As ultra runners we are always looking for ways to improve. We strive to improve our time over a certain distance, improve our strength, improve how we recover, and improve (my least favourite) flexibility. When one examines areas for improvement we generally focus on two areas: exercise and diet.. However, coming from the field of human performance, we are seeing references to the “Three Pillars of Health”, which are exercise, diet and sleep.

Whilst we focus so much energy on the first two aspects of health, why are we not focused on the third? Society is changing at a phenomenal pace and, as such, we are constantly challenged to do more with less; achieve more at work and at home, attend numerous social or work events, and be in touch with people for social or business, on a national or global scale.

Our knowledge of sleep and its importance is limited, even amongst medical practitioners. Today’s ultra runner comes from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions and strives to actively manage family life, social interests, business, and exercise, whilst armed with a laptop, smart phone, and a cup of coffee. Research in the sleep science field is increasing in quantity, and improving in quality, as a result of work in a number of reputable universities including Harvard Medical School and Monash Medical School here in Australia. Let’s take a look a few areas where we can observe the relationship between human performance and sleep.

Circadian rhythms occur within every human. Circadian is derived from the Latin word “circa” meaning “about”, and “dia” meaning “day.” Circadian rhythms happen over a 24 hour period. As we wake in the morning, between 06:00-08:00, cortisol increases. In the afternoon, between 13:00-15:00, we experience a circadian dip often referred to as the post-lunch dip. This may explain why we often find it difficult to concentrate at work after lunch which can affect safety and quality issues in workplaces. “Siesta” in Latin cultures is designed to allow people to relax during this low and avoid midday high temperatures.