli and to-do lists to last well over 24 hours. I’m sure 20 min of that could be allotted for restoration.

  4. Ahhh… sleep and recovery. Why is it so hard to do when we know it is so important? Today I left work early because I didn’t feel well and came home to sleep for 3 hours! That is so unlike me but as you said, it’s the body’s way of getting back to a normal state. I’m going to try and get a little extra R&R before next weekend. Hope you’re feeling better!!!

    • Starting to feel better. If nothing else am back on my feet and running. A little sluggish, but it’s also that part of training where everything feels sluggish.
      Definitely take it easy as much as you can. If you are sleeping for 3 hours, your body is aching for the rest.

  5. I first discovered the principle of “micro-sleeping” (my own term) in college, while carrying 20 hours a semester, working a part-time job, and running a lab at night as an undergrad RA…this left me only three hours to sleep in a block, obviously not enough. Then I learned how a series of 15-20 minute naps spread through the day could help ward off fatigue and sustain my health. I got the idea from reading a biography of Thomas Edison, who (so far as anyone could tell) worked around the clock his entire adult life, sleeping in little fits like this exclusively. I would not recommend this lifestyle, but the healing power of a focused power-nap has saved my life and my sanity time and again!

    • It’s amazing what the body can do to learn to adapt to odd schedules and demands. I also think the power-nap is a great restorative mechanisms. Certainly living on a few hours of sleep a night is not sustainable for long, but the power nap is not to be underestimated, especially when you can teach your body to fall into deep REM sleep quickly.

  6. I read an article a while back talking about power naps. The point of this nap is not necessarily to sleep, but to allow your mind and body to rest. It said that each person has a magic length that will leave them refreshed, but not drowsy between 15 and 20 minutes. Mine might be 16 minutes, where someone else’s might be 18 minutes. Now if only my office would support an afternoon power nap instead of afternoon coffee!

    • I think in our society we don’t often know how to allow our body/mind to rest unless we completely turn off: sleep. It’s true that too much sleep will leave a person drowsy, but that’s the part about figuring out how much rest you need and how quickly you can teach your body to get into that state.
      The first time I did this I was convinced that there was no way I would sleep. I set my alarm for 30 min and actually managed to sleep for 20. The next time, on the weekend, I tried again (no alarm) and slept for 60 min. The body will do what it needs to restore itself.
      I also agree that pull out beds would be much more effective than caffeine in the afternoon hours.

  7. If there’s one thing I am really terrible at in life, it’s sleeping… but PRACTICING sleep.. this a revelation. Of course I can train myself to sleep. I learned how to do lots of other things, right? Food for thought. If I become well rested at some point in my life, all credit goes to you.

    • Jen,
      It definitely takes practice. And after kids and the million times you wake up at night, or can’t sleep because of the million things you are thinking about, I honestly believe you have to learn how to do it again.
      Set a date, set the alarm, and go work at resting.

    • Indeed.

      I’m off to have a nap…. just after I finish my work day, and get to daycare to pick up my kids, and get us all home, and make dinner, and do dishes, and … and … and ..

  8. Pingback: Very Inspiring Blogger Award | therunningtherapist

  9. Pingback: 10 Steps to Help You Get a Great Night’s Sleep | dominicspoweryoga

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