What nutritional strategies can improve sleep for runners?
Updated: May 11
Getting enough sleep helps runners recover, boosts their immunity, and restores energy levels. But let's be honest - with a busy lifestyle, getting quality sleep can be a challenge. Luckily, there are ways to improve it. In this blog post, we'll talk about why sleep is so important, how not getting enough of it can affect athletes, how to tell if you're getting enough, and some tips for quality zzz’s.
Why is sleep so important for runners?
Sleep has many functions that are crucial for health and performance. These include:
Optimising hormones: Sleep reduces stress hormones like cortisol and catecholamines, while boosting testosterone. This supports muscle repair and growth, improving recovery.
Supporting learning and memory: Sleep helps to solidify skills learned during training.
Decreasing risk of illness and injury: Sleep strengthens the immune system, making us less susceptible to infections.
Regulating appetite: Lack of sleep affects hormones involved in regulating appetite, causing excessive food intake and carb cravings.
Affecting dietary choices: Lack of sleep affects our food choices. When we don't get enough sleep, we tend to choose unhealthy, processed foods.
Influencing carbohydrate metabolism: Poor sleep can negatively impact the breakdown of glucose and increase insulin sensitivity, which can contribute to chronic diseases such as diabetes and weight gain.
Reducing inflammation: Sleeping too much or too little increases risk of inflammatory diseases and weight gain weight as you age.
Improving performance: Improvements in sleep duration can improve reaction time, accuracy, and endurance performance.
What happens when we don’t get enough sleep?
Lack of sleep harms performance, immunity, and increases the risk of injury, illness, stress, and pain perception. Unfortunately, up to 78% of athletes suffer from sleep problems, with 25% experiencing significant issues. These challenges are due to work, study, and family commitments, and sport-specific factors like high training loads and unfamiliar sleep environments. As a result, athletes may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, and may turn to sleep medication. Therefore, strategies to improve sleep are crucial for athletes.
How do I know if I’m getting adequate sleep?
Measuring sleep with a controlled sleep study is the gold standard but it is expensive, time-consuming, and needs trained professionals. Alternatively, you can use sleep questionnaires or track sleep with smartwatches, but accuracy may vary, and relying solely on them is not advised. Monitoring personal signs like satisfaction with your sleep, appropriate sleep times, restorative sleep, and alertness during working hours is another option. Adolescents need 8-10 hours, adults need 7-9 hours, and older adults need 7-8 hours of restorative sleep. Athletes may need more quality sleep to recover from training and competition.
What dietary strategies can improve sleep?
As a runner, you can use your diet to improve your sleep. Below are some tips to help you achieve a well-rested sleep.
Tryptophan: Tryptophan, an essential amino acid used to produce serotonin and melatonin, can aid in promoting and maintaining sleep for athletes. Consuming protein sources high in tryptophan in the evening can be especially helpful during periods of disturbed sleep, such as after competitions. Examples of foods high in tryptophan include cow's milk, turkey, chicken, fish, eggs, cheese, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and leafy green vegetables.
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates increase plasma tryptophan concentrations, which enhances the availability of serotonin and ultimately melatonin. Consuming a high-carbohydrate meal before bedtime can increase REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and decrease light sleep and wakefulness, while low whole grain intake is associated with shorter sleep duration and increased time to fall asleep.
Caffeine: Caffeine is mostly found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and pre-workout supplements. While it can improve athletic performance, too much can disrupt sleep and make it hard to doze off. It takes up to 12 hours for your body to fully process caffeine. So, if you train at night, caffeine might help you perform but harm your sleep later. Drinking too much caffeine can make you sleep poorly and crave more caffeine. Having more than 1.5 cups of coffee per day is linked to lower sleep quality. And having over 2mg caffeine/kg body weight before evening exercise can affect how much and how well you sleep.
Alcohol: Drinking alcohol has been linked to poorer sleep quality and quantity, less REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, and more sleep disturbances in the latter half of your sleep. Just one glass of wine or beer can harm your sleep.
Fluid intake: Staying hydrated is important, but drinking too much before bed can disrupt your sleep with frequent bathroom visits. Adjusting when you drink fluids can help you stay hydrated without disturbing your sleep. It's a good idea to avoid drinking large amounts of fluids within two hours of bedtime.
Large meals: Consuming a large meal before bedtime can cause your digestive system to stay active, making it challenging to fall asleep as it works to digest your food. Additionally, eating causes a slight increase in your body temperature, making it harder for you to cool down and fall asleep. Try to leave some time for digestion before bedtime or opt for a lighter meal if you need to eat shortly before sleeping.
Other nutritional strategies: Although promising, more research is required before the impact of probiotics, cherry juice, magnesium and beetroot juice on the sleep of athletes can be resolved.
Sleep is crucial for health and performance, with multiple functions including hormone optimization, memory support, and immune system strengthening. For runners, diet impacts sleep, with protein high in tryptophan and carbohydrates aiding sleep, while caffeine, alcohol, large meals, and excessive fluid intake disrupt sleep. Monitoring personal sleep signs and trying different nutritional strategies can help determine the best way to eat, sleep, train & repeat for your best performance!
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