Sleeping to run better

Calling all runners: experts say this the most effective recovery tool of all (and it’s free)

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Nothing undermines a running regime quite like crippling DOMS. But you don’t have to fork out for expensive massages, sessions in a cryo chamber or fancy foam rollers – experts claim the best way to recover can be found at home. 

Now that the Omicron variant of coronavirus is spreading quickly, you may be thinking twice about heading to the gym – particularly if you’re working from home. And if that’s the case, you may be getting back into running. Running is free, Covid-compliant and – best of all – relatively simple to make progress in.

To run for longer, for example, you’ve just got to add a little at a time (an extra 1km or five minutes will do) to see improvements. To run faster, create your own interval training by running the choruses of the songs on your running playlist. But to do either with any real success, you’ve also got to recover well.

Follow any running influencer and you’ll see them plugging Theraguns, CBD muscle rubs and magnesium bath salts like no one’s business. While massage guns definitely do feel good on tired muscles, and there’s nothing more relaxing than a hot bath, neither do very much for genuine muscle recovery. In fact, soft tissue therapist Anna Gardiner evaluated a host of common recovery techniques including foam rolling, ice baths, compression socks, stretching and epsom salts, and found all of them wanting.

But there is one recovery technique that experts agree is genuinely effective: sleep. Yep, getting your nightly eight hours is apparently the best way for runners to recover well enough to go again the next day.

Physical therapist and run coach Dr Victoria Sekely posted a simple explainer on her Instagram, exploring why “sleep is the cheapest, most valuable and most effective recovery tool”. She points to a 2020 study, published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, which found that endurance athletes who sleep for under seven hours a night are 50% more likely to get injured over a two-week period. That’s pretty bonkers when you think about it. 

Perhaps you only sleep for six hours because you get up for that 7am strength class which you’ve chosen specifically for bullet-proofing your body against injuries. Maybe you go to bed late because you need longer to relax after your evening jog or want to digest your dinner fully before lying down. Fundamentally, those measures won’t have much of an impact on how injury-prone you are because the key element – length of sleep – is missing.

How many times have you blamed a tough run on crap sleep the night before? We’ve all schlepped out after a late one or tried running with a bit of a hangover. But sleep plays a huge role when it comes to healing what physio Lindsay Scott calls “the micro-trauma of daily training” (ie the tiny tears you make when exercising that makes your muscles stronger). That may mean that continuous under-sleeping may stop you from recovering after a run and ever getting stronger or faster. 

The effects of little sleep aren’t immediate, however. The study suggests that there might be a ‘lag’ period between a period of poor sleep and the moment that injury occurs. So, if you’ve had a period of late nights, it’s worth prioritising rest and recovery in the weeks afterwards.

Another interesting finding is that, in the same study, athletes who reported increased psychological stress of any kind had a 33% increased injury risk over the same period. Stress can make sleep difficult so it’s not too illogical to presume that if you’re super-stressed over Covid to the point that you’re not able to doze off, then your risk of injury is even more elevated. It’s then that committing to running every day or squeezing in those end-of-year miles isn’t a good idea. “Life happens,” Scott says, “and while responding by doubling down our training efforts might feel helpful, it may not always be the best strategy”.

If you ever needed an excuse to take it easy, this is it.

For more running tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.