Should you shoot for eight hours – or can you get by on less?
When he was in medical school and his residency, sleep medicine specialist Dr Chris Winter realised he could function well on less shut-eye than some other doctors. “I could get an hour’s sleep on a couch, then I could take somebody’s spleen out. It wasn’t that big of a deal to me,” says Winter, author of The Sleep Solution.
Some genes enable people to better cope with sleep deprivation, Dr. Winter says – and if you find you can soldier through a run and a workday on only four hours, you might have won that particular DNA lottery.
Still, if you make it a regular habit, you’re probably not doing your health – or your training – any favours. “Even in those individuals who say, ‘I normally only get six hours or less of sleep and I feel perfectly fine,’ their metabolic profile is not normal,” says Dr Phyllis Zee, chief of sleep medicine in the department of neurology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in the US.
In fact, people who regularly skimp on sleep start to show signs of insulin resistance, a disturbance in the way the body processes glucose for energy that can hamper your running performance and eventually lead to diabetes. When they’re allowed to catch up, their metabolic profiles return to normal, Zee says. Sleeping enough also increases the motivation to exercise, her research has found.
As for exactly how much is “enough,” well, that’s personal. Most experts agree that regularly getting less than six hours places you at risk for health hazards. The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults log seven to nine hours, but there’s definitely variance within that range and outliers who need far more or less. More isn’t necessarily better – and freaking yourself out about trying to hit eight or nine when you might not require it can be counterproductive, causing stress that paradoxically disrupts the quality of the sleep you are getting, Dr. Winter says.
Fortunately, with some experimentation, a bit of brutal honesty, and a little help from your training log, you can learn to nail your sleep sessions much the same way you would your 1K repeats. Here’s how:
1. Test yourself.
There’s a pretty specific symptom you’re snooze-deprived: sleepiness. Sounds simple enough, but people often confuse it with fatigue, that weary, low-energy feeling that can have a wide range of causes (including hard training). Plus, it’s often hard to maintain an objective perspective on your sleep habits, Dr. Winter points out. You and your partner might have widely varying opinions on how often you pass out on the couch before Jimmy Fallon finishes his monologue.
Ask yourself – and your friends and family – how likely you are to doze off in everyday situations, such as while watching TV, while riding in a car, mid-conversation, at a staff meeting. The more times you answer “very”, the greater the odds you need more sleep. You can also use the same type of test sleep docs use – like the Epworth Sleepiness Scale – to get an official score and total.
2. Track your Zzzzs.
As a runner, you have a big advantage. If your paces or how you feel on your runs starts to suffer, that’s an early warning sign your body’s not functioning at its peak, and you might need more sleep, Dr. Winter says. Adding snooze-related data to your training diary can help you spot patterns and hone in on the ideal time to hit the sack. (Not keeping tabs on your training already? Consider this one more good reason to start.)
In addition to basic facts like your distance and time, make a note in your paper log, phone, or Strava upload of how much sleep you got the night before, noting the time you went to bed and the time you woke up.
Keep an eye on your totals over time, Dr. Winter advises. The average amount of sleep you’re getting when you’re regularly crushing track workouts and races is probably pretty close to optimal for you. This method can also help you adjust over time. You might find you need more when you’re training for a marathon, Dr. Zee says, and everyone tends to need a little bit less as they age.
3. Get away.
Call it the beach method of getting to the bottom of your sleep needs. If you can, schedule a weeklong break, says Dr Shelby Harris, director of the Behavioural Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Centre in New York. Each night, go to bed at your usual hour, when you start to get sleepy. Don’t set an alarm – just wake up naturally and get out of bed if you feel “well rested and refreshed”. Make note of your total sleep time each morning.
If you’re not getting enough sleep at home, the first three days probably involve paying back some sleep debt, Harris says. Your average nightly total from night four onward will probably give you a good sense of how much sleep you should be getting regularly.
4. Cut way back.
Just can’t clear your schedule? There’s another way to suss out your ideal nightly ritual – by temporarily shorting yourself on sleep, then adding more back in until you’re satisfied. It’s not exactly easy, but it works particularly well for people who are already anxious about falling or staying asleep, Dr. Winter explains.
To try it, count back five and a half hours from the time you have to wake up. That’s your new bedtime, at least for now. Go to bed then and get up when your alarm goes off – no cheating, and no napping.
After a few days you’ll likely notice you have no problem falling asleep at the appointed hour but will start to feel sleepy during the day. When this occurs, go to bed 15 minutes earlier and see if you can make it through the day without dozing off. Repeat as needed until you strike the right balance of conking out relatively quickly and feeling well rested. Presto – that’s the amount of sleep you should aim for regularly. Most of Dr. Winter’s patients who go through this protocol end up with a total of around six and a half to seven hours, and far less stress, he notes.
Of course, quantity is only one aspect of sleep – there’s also quality, or how much deep, restorative sleep you log each night. Regardless of how much time you spend in bed, disruptions like sleep apnoea, where you temporarily stop breathing during the night, can interfere with your slumber and pose long-term health risks.
If you never feel refreshed during the day, your partner reports you gasping or loudly snoring, or you find you’re suddenly requiring far more sleep than you used to, check in with your doctor – you might have a medical or psychiatric condition that’s interfering with your slumber, Harris says.