Running and the Importance of Sleep

Original Editor - Kapil Narale

Top Contributors - Kapil Narale and Alicia Fernandes  

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Running Man and Woman.jpg

Running offers numerous health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, weight management, and enhanced mental well-being. To maximize these benefits and ensure optimal performance, adequate sleep is essential.

Quality sleep supports muscle repair, hormone regulation, and immune function, all crucial for runners. It enhances cognitive functions such as memory, learning, and mood stability, aiding consistent and effective training.[1]

Key reasons sleep is vital for runners include:[2]

  • Physical Recovery: Promotes muscle repair and growth.
  • Injury Prevention: Reduces risk of injuries by allowing the body to heal.
  • Performance Enhancement: Improves coordination and reaction times.
  • Mental Health: Manages stress and anxiety.
  • Metabolism and Weight Management: Supports healthy metabolism.

Despite its importance, runners often get inadequate sleep due to early training, competition stress, and electronic device use before bedtime, leading to diminished performance and recovery.

Marathon Runners[edit | edit source]

In a study by Cook et al (2023), analysing a sample of marathon runners from the 2016 London marathon, generally the age group of 18-39, it was found that marathoners had sleep durations between 6-8 hours, had a time to fall asleep of less than 15 minutes, mostly remained asleep throughout the night, had a quality of sleep that was 'somewhat or very satisfying', and had no sleep-related medication use. The use of sleep tracking devices was uncommon, as was a high alcohol consumption (within 14 drinks per week, most had within 7 drinks per week). Most individuals also reported having within 2 caffeinated drinks per day. In addition, the majority of individuals claimed to use electronic devices within 1 hour of sleeping everyday. [3]

It was seem that males reported a lower sleep duration than females, while females had a higher use of sleep-related medications.

There were significant differences noticed between young adult (18-39 years) and middle (40-64 years) age groups for many sleep health qualities. Middle aged adults had higher overall sleep problems, which seems to have been caused by a higher total sleep time duration, poor sleep satisfaction, and more issues remaining asleep throughout the night. In the middle-aged adults, it was noted that they may have increased stress or medical problems contributing to their disturbed sleep. Younger adults experienced a longer time to fall asleep, which may be a contribution of differing lifestyle factors such as the use of caffeine, alcohol, and technology such as electronic devices and sleep trackers. [3]

Runners who completed the marathon with a slower pace than predicted had a significantly more disturbed or discontinuous sleep throughout the night. There was a significant difference in maintaining continual sleep between males and females, although females did experience more sleep related issues. [3]

It is seen that marathoners who have a slower marathon finish time are associated with a longer time to fall asleep. It is also seen that marathoners with a shorter sleep duration and a more pronounced difficulty with sleep had a longer marathon completion time. [3]

It is interesting to note that elite athletes, in general, experience poorer sleep quality and sleep duration due to times of the day for training, stress and anxiety related to competing, muscle soreness, caffeine use, and travel. Other factors such as nutritional status, environmental aspects, varying time-zones, and general stress, can all contribute to athletic performance, and therefore sleep. [4]

It is noted that an increased strenuous training and competing in endurance events, such as marathon races, can lead to a high risk of infections such as an upper respiratory tract infection. [4]

When considering marathon runners, or even ultramarathon runners, the longer the distance of the race, the more important it is to have an optimal sleep for an improved race performance. [4]


Ultramarathon Runners[edit | edit source]

  • An ultramarathon would have a wide range of definitions, since it encompasses anything more than 42km or 6 hours. [4]
  • In a study by Bianchi et al, comparing sleep of ultramarathoners before, during, and after the race days of a 200mile race, it was found that there was more importance put on sleep during and after the race periods. However, there was less than the 8 hours of recommended sleep prior to and after the race period.
  • In another study by Milner et al, which explored sleep/wake cycles before, during, and after ultramarathon races lasting more than 161km. It was found that there was no sleep taken during these races. However races more than 322km, had more sessions of sleep with a longer duration per session.
  • Thus it was seen that at distances shorter than 161km, consistent running proved more effective than taking sleep episodes. For distances longer than 322km, it may be essential that runners would need periods of sleep for them to successfully move forward in the race. As the race duration increases, the sleep requirement is seen to be higher. [4]

Optimal Conditions[edit | edit source]

Infections can be reduced if marathoners receive sufficient sleep, good nutrition, rest between vigorous training sessions, and preventing contact with ill individuals. Getting sufficient sleep also has an impact with the prevention of musculoskeletal injuries. [4]

Here is a video which indicates the normal sleeping duration, and ways to increase your sleep time:


Caffeine[edit | edit source]

An increased daily intake of caffeine was related to a lower total sleep duration. However, daily caffeine intake (and weekly alcohol intake) led to a faster marathon completion time. [3]

The Role of Running in Health and Fitness[edit | edit source]

Running is one of the most accessible and effective forms of exercise, offering a wide range of benefits for health and fitness. Here's a detailed overview of its advantages, physiological effects, common injuries, and prevention strategies.

