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The Better Sleep Guide for Runners: The Science on Why, How to, and Natural Supplements


You hear it often – sleep is essential to your recovery from training and ultimately your running performance (not to mention your overall health).

That said, how many of us really make getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night a true priority?

And for those of us that do, how often are we actually successful when you factor in kids, work, needing to get up early to train, not being able to fall asleep, etc.?

As someone who has made sleep a priority this year, I fully appreciate all the difficulties that come with getting a solid 8 hours of sleep every night.

So, in this article we’re going to first look at data on how much sleep actually impacts your recovery and performance (both positively and negatively) and then examine some researched-backed ways you can improve the quality of sleep you are able to get.

After reading this article, you’ll have a more comprehensive understanding of the exact reasons sleep is so critical and some concrete ways you can improve yours.

Why Exactly Does Sleep Matter so Much for Runners?

I’ll repeat my first sentence from this article – you hear all the time how important sleep is to your recovery, performance and overall health.

But, what does that actually mean?

I know for me, general statements like that don’t translate well to my brain. I need to understand the exact issues it causes and the science behind what’s going on.

It’s like when you hear that running slow helps you race faster. Everyone says it, but until you understand the science behind it, it’s a hard philosophy to adhere to.

So, let’s look at some of the research on exactly how a lack of sleep impairs your recovery and performance and how much adequate sleep can help you.

Improved Recovery through Increased Blood Flow

The first thing to remember about recovery is that in order to repair the muscle damage caused by training, you need to give your muscles the nutrients they need to rebuild. The body does this through the blood.

Therefore, the more blood you can circulate through to your damaged muscles, the more nutrients you can deliver and the faster you’ll recover.

Studies have shown that as you fall into the deeper stages of sleep, your muscles will see an increase in blood flow compared to REM sleep or when you’re awake.

This is another reason we want to track the time you spend sleeping in different “stages” since you may be getting enough total sleep, but not enough deep sleep to improve the recovery processes.

Increased Hormone Production

Another critical function that occurs during deep sleep is the pituitary gland releasing growth hormones into the body.

Growth hormones are one of the most efficient and effective ways that our bodies muscle repair and growth.

When you don’t get sufficient deep sleep, the secretion of this growth hormone declines, and it can become harder for your body to recover from injuries.

Conversely, insufficient sleep could result in higher levels of catabolic hormones responsible for energy production.

If you have ever been completely exhausted but couldn’t fall asleep, or if you did sleep yet woke up not feeling completely rested, it could be the result of elevated sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity and higher levels of the hormone cortisol.

The SNS releases cortisol, which helps convert free fatty acids into energy for exercise. However, when glycogen is in low supply, cortisol can also convert amino acids into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which inhibits muscle growth.

Reduced Inflammation

The hormone prolactin, which helps regulate inflammation, is also released while sleeping.

If you don’t get enough sleep, you’re more likely to experience inflammation in the body, which can make recovery more difficult while also putting you at risk of further injury.

Direct Performance Benefits

While most discussion about sleep focuses on recovery, there have been some more recent studies on how much improved sleep can improve performance and the physiological effects a lack of sleep can have on your performance.

Take for example this 2016 study that demonstrated athletes who underwent 6 nights of sleep extension improved time to exhaustion and a lower rating of perceived exertion during exercise.

Likewise, this 2009 study confirmed the opposite; sleep deprivation lead to a reduction in time to exhaustion and, for runners, resulted in needing more oxygen at rest and when training.

Tips and Strategies for Better Sleep

Now that we have some concrete data to help us better comprehend the positive impact sleep can have on our performance and recovery, let’s look at some easy-to-implement strategies that can help you improve your sleep quality.

I’ve tried quite a few tips and tricks for getting better sleep and these are the four that helped me the most…

Setup tracking

The first thing I recommend to anyone, even if you don’t have trouble sleeping, is to start tracking your sleep.

If there’s one thing we know about improving sleep, it’s that the same tactics, tricks, and supplements aren’t going to work for everyone.

Tracking is therefore critical to understand what is working and what isn’t working for you.

You’ll want to track (1) total time spent sleeping; (2) time spent in different phases of the sleep cycle; and (3) the number if times you wake up each night.

Each of these is important to understanding what issues you’re having with sleep and thus the best measures you can take to improve them. Plus, you have an easy way to tell what’s working for you and what’s not.

Luckily, there are devices on the market today that make tracking sleep easy. My favorite is Whoop because it’s super accurate and comfortable, plus it tracks a ton of other training and recovery related data.

