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Why sleep is an important part of marathon training

Insight into the power of sleep in the run-up to a marathon

Why sleep is important

Nick Littlehales, an elite sports coach who has trained the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, wants to change the way you sleep. We spoke to him about how to maximise sleep – an often over-looked part of any sports training – to ensure you’re in the best possible shape for race day.

Here are the five key things we learned…

1. It’s not about getting your eight hours

“If you ask an athlete how many hours they try and get for sleep, they'll come up with the number eight,” says Nick. But this is just one of those unexamined beliefs that doesn’t stand up to the facts. A single human sleep cycle lasts 90 minutes and, says Nick, you need to make sure you get five of them in every 24-hour period. But they don’t all have to be at night. He works with many athletes who get three or four cycles in at night and then one or two during the day. The key is to make sure you get all five – and that they’re good quality.

2. Quality’s more important than quantity

“There are certain stages of sleep in a 90-minute cycle that are considered to be far more restorative and rejuvenative, which are called the ‘deeper sleep stages’,” says Nick. “To get into that stage your brain has to be very, very comfortable. You have to treat it well during the day, everything has got to be pointing in the right direction.” It’s all about setting the stage so you can get the best out of your shut-eye and avoid anything that will pull you out of it. “That could be temperature – you're getting too hot in bed,” says Nick. “You're still digesting food because you ate too soon before bed or ate the wrong types of foods. You didn't empty your bladder enough or you've over-hydrated, so you're building fluids in the bladder and you're going to wake up to go to the toilet. You could still have thoughts going on in your head about whether you’ve prepared for this or that and what you need to do tomorrow.”

3. You need to get off your phone

“The human being's interaction with the blue light from the sun triggers two hormones in our bodies through the pineal gland,” says Nick. “One is serotonin, which tells the brain to put you in an awake state. Then [in the absence of blue light] it triggers melatonin, which tells the brain to move you towards a sleep state. If you're not interacting with that process and not understanding how that process works, you can get completely out of sync, which makes it even more difficult to get into a recovery state and get the benefits from it.” One key thing you can do is give yourself a tech break. “If you're going into the evening and constantly exposing yourself to artificial lights and tech that's emitting blue light and you're not having some sort of break from that, then you're going to make it even more difficult to get to those deeper sleep stages. You’ll have got a hormone in your head that's telling your brain to be awake and not asleep.”

4. Don’t let your training mess with your sleep

“In our 24/7 culture we're quite happy to do full time jobs and also train to be marathon runners, but the commitment it takes to do both is huge,” says Nick. “And then you can end up just pushing it too hard.” The result is that many people end up using stimulants like caffeine to get over excessive fatigue, and then needing to calm themselves down at night. “They might delve into the world of sleeping tablets to force themselves to sleep. Those things used to be prescribed by a doctor for a very short period of time, but now you can get those things online without any prescription, so a lot of athletes are tapping into them.” If you train so hard that you’re not getting good quality sleep, it may be counterproductive.

5. Be smart about the night before the marathon

It’s natural to think that you absolutely need to have a brilliant night’s sleep the night before the marathon. But the reality is that a lot is stacked against this happening. “Marathon runners will be high on adrenaline the night before, motivated to do well, maybe anxious that they might not finish or that they've got goals and times to achieve and charities to support,” says Nick. The first step is accepting that it’s going to be difficult to sleep – and that forcing it or worrying about it won’t help. The next is to think not in terms of the night before but the week leading up to the marathon, and to try to make sure you get those five 90-minute cycles every 24 hours. “You might have this mindset of, ‘Oh my god, I want to get ten hours in because I need all of this recovery because I've got 26 miles to run,’ when actually if you just approached it terms of quality rather than quantity you’d be better off,” says Nick.

Nick Littlehales is the author of ‘The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps... and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind’, available from Amazon.

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