Benefits of Running[edit | edit source]

1. Cardiovascular Health[6]

  • Improved Heart Function: Running strengthens the heart muscle, enhancing its efficiency and reducing the risk of heart disease.
  • Reduced Blood Pressure: Regular running helps lower blood pressure by maintaining the elasticity of the arteries.
  • Cholesterol Levels: Running can help manage cholesterol levels by increasing HDL (good cholesterol) and reducing LDL (bad cholesterol).[7]
  • Sleep deprivation, even for only one night, does have effects on cardiorespiratory health. Functions such as heart rate (HR), minute ventilation (VE), oxygen consumption (VO2), decreased within the duration of exercise to exhaustion. However, measurements remained unchanged with submaximal exercise to exhaustion

2. Weight Management

  •   Calorie Burning: Running is a high-intensity exercise that burns a significant amount of calories, aiding in weight loss and maintenance.
  •   Increased Metabolism: Consistent running boosts metabolism, helping the body burn calories more efficiently even at rest.

3. Mental Health[8]

  •  Stress Reduction: Running releases endorphins, which help reduce stress and improve mood.
  • Anxiety and Depression: It has been shown to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression through the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine.
  •  Cognitive Function: Regular aerobic exercise like running can improve cognitive function and delay age-related cognitive decline.

Physiological Effects of Running on the Body[edit | edit source]

  • Musculoskeletal System: Running strengthens muscles, ligaments, and tendons, improving overall musculoskeletal health.[9]
  • Respiratory System: It enhances lung capacity and efficiency, improving oxygen uptake and utilization.[9]
  • Endocrine System: Running stimulates the release of hormones such as growth hormone and insulin, which play roles in muscle growth and glucose metabolism.[9]
  • Immune System: Moderate running can enhance immune function, reducing the risk of infections.[9]

Common Injuries[edit | edit source]


The Science of Sleep[edit | edit source]

Stages of Sleep: REM and NREM[edit | edit source]

Sleep consists of multiple stages, which are broadly categorized into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. NREM sleep is further divided into three stages: N1, N2, and N3.

N1 (Stage 1): This is the lightest stage of sleep, where the body transitions from wakefulness to sleep. It typically lasts 1-7 minutes.

N2 (Stage 2): This stage marks deeper sleep where body temperature drops, muscles relax, and heart rate and breathing slow down. It lasts around 10-25 minutes.

N3 (Stage 3): Also known as deep sleep or slow-wave sleep, this stage is crucial for restorative processes, muscle growth, and immune function. It lasts 20-40 minutes.

REM Sleep: This stage is characterized by rapid eye movements, increased brain activity, vivid dreams, and temporary muscle paralysis. REM sleep is essential for cognitive functions such as memory consolidation and learning. It typically starts about 90 minutes after falling asleep and becomes longer as the night progresses[11]

The Role of Sleep in Physical and Mental Recovery[edit | edit source]

Sleep plays a vital role in physical recovery by promoting muscle repair, growth, and immune function during the deep stages of NREM sleep. It is also crucial for mental recovery, as REM sleep enhances cognitive functions such as memory consolidation, problem-solving, and emotional regulation[12]

Impact of Sleep on Cognitive Function and Overall Well-Being[edit | edit source]

Adequate sleep is essential for maintaining cognitive function and overall well-being. Sleep deprivation can lead to impaired attention, memory, and decision-making abilities. Chronic sleep loss is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia. Sleep quality affects mood, stress levels, and overall mental health, making it a cornerstone of holistic health[13]

Effects of Sleep Loss[edit | edit source]

