Why can sleep be so elusive when we most need it.
Sleep. The master formula for energy and recovery.
Isn’t it annoying how it’s times when you need it most that it seems to be at its most elusive?
It’s something that ultrarunners and indeed all endurance athletes around the world struggle with incessantly. In fact, about 25% of ultrarunners report sleep disturbances, and over 20% of those actually sought medical help (Martin et al., 2018). That’s a lot!
So why do we have such trouble sleeping when we’re most tired? When we’re on night three of a multistage ultra with the long day looming ahead, or in that restless night of sleepless frustration before the big fifty miler?
This is an obvious one, and is the major factor for those nights before a big event. It’s both psychological and physiological: anxiety at what’s to come, and the body responding with premature stress hormones and cold sweats.
What can you do?
-> First, relax. Think about your preparation and training. You’ve done everything you can and what will be will be. In fact, even if your build up hasn't been perfect, what will be will be. A calm approach will increase your chances of success, over worrying at this stage will only hold you back. And there is certainly no place for the negative self talk. 'I can and I will' are the types
of mantra to repeat over and over to yourself.
-> Second, realise that nerves are actually a good thing. They show you care, and much of the stress that they’re causing is actually going to improve your performance.
Shifting your mindset to seeing nerves as a friend and accepting that you’ve addressed everything that’s in your control can make the difference between a night staring at the ceiling, and those extra few hours of sleep pre-race. Most of all, don’t focus on trying to fall asleep!
This is the big one. And it’s the main reason that even after pushing your body to complete exhaustion, you still can’t seem to fall asleep. There’s nothing as frustrating as lying there listening to the snores of your competitors while you contemplate how tired and sore you are for tomorrow’s stage.
Basically, the stress you’ve put yourself through has put your body on high alert; physiological overdrive. Your nervous system is fired up and endocrine system is filling your body with the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine.
You’re lying there with legs throbbing from that neurological ache of ever-exertion, a headache from tiredness and a hot, throbbing heartbeat pounding in your temples. But your brain and body just wont switch off.
What can you do?
-> Be fitter. Perhaps not the most practical advice once you’re there, but its obvious. The fitter and better prepared you are, the less the stressful your body will find the challenge. Although bear in mind that it’s as much about how hard you push—some of the top competitors will be stressing themselves far more than the slower, more casual runners.
-> Take some time. Before you sleep, try to take a few minutes away from the hectic activity and excitement of camp. Just sit and detach for a moment and let your mind come to terms with what’s happened. Let it process and decompress a moment. Maybe even lose yourself elsewhere in a book or listen to some calming music. A moments meditation might serve you well at this point.
-> Try not to dwell on it. I know it’s hard, but the more you stress about not being able to sleep, the more stressed it’s going to make you. In reality, an hour or so less sleep probably won’t make all that much difference in the long run. And research has shown that simply lying and resting can give a lot of the same benefits anyway, so focus on that instead.
-> Work through some relaxation techniques. There are plenty to choose from. The one we have all heard of is counting sheep, but there are all sorts out there.
The body tends to sleep better in cooler temperatures full stop. And if you add in stress and overexertion, it’s no wonder you can’t sleep.
When the body overheats it causes a significant physiological response not unlike that of stress. And if you’ve been overheating continuously all day—pretty standard in many multi-stage ultras—your body is going to be in overdrive long afterwards into the night.
What can you do?
-> Keep hydrated—a massive factor in your body’s ability to regulate temperature.
-> Cool off. I remember after a particularly hot stage of the Fiji Lost Island Ultra, I spent a good hour with the other runners just sitting in the river afterwards. Whilst there might not always be a river available, any opportunity to actively reduce your core temperature before you sleep is worthwhile.
-> Think about where you sleep: by a window, with the tent flaps open, whatever. Coolness is a key factor in a good night’s sleep. As is warmth if it’s a particularly cold ultra!
Three main factors:
Caffeine is a pretty common ingredient in many sports fuels. Just take a moment to consider how much you take in over the course of a long event. It might solve why you can’t sleep instantaneously!
B) Calorie deficit
You know how much you’re stressing your body during a long run. Don’t make that stress any worse by not giving it what it needs to recover afterwards, or not keeping up with fuelling during the run. Try to get in a good mix of proteins, carbohydrates and fats—everything your body needs to replace and repair. Hunger, even if you don’t feel like eating (ultras can mess you up like that), can be a massive issue when trying to sleep.
We’ve all been there. That questionable curry or street-food snack, kindly provided by the local hosts and supporters. Or perhaps your own food that’s been unwittingly left out in the midday sun while you raced. The runs and vomitting are a pretty sure way to reduce your sleep quota in between stages—especially if you’re in a tent…
Martin, T., Arnal, P. J., Hoffman, M. D., & Millet, G. Y. (2018). Sleep habits and strategies of ultramarathon runners. PloS one, 13(5), e0194705. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0194705
Photos by Rob Rickman