Sleep and Endurance Events The importance of sleep before an endurance event

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In 2015 the International Olympic committee published a statement on the critical importance of sleep in athletic development in all sports.  Want to guess how important sleep in sport is?  

Research has found sleep, or lack of it, is linked to sprint times, reaction times, endurance, strength, accuracy as well as mood, vigour and fatigue. Effects have been found across almost all sports, including tennis, cycling, running, weight lifting, basketball, swimming; the list goes on.

In addition, lack of sleep will reduce your ability to learn and develop technique.  During sleep, newly learned motor skills are moved from short term memory storage to the habit forming part of the brain.  Whether you’re a tennis player trying to improve your backhand or a cyclist training to improve cadence sleep will get you there faster.  Want that extra 10%? Technique is everything. Sleep deprivation means these newly acquired motor skills will be weaker and will take longer to master. So already sleep in sport is hugely important to technique development. 

The importance of sleeping after an endurance event

The best way to recover after an endurance race?  Sleep more.

Cold immersion therapy, cryotherapy, ultrasound, designer kits you can use at home and the other fads are gimmicks with little or no supporting evidence.  In fact, there is now a growing body of evidence showing these treatments are no more effective than a placebo¹.

Sleep is free and the most effective post event treatment.  Sleep is as important as hydration and nutrition in supporting recovery.  These type of events causes significant muscle cell damage and skeletal strain.  Cell growth and repair takes place during sleep, specifically during slow wave sleep or deep sleep.  Without sleep your body doesn’t break down old and damaged cells or repair and build new cells. No sleep, no cellular recovery.

Seven to eight hours of sleep a night is the gold standard for a healthy adult.  Any less and you are likely to be performing below your full potential. However, after an endurance event try to get nine to ten hours a night for a few nights.  This extra sleep will support recovery.

Research has shown it takes seven to ten days to fully recover from the cellular damage sustained during a marathon.  Focus on sleeping well during this time.

If you need to nap then nap.  Ordinarily we’d advise you not to nap as this reduces sleep pressure and so your ability to sleep at night.  But you really do need that shut eye post event, so nap away.

Endurance events don’t just damage muscle cells and your skeleton.  They play havoc with your hormones¹, affect your DNA² and play havoc with your immune system³.  Sleep is the perfect way to get all these back in balance and you back to full fitness quickly.   

Sleeping after an endurance event

Endurance sports are extremely tough on the body and mind.  You’ll be exhausted. If you’ve just finished one you’ll either sleep like the dead or have a bad night sleep.  Sleep is absolutely critical after an event like this.

Poor sleep after an endurance event is surprisingly common and results from a variety of factors.  There are a few thing you can do;

Poor sleep can result from any caffeine you’ve taken during the race.  Most events require you to take on energy – usually sugars and carbohydrates – as you compete, as you need more than your body can store.  Stimulants such as caffeine are often used to supplement these and can be a great help. The problem is people can have three or four times their normal caffeine intake on race day.  We’d suggest only using caffeine when you really need it and not to excess. Try to reduce your caffeine intake in the months / weeks leading up to the event. This means you’ll need less on race day.  Try to save the caffeine for when you really need that boost rather than having it on drip feed.

During an endurance event you’ll get a massive hormone dump¹.  Hormones help increase your heart rate, temperature and make you sweat.  Cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone) and adrenaline are particularly important in getting you performing well.   All really useful when you’re exercising. However, levels can stay elevated for 24 – 48 hours which affects your ability to sleep.  There isn’t too much you can do about this, other than wait.

Stiffness and soreness after an endurance event is common (we know!).  This can keep you awake, prevent you falling into a deep sleep and cause you to wake up.   A very gentle warm down and don’t overstretch (your body has had enough punishment) will prevent excessive stiffness or soreness.     

An elevated body temperature will keep you awake.  A reduction in body temperature before bed is a natural signal to your brain to switch off for the night.  Exercise obviously raises your body temperature. Your body temperature is likely to stay elevated for hours and prevent you from sleeping.  However, some people then tend to get cold after an event and keeping warm is a priority. It may be difficult to get your body temperature back under control.  Staying fully hydrated will help as will taking and using the right clothing.

Still feeling ‘pumped’ about the big day keeps a lot of people awake.  Try to relax and put the race from your mind – whatever you do, don’t worry about sleep.  If you can’t sleep, get up, relax or read for 20 – 30 minutes and repeat your bedtime routine.  If you plan a post-event celebration try not to eat too near bedtime (3 – 4 hours) and stay off the booze.  Both these will prevent you from sleeping well.

We’d strongly recommend going home and following your normal bedtime routine after an endurance event if this is possible.  There is nothing like your own bed and your normal routine to get you to sleep.

Check out Champneys Health Spa blog on The 7 Golden Rules for Marathon Recovery. Our very own Sleep Guru Sam contributed some top tips for Marathon runners. Link here!

  1. http://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/19985/
  2. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/38/3/292.abstract
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0891584901007298
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12696983

Written by
Sam Billington

Sam is our sleep guru. I am fascinated by sleep and I've used my science training to research and learn about sleep. I have been providing sleep advice and personal sleep plans for years. My day job is Head of Workplace Culture in Defra, I live in London with my wife and have a PhD in Ecology and Biology.