  • Sleep loss can have a negative effect on athletes' physical performance. It has been noted that total sleep deprivation has lead to a decrease in endurance performance.
  • Partial Sleep Deprivation (PSD) has shown a reduced time to exhaustion. There are differing views and results obtained from studies regarding the effect of PSD. Some studies have shown there running to exhaustion was not affected by PSD. [7]
  • The loss of sleep has negative effects such as a heightened perceptual effort, and decreased emotional and cognitive function. The reduced cognitive function can be accompanied with a reduced psychomotor performance, via decreased vigilance, accuracy, and alertness. There can be a changed state of mood, which can be involved in a reduced endurance performance. Rating of perceived exertion can also be heightened in the presence of PSD or TSD. [7]
  • The study comparing runners with PSD and a control condition of runners getting 8 hours of sleep found that the controls were able to run a further distance, and at a greater speed compared to the PSD condition. There was a significant effect for the control condition when considering parameters such as HR, VE, and VO2. There was no significant effect of sleep on the lactate produced during the runs between the control and PSD conditions.
  • The PSD condition had an overall lower oral temperature at rest, compared to the control condition. Sleepiness, stress, and fatigue were higher in the PSD condition. There were no significant effects of either sleep condition on muscle soreness. The RPE scores were significantly higher in the PSD condition than the control condition.
  • Motivation had no significant difference between the two groups. When considering mood, it was shown that depression, confusion, fatigue, and anxiety were increased, with a decrease in vigor after the PSD condition, at rest and after exercise. Reaction time is seen to be lower in the control group after exercise compared to the PSD condition. [7]
  • The study indicated that pacing and endurance performance was greatly affected after the PSD condition. It was observed that mentally fatiguing conditions and an increased perceived exertion negatively impacted physical performance. This was seen in the PSD condition, with a decrease in the distance run, and the pacing characteristic of the runner.
  • Cognitive processes were also affected with PSD. There was a deficit in attentional abilities with the PSD condition receiving only 4 hours of sleep. Decision making during rest and after self-paced exercise was also affected in the PSD condition. [7]
  • A study by Montgomery et al (1985), where the conditions of no exercise, a 90 minute run, and a marathon were compared in non-elite marathon runners, showed that there was a sleep disorder which consisted of a decrease in REM sleep with a reduced sleep duration after a marathon race, which could have been caused by stress from increased cortisol levels. Sleep quality was unaffected with the 90 minutes of running training. [4]

In addition, when runners travel to different time zones for marathon races, depending on the distance, it is possible that they may suffer from sleep loss, due to fatigue from changes in their circadian rhythm. [4]

blue light effect

Blue-light and the effect on sleep[edit | edit source]

To read about the overall effects of blue-light on sleep, see the page Blue Light and the Effect on Sleep.

As mentioned on this page, blue light may have a positive effect on performance, such as:

  • cognitive performance,
  • alertness,
  • reaction times,
  • accuracy,
  • daytime dysfunction,
  • heart rate response, and
  • handgrip strength. In general, this would be beneficial for athletes. [14]

However, with the increased use of electronic devices and the poor effect of blue light on sleep, athletes would need to be more cautious and aware of the amount and duration of exposure to blue light, especially before sleeping.

  • The exposure to blue-light and poor sleep can lead to increased fatigue, therefore poor performance. This should ideally be minimised in the athletic training or competing populations. [14]
  • In marathon runners, the use of electronic devices before bedtime led to a longer time to fall asleep, and a longer marathon completion time.
  • A longer time to fall asleep in turn led to a longer marathon completion time. [3]

However, it is noted that differing types of electronic devices may have varying effects on time to fall asleep. [3]

Sleep Trackers[edit | edit source]

In addition to blue-light from electronic devices being used before bed-time, the use of sleep trackers can have a significant negative effect on sleep health in marathon runners. Runners who used a sleep tracker had a lower sleep satisfaction rating. [3]

Orthosomnia can be quite prevalent in the sleep health of those marathoners using sleep trackers. This may be displayed as individuals focusing more on their sleep quality, and therefore resulting in a disturbed sleep. Marathon runners, or even endurance athletes, may be leaning towards orthosomnia, due to the likelihood of them paying more attention to the details of training, sleep, and lifestyle factors. The sleep trackers could also be providing inaccurate data to the users, giving them the perception of worse sleep quality. [3]

Interaction Between Running and Sleep[edit | edit source]

  • How Running Affects Sleep Quality and Duration

Regular running has been shown to improve both sleep quality and duration. Physical activity, including running, helps to regulate the circadian rhythm, leading to more consistent sleep patterns and deeper sleep stages.[15]

  • Studies Showing Improved Sleep Quality with Regular Exercise

Several studies indicate that regular exercise, such as running, improves sleep quality. For instance, Driver and Taylor (2000) reviewed various studies and found that exercise significantly enhances sleep efficiency, increases total sleep time, and reduces sleep onset latency. Another study by Reilly and Edwards (2007) demonstrated that physical activity leads to improved sleep patterns and better physical performance[15].[16]

  • Importance of Sleep in Muscle Recovery and Injury Prevention[17]

Sleep is vital for muscle recovery and injury prevention. Growth hormone, which is pivotal for muscle repair and regeneration, is predominantly released during deep sleep. Poor sleep can lead to inadequate recovery, increased muscle soreness, and a higher risk of injuries.[18]

  • Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Running Performance

Sleep deprivation negatively impacts running performance. Lack of sleep can result in decreased endurance, impaired cognitive function, reduced reaction times, and increased perceived exertion. Chronic sleep deprivation can also lead to overtraining syndrome, characterized by prolonged fatigue and decreased performance[19][20] [21]

Tips for Better Sleep[edit | edit source]

  1. Limit Caffeine and Alcohol: Reduce intake, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime.
  2. Technology Use: Avoid electronic devices at least an hour before bed.
  3. Environment: Create a dark, cool, and quiet sleeping environment.