Again, I highly recommend you don’t skip this step and even start tracking your sleep if you don’t have issues, even for just a little while, so you can have a data point should you encounter sleep issues down the road.

Keep Your Bedroom Cold

Your body’s ability to regulate your body temperature plays a critical role during sleep.

This is because your sympathetic nervous system is less excited and calmer in cooler conditions, especially during sleep. Thus, your body needs to drop in temperature by 1-3 degrees to fall and stay asleep effectively.

This leads to deeper sleep.

Moreover, body temperature increases are one of the main reasons you may wake up at night. Thus, keep your room cool and use blankets as needed.

I mentioned testing before and for me, sleeping in a cool room is the number one factor that moves the needle the most when it comes to my deep sleep and number of times waking per night.

Limit Light Exposure (Especially Devices)

You’ve likely heard this advice before, but how often do you consciously put it into practice?

This is one of those “easy and cheap” things you can do to dramatically improve sleep quality if you put your mind to it.

From a scientific perspective, light of any kind suppresses natural melatonin production, which is one of the main hormones our brain uses to signal to our body that it’s time to sleep.

Moreover, blue light (the lights emitted from our cell phones and other devices) has been shown to trick our brain into thinking it is still daytime, disrupting circadian rhythms and leaving us feeling alert instead of tired.

Be conscious for a few days or a week or two of how much time you spend in front of your devices before bed and track how much your sleep improves. I am willing to bet you’ll see a huge improvement in sleep markers with just this change.

Develop a Routine

Speaking of circadian rhythms, one of the most effective methods to being able to get consistent sleep is “training” your circadian rhythms so you’re ready to go to sleep when it’s your scheduled bedtime.

Obviously, sticking to a nighttime routine is easier said than done and there are often factors outside your control. However, in my experience, one of the biggest reasons for not getting sufficient total time of sleep stems from too much time just doing nothing at night or “unwinding”.

Trust me, as someone with 4 children, I understand how tempting it is to be able to final relax once the kids go to bed. However, that extra hour or 90 minutes you spend watching television at night adds up throughout the week and overtime.

Changing this habit isn’t always the easiest thing to do. What helped me was making a conscious decision to turn my nighttime “unwind” routine into a sleep prep routine.

Just like I do with my kids, I have a 15-minute routine before bed that helps me get in the frame of mind that it’s bedtime. I take my supplements (more on that below), get the bed ready and turn off the phone.

It sounds ridiculous, but it’s a great way to remind myself each night to focus on getting to sleep and not waiting time.

Don’t Skimp on a Quality Pillow and Mattress

One of the biggest upgrades I made to my sleep this year was getting a high-quality pillow customized to my sleep position and preferences (like firmness, etc).

This is where tracking came in huge for me, especially since I was making a financial investment to improve sleep.

I went with Lagoon Pillow because they make pillows specifically for athletes and customize them for a ton of different sleeping positions and preferences.

Using my old pillow, my apple watch data showed that I woke up an average of 6 times each night and spent 2 hours in deep sleep.

When I switched to the Lagoon pillow, my average number of times waking dropped to 2 per night and my deep sleep increased by 45 minutes.

That’s a pretty big statistical difference.

I wrote an in-depth piece on the research behind pillow selection and sleep quality here.

Now that I have the data settled for my pillow, I am going to upgrade my mattress next and see how much a difference I can make with that change.

Supplements for Better Sleep

The above tips are the best place to start to make sure you have the building blocks in place for good sleep.

But, if you’re someone who struggles with sleep or has a specific issue (like falling asleep, staying in the optimal deep sleep zones, waking often, etc.) then sometimes you need to look beyond the normal suggestions.

This is where I find natural supplements to be super helpful.

Keep in mind, I am not talking about sleeping pills or other pharmaceutical ways to knock yourself out each night. When I talk about supplements here, I mean natural vitamins, minerals and other compounds your body produces naturally and supplementing with them to improve deficiencies or aid in their production.

Since optimizing sleep has been my one big goal this year, I spent a lot of time gathering information on potential supplements and then doing an in-depth look at the research on each to determine if there was any science to support their efficacy (here’s a look at how I do this).

The following are some of the best natural supplements I’ve found and the research on how or why they work.

Magnesium

Magnesium is the single best “sleep supplement” you can use. It’s supported by countless research studies and impacts sleep, performance, and recovery on multiple levels.

Moreover, studies suggest that 75% of runners are deficient in magnesium, so it is likely a mineral you need to supplement with regardless if you need to improve your sleep or not.

