In the evening, between 17:00-20:00, we go through a phase called the “forbidden zone.” This is a time when we find it most difficult to sleep and generally when we show our greatest cardiovascular efficiency and muscular strength. This may explain why some days when we are at work all we can think about is getting home to sleep because we are so tired, but when we get home we get a “second wind” and become energetic and awake. Some researchers in the anthropology field believe that the forbidden zone may be part of the planet’s natural cycle, and that humans evolved this way due to predators that came out at night to hunt, while humans became hyper-alert to such dangers.
Between the hours of 02:00-06:00 we experience a circadian low. As ultra runners we often wake during this time to get our training runs in or to start a race. During this time we find it extremely difficult to stay awake and anyone who works shift work would have experienced the related feelings of drowsiness, sore eyes, yawning, inattention, low energy, and perhaps even micro-sleeps. Consistent disruption of one’s sleep during a circadian low can be damaging to your health and wellbeing in the short term (acute) and the long term (chronic). This includes, but is not limited to, gastrointestinal issues, heart disease, increase in weight, and diabetes.Contrary to common belief or hearsay, you cannot adapt your body to be awake and functioning effectively during this time. You cannot shift or change your circadian rhythms or change your biological make up. The effects of a circadian rhythm and sleep are varied across people depending on social, economic and educational factors, to name a few. On average, a person requires 7-9 hours of sleep per night. The Australian population is averaging anywhere between 6-7 hours, and in some industries we observe people obtaining 4-5 hours per night.
Sleep is like a fuel tank – what you take out must be replaced. Just like with our diets, we measure calories in/calories out over a day. Sleep is no different. If you do not fill up your sleep tank or reservoir, you increase your chances of having an accident in the community such as a road traffic accident (RTA). State planning and infrastructure departments are now reporting that a lack of sleep and/or fatigue is making up a high proportion of the statistics in RTAs. In our running we see decrease in energy levels, poor training runs, or poor times across distances when we know we can do better. At home we may have trouble staying awake, or nod off easily when watching a movie or TV with our family or friends. In some cases it causes depressed feelings, mood swings, and irritability.
So armed with this knowledge and wanting to improve our overall “human performance” in our ultra runs, what can we do? Following these 10 guidelines around sleep hygiene can greatly improve your performance:
- Have a regular sleep pattern. Try to go to bed at the same time every evening.
- Schedule time into your life to get 7-9 hours per night of sleep. Do it just like you schedule training runs, races and meetings.
- Avoid TV, smart phones, laptops, and work for at least 60 minutes before sleeping.
- Try reading a novel or listening to relaxing music to help you sleep. Studies show this can be just as effective as a sleeping tablet.
- Use your bed for sleep and intimacy only.
- Make your bedroom comfortable and, if possible, keep the room dark and cool (18 C–23 C) to promote a good sleeping environment. Consider using an eye mask and ear plugs.
- Don’t lay awake thinking and watching the clock. If you can’t sleep, try getting up and reading or writing but avoid TV, computers and the like.
- If you consistently have issues sleeping, consult a sleep physician or consult your general practitioner.
- Avoid waking up or scheduling training runs before 05:30. If you are time poor, consider running to work. Use lunch breaks to catch up on kilometres. Consider cross training to improve performance.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes for at least three hours before bed.
In conclusion, sleep must be actively managed like other aspects of health and wellbeing. Sleep well, eat right, and run hard.