Sleep Requirements for Runners[edit | edit source]

General Sleep Recommendations[edit | edit source]

For adults, the general sleep recommendation is 7-9 hours per night. This range is essential for maintaining overall health, cognitive function, and physical performance. For runners, adequate sleep is particularly crucial as it aids in recovery, muscle repair, and overall performance enhancement.

Adjustments Based on Training Intensity and Frequency[edit | edit source]

The sleep requirements for runners can vary based on the intensity and frequency of their training. High-intensity and high-frequency training regimes can increase the body's need for recovery, thereby increasing sleep requirements. Research indicates that runners may need more than the general recommendation, potentially up to 10 hours per night, to fully recover from strenuous workouts and competitions[22].[23]

Training Intensity and Sleep Needs[edit | edit source]

  • High Training Loads: High training loads, characterised by long durations and high intensities, can lead to increased sleep needs. Athletes often experience reduced total sleep time during periods of intense training due to physical and mental stress, requiring more sleep to compensate during recovery phases[24].
  • Training Periodization: Periods of heavy training might necessitate more sleep, whereas periods of tapering or reduced training might allow for slightly less. Adjusting sleep based on the training cycle can help optimize performance and recovery[23][25]

Signs of Inadequate Sleep in Runners[edit | edit source]

Inadequate sleep can significantly affect runners, manifesting in various signs and symptoms:

  • Fatigue: Persistent tiredness and low energy levels are common signs of insufficient sleep. This can negatively impact training quality and endurance.
  • Decreased Performance: Lack of sleep can impair cognitive and motor functions, leading to slower reaction times, reduced speed, and lower overall athletic performance. Studies show that athletes with poor sleep quality perform worse in both training and competitions[22][26]
  • Mood Changes: Sleep deprivation can lead to mood disturbances such as irritability, anxiety, and depression. These mood changes can affect motivation and the overall mental well-being of runners[25][27].

Strategies for Improving Sleep for Runners[edit | edit source]

Pre-Sleep Routines[edit | edit source]

Implementing effective pre-sleep routines is crucial for runners to enhance sleep quality, which subsequently improves recovery and performance.

Consistent Sleep Schedule   

  • Establishing and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule helps regulate the body's internal clock, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day[28] .
  • Regular sleep patterns can enhance sleep quality and overall health, reducing the risk of sleep disturbances and improving athletic performance[29] .
  • Maintaining a consistent sleep environment, even when traveling for competitions, can help. Bringing familiar items such as pillows or blankets can create a sense of continuity and comfort
  •  Keeping the sleep environment consistent in terms of temperature, light, and noise levels, regardless of the location, helps maintain a stable sleep pattern[30][28]  [31]\

Wind-Down Routine

  • Engaging in relaxing activities before bed can help signal sleepiness to the body. This may include reading, listening to calming music, or practicing mindfulness meditation[28] .
  • Relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing exercises can reduce pre-sleep anxiety and improve sleep onset[29] .

Limiting Screen Time

  • Reducing exposure to blue light from screens (phones, tablets, computers) at least an hour before bedtime can prevent disruption of melatonin production, which is essential for sleep[31] .
  • Using features like "night mode" on devices or wearing blue light-blocking glasses in the evening can help mitigate the impact of screen time on sleep[28] .

Creating a Sleep-Inducing Environment

  • A comfortable, cool, and dark sleep environment can significantly improve sleep quality. Using blackout curtains, keeping the room cool, and ensuring the mattress and pillows are comfortable are important.[29]
  • White noise machines or earplugs can help block out disruptive sounds, creating a more conducive environment for sleep[32].

