Sleep Deprivation in an Ultramarathon: How to Prepare

Sleep Deprivation

If you have been wondering how to prepare for sleep deprivation in an ultramarathon, look no further.  This blog will give you tips on what you can do before, during, and after an ultramarathon to deal with sleep deprivation.

Sleep.  It is crucial for proper recovery and performance in ultra-endurance sports.  For that matter, sleep is important for recovery and performance in every sport.  If you have ever run an ultramarathon, crewed an ultramarathon, or even volunteered at an ultramarathon, you know that sleep deprivation is just par for the course for longer distance races.  Typically, ultras of 100 miles or more involve running through at least one night.  In the famous Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), most finishers run through two nights before completing the course before the cutoff time of 46 hours 30 minutes.  There are even ultramarathons that are over 200 miles, which often require running through several nights.  According to Martin et al. (2018), poor sleep habits and/or inadequate (or lack of) appropriate sleep strategies before a race can potentially exacerbate the amount of fatigue experienced and increase the risk of injury, hallucinations, and failure to finish the race.

If you plan to run in any of these types of races, you need to prepare in advance to ensure you have done some research on strategies to cope with sleep deprivation.  Lucky for you, we’ve researched this topic and compiled some useful information and tips for you.  We will talk about both science and popular opinion.  As always, this is not really a one-size-fits-all topic.  Some people seem to deal with sleep deprivation better than others (LUCKY!!!)  Our goal here is to give you the information and tailor it to your personal needs.  Let’s get into it.

Why Sleep Matters

When we sleep, our bodies go into recovery mode.  Sleep allows muscle tissue time to recover between bouts of exercise.  Getting enough shut-eye after exercising also ensures that your energy levels are restored so you can do it all over the next day.  In fact, it has been said that sleep quality and quantity are two important things to incorporate into your recovery strategy for optimal athletic performance (Halson, 2008).  The National Sleep Foundation (Hirshkowitz et al., 2015) recommends that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep as a general guideline.  Interestingly, the average working adult only averages less than six hours per night (CDC, 2012).

What Sleep Deprivation in an UItramarathon Can DoSleep Deprivation in an ultramarathon

Short-Term Sleep Deprivation

There are several side effects that you might experience if you don’t get enough sleep.  These short-term side effects include fatigue, mental fog, and irritability.  In terms of overall health, one or two nights of not getting enough sleep probably won’t have major long-term effects.  During a race or event, short-term sleep deprivation is expected.  Being a little sleep-deprived is necessary if you want to perform optimally and finish faster.  The nasty side-effects of sleep deprivation become more apparent when you are chronically sleep-deprived.

Chronic Sleep Deprivation

The effects are much more severe when you regularly don’t get enough sleep.  Chronic lack of sleep can lead to serious medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and shortened life expectancy.

There are also side effects that are directly related to performance.  They can be separated into two categories: acute and chronic.  These can include

  1. Poor Muscle Recovery
    • This is actually affected by both acute and chronic sleep deprivation.  If you do not sleep enough after a workout, your muscles will not recover properly.  Obviously, this issue compounds over time, with worsening consequences.  Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to inflammation and articular and muscular damage (Chennaoui et al., 2014).  These can directly affect your ability to perform.  Noticeable symptoms could be an increased rate of perceived exertion (how hard you have to work) and decreased heat tolerance.
  2. Increased risk of exercise-induced injury (Chennaoui et al., 2014).
  3. Elevated Cortisol
  4. Overtraining Syndrome
  5. Compromised Immune System

In ultra-running and other long-duration events, sleep deprivation is just another part of the race that athletes need to be prepared to deal with.  Below are some steps you can take before, during, and after an event.

What You Can Do Pre-Race to Prepare for Sleep Deprivation in an Ultramarathon

sleep bankingSleep Banking

What on earth is sleep banking?  You can think of it as a cute little piggy bank that you deposit some sleep into to have saved up for a time when you will be sleep-deprived in the future.  Basically, you get extra sleep in the days/weeks leading up to an event where you will be deprived of sleep.  This is done in hopes that you will be less affected by the lack of sleep during your race.  Martin et al. (2018) found that 54.7% of the 636 ultramarathon runners they interviewed employed some form of sleep banking preceding an ultramarathon.  Sleep extension in the form of increasing sleep time at night and daytime napping were the most common strategies.

Here is what the research says on sleep banking:

  • Martin et al. (2018) found that runners who practiced some form of sleep banking in the days and nights leading up to their event finished faster than those who did not.
  • In a similar study, Arnal et al. (2016) found similar results.  In this study, six nights of sleep banking improved time to exhaustion.
  • There have also been studies that show sleep banking before a race can actually help you recover faster after that event (Rupp et al., 2009).