We’ve written an in-depth article on all the research supporting the effectiveness of magnesium for runners here.

But, for a quick recap, research shows that magnesium can…

  • Improve recovery between workouts by reducing the stress intense running causes
  • Help prevent stress fractures because it enhances bone mineral content
  • Reduce the chance of cramping since magnesium is an essential mineral responsible for muscle contractions
  • And help you enter a state of “deep sleep” longer to recover better since it lowers cortisol levels

For me, this a no-brainer and something I have added to my nightly routine.

Zinc

Zinc is another well researched mineral for sleep and made super popular in the early 2000’s thanks to the work of Victor Conte.

Specifically, Conte conducted a study that showed nightly supplementation of zinc improved muscle power and strength and increased levels of free testosterone by nearly 40 pg/mL. For older runners, especially males, this is a huge increase.

Zinc, melatonin, and magnesium were also evaluated in a research study by Rondanelli et al. in 2011 on individuals with insomnia. While melatonin may have aided falling asleep, they believed that magnesium and zinc contributed to the restorative benefits of sleep.

Zinc is important for the metabolism of melatonin (cofactor alert). It has a calming impact on the nervous system and is also known to aid in mental recuperation following stressful events.

GABA

GABA is a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for depressive and sedative actions and is critical for relaxation.

Low levels of GABA activity in the body can inhibit sleep. In one study, GABA levels in people who occasionally struggle with falling asleep were almost 30 percent lower than in people who sleep well.

If you’re someone who struggles to fall asleep because you can’t relax, then supplementing with GABA may help you fall asleep faster and calm your nervous system. I find it to be very helpful if I train later in the day or evening or after stressful travel.

L-Theanine

L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that is found in tea and other natural sources. The main benefits of L-theanine are associated with promoting a relaxed state without causing drowsiness.

A 2015 study concluded “that the administration of 200 mg of L-theanine before bed may support improved sleep quality not by sedation but through anxiolysis.” Anxiolysis is a level of sedation in which a person is very relaxed and may be awake.

Like GABA, L-theanine is a great natural supplement if you struggle to fall asleep.

Glycine

Glycine is an amino acid that helps lower your core body temperature by increasing blood flow to your body’s extremities. As mentioned in the previous section, lowering your body temperature is a crucial step for high quality deep sleep.

Studies have shown that low-dose glycine (3 g/day) before bedtime subjectively improves sleep quality and reduces sleepiness and fatigue.

Moreover, one study also revealed that the same dose of glycine stabilizes sleep state and shortens the latency to slow-wave sleep, with no alterations in sleep architecture.

Be Careful with Melatonin

You may have noticed I haven’t discussed melatonin yet, which is perhaps the most well-known natural sleep aid.

While melatonin is safe, many sleep experts believe consistent supplementation can cause your body to lower and eventually stop ts own natural melatonin production.

That means you need to take more and more melatonin for it to work and eventually it stops working.

So, I don’t personally use melatonin daily and reserve using it only for “extreme” situations, like when I am trying to combat jet lag.

Recommendations

I realize I recommended quite a few supplements to help with sleep, but I have found in my own experience that supplementing with natural amino acids, minerals and vitamins can really help sleep quality.

I even did deep research dives and tested more than what I listed here, but many “common recommendations” didn’t have any evidence to support their efficacy. Here’s a look at how I research and test supplements, if you’re curious.

When it comes to sleep supplements, you can approach it in two ways: (1) use only when you’re struggling to sleep; or (2) or routinely if sleep is a consistent issue or you want to improve your overall sleep quality. Since everything I have recommended is all natural, there’s no worry about consistent use.

You could take each one of these on their own and be perfectly fine. However, I have found Sleep Breakthrough from BiOpitimzers to be a great way to get all of these recommendations in easily.

It contains each of the supplements I outlined here, doesn’t contain melatonin, and it has the research-supported recommended effective dose for each. They also have a special offer where you can get a bottle of Magnesium included when you purchase, which is a really awesome deal.

Part of making my night time routine easier is not having to worry about taking 5 different supplements. Adding Sleep Breakthrough to my routine has been a really great way to kick my brain into bedtime mode.

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this thorough deep-dive with some actual data on the importance of sleep, recommended tips and tricks, and natural supplements.

I try to make one big change to my health every year and go all-in on systematically improving and this year it’s been sleep. So far, it’s be a really worthwhile focus as I’ve dramatically improved my productivity, how I feel in the morning, and my performance on the roads and in the gym.

I love doing deep dives in the academic literature and seeing what works and what doesn’t. I hope you enjoy reading them as well!



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