Avoiding Stimulants

  • Limiting caffeine and nicotine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening, can help prevent sleep disturbances. These substances are stimulants that can interfere with the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.[31]
  • Alcohol should also be avoided close to bedtime as it can disrupt the sleep cycle despite initially inducing sleepiness .[28]

Pre-Sleep Nutrition

  • Light snacks that include sleep-promoting nutrients such as tryptophan (found in turkey and dairy) or magnesium (found in nuts and seeds) can be beneficial. However, heavy meals should be avoided close to bedtime to prevent digestive discomfort [33].
  • Hydration is important, but excessive fluid intake right before bed should be avoided to prevent frequent nighttime awakenings.[32]

Nutritional Considerations[edit | edit source]

Carbohydrate Intake

  1. Consuming carbohydrates before bedtime can improve sleep onset and quality. Carbohydrates increase the availability of tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin and melatonin, which are essential for sleep regulation.[31] [28]
  2. Studies have shown that a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, is associated with better sleep patterns and reduced sleep latency (time taken to fall asleep).[32]

Protein Intake

  1. Adequate protein intake, particularly from sources rich in tryptophan such as turkey, chicken, and dairy, can help promote sleep. Tryptophan is a key amino acid involved in the synthesis of melatonin.[28][31]
  2. Timing of protein consumption is also important. Having a small protein-rich snack before bed can aid in sleep quality and muscle repair overnight.[33]

Fat Consumption

  1. Healthy fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, nuts, and seeds, have been linked to improved sleep quality. Omega-3s may enhance the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone.[33]
  2. Avoiding high-fat meals close to bedtime is advisable as they can lead to digestive issues and disrupt sleep.[32]


  1. Magnesium: This mineral plays a significant role in sleep regulation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps relax the body. Foods rich in magnesium include leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.[31][28]
  2. Calcium: Essential for the production of melatonin. Dairy products, leafy greens, and fortified foods can help ensure adequate calcium intake[34].
  3. Vitamin D: Linked to sleep quality, with deficiencies often associated with sleep disorders. Sun exposure and foods such as fatty fish, egg yolks, and fortified products can help maintain healthy levels.[34]


Proper hydration is essential, but it's important to balance fluid intake to avoid frequent nighttime awakenings to use the bathroom. Reducing fluid consumption in the evening while staying adequately hydrated during the day is recommended.[28]

Avoiding Stimulants

  1. Limiting intake of caffeine and other stimulants, especially in the afternoon and evening, can prevent sleep disturbances. Caffeine has a half-life of about 5-6 hours, so its effects can linger and disrupt sleep patterns.[31] [28]
  2. Alcohol, although it may initially induce sleep, can disrupt the sleep cycle and reduce sleep quality. It is advisable to limit alcohol consumption before bedtime.[32]

Environmental Factors[edit | edit source]

Optimal sleep environments are described below: [30][28][31]

Temperature Control

  1. Keeping the bedroom cool (around 18-20°C or 65-68°F) helps facilitate sleep. Lower temperatures promote better sleep by aiding in the body's natural drop in core temperature at night.
  2. Studies suggest that athletes benefit from cooler sleeping environments, as it enhances recovery by improving sleep efficiency and reducing the time taken to fall asleep.

Light Management

  1. Exposure to natural light during the day helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Conversely, reducing light exposure in the evening, especially blue light from screens, is crucial. Blue light suppresses melatonin production, delaying sleep onset.
  2. Using blackout curtains or eye masks can create a darker sleeping environment, which is beneficial for deeper and uninterrupted sleep.

Noise Reduction

  1. A quiet sleeping environment is essential. Using earplugs or white noise machines can help mask disruptive sounds. Consistent noise levels can prevent mid-sleep awakenings and promote a more restful sleep.

Comfortable Bedding

  1. Investing in a quality mattress and pillows that provide proper support and comfort is important. For athletes, a mattress that reduces pressure points and supports good posture can improve sleep quality and reduce muscle soreness.
  2. Regularly replacing bedding and pillows to maintain their supportive properties is also recommended.

Air Quality

  1. Ensuring good ventilation and maintaining clean air in the bedroom can improve sleep. Using air purifiers or keeping windows slightly open (weather permitting) can help reduce indoor pollutants and allergens, contributing to better sleep quality.
  2. Humidity control is also important. Keeping humidity levels between 30-50% can prevent respiratory discomfort and promote better sleep.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Running offers substantial health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, weight management, and mental well-being. However, adequate sleep is crucial for maximizing these benefits and ensuring optimal performance. Quality sleep supports muscle repair, hormone regulation, and immune function, which are essential for runners.

Research indicates that marathon and ultramarathon runners often face sleep disturbances due to stress, electronic device use, and competition anxiety. Prioritising sleep helps with faster recovery, injury prevention, and cognitive function, leading to better training and race performance.

In summary, while running is highly beneficial, balancing it with sufficient, quality sleep is vital for achieving peak performance and overall well-being. Runners should focus on good sleep hygiene to fully benefit from their training.

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