 

Since you should be tapering right before a race, you should have less training time.  This should free up time for you to squeeze in some extra sleep to add to your bank.  You can sleep bank using any of or a combination of the following strategies:

  1. Go to bed earlier
  2. Wake up a little later
  3. Taking naps throughout the day

The research shows that ultra-runners have much to gain from sleep banking, so you should give it a try before your next event and see how it works for you.  Try to aim for an extra 1-2 hours per day or night in the days leading up to your race.

Sleeping During an Ultramarathon

Referring back to the study performed by Martin et al. (2018), only 21% of participants reported having a plan to manage sleep during ultramarathons.  This tells me that many ultra-runners listen to their bodies and sleep if/when they need it the most.  They appear to take a more intuitive approach to race sleep.  Only 16.4% of respondents reported sleeping during a race that lasted through one night.  That percentage drastically increased to 55.6% for events that last through two nights.  Not surprisingly, even more (94.6%) reported sleeping during an event that lasted more than two nights.  Naps of an unspecified length of time were the most commonly reported type of sleep during an ultramarathon, with a sleep episode of over an hour being the second.  A runner’s time to finish a race directly correlated with the amount of sleep they got during an event.  Those who slept less finished faster.  In turn, runners who slept more finished with a slower time. Ultra-runners can choose to either take trail naps or sleep when they reach an aid station during multiple-day events or if they are too tired to go on for a shorter event.  About 75% of the runners in the study by Mart et al. (2018) reported that they did so at night if they did sleep during an event, which is not surprising as it follows our natural circadian rhythm.

Trail Naps

Trail naps are pretty much exactly as you probably picture them in your head.  When runners take a trail nap during a race, they lay down on the side of the trail and take a nap.  Typically, they either have a pacer there to make sure they wake up after a predetermined amount of time or set an alarm on their watch or phone.  Trail naps typically don’t last very long.  I think it speaks to how tired they must be to just lay on the dirt and actually be able to fall asleep.  Some runners will carry emergency blankets or bivvies to sleep in for their trail naps.  One benefit of taking a trail nap is that you can sleep when the tiredness hits you.  You don’t have to push through and wait until the next aid station to sleep.  Alternately, taking trail naps does leave you exposed to the elements.  Additionally, if you are on your own out on the trail, you have to rely on the technology you are carrying to wake you back up.  Not to mention, sometimes you might wake up from a nice little trail nap with a new curious critter friend watching you.  Either that or you are just hallucinating!

Aid Station Naps

Compared to trail naps, aid station naps sound downright luxurious.  There are actually a few options when it comes to sleeping at an aid station.  Oftentimes, extended duration races will have designated sleeping aid stations where they will have cots, tents, or some other sleeping arrangement set up for runners to sleep at.  Depending on the race, runners may have to provide their own sheets or sleeping bag.  While COVID definitely threw a wrench in these, we are starting to see them return to normal.  One thing to consider about using sleep stations is that you have to get there before using them.  They are not typically set up at every single aid station throughout the course.  If you get to an aid station that does not have a sleep station, you can also just sit in a provided chair for some quick shuteye.

Another option for aid station sleep is to have a nap in your crew’s vehicle.  If your crew plans to be at the aid stations, then they can set up a sleeping area in their vehicle for you to use.  A benefit of this method is that vehicles can be climate-controlled.  If it is a chilly night during the race, they can crank up the heat and make you more comfortable.  No matter what aid station sleeping method you choose to use (if that’s what you choose to use), I would recommend earplugs.  They will block out the noise around you and help you sleep better. You can either have your crew bring them, or you can put some in your drop bag to grab at the aid station.

Notes on Sleeping During an Ultramarathon

Obviously, the amount of time you spend trail napping or at an aid station sleeping will lengthen your overall race time.  It is definitely a balancing act in ultra-running.  You want to take a break if you need it, but not make it so long that your race is extended longer than necessary.  It is always good to go in with a plan on when/where/how you are going to sleep during an extended-duration event.  Of course, during races, things happen that can blow your whole plan up, and you and your crew members need to be flexible and have alternative plans to use if necessary.

That being said, there are ultra-runners out there who just wing it every race.  If that is your thing, then power to you.  I can’t live my life like that.  As with most things in ultra-running, listen to your body and do what is best for your race plan and goals.  But don’t underestimate the power of even just shutting your eyes for a couple of minutes to let your brain reset…it’s pretty crazy how re-energizing that can be.

Caffeine

I know that caffeine is a super touchy subject for some people (myself included).  If you drink coffee, you know that it is a sacred thing that is not to be tampered with.  If you’re not a coffee drinker but drink tea or pop, the same can be said for you.  We have come to rely on that kick from caffeine to get us started in the mornings or push us through the afternoon slump at the job we hate.  The research shows that moderate coffee (3-4 cups per day) consumption can actually reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and cirrhosis (Ding et al., 2015).  For tea (especially green tea), there are health benefits similar to that of coffee.

Alternatively, I can’t in good faith recommend you drink pop…sorry.  The exception to this would be during a race or long training run.  In this scenario, pop would be very similar to a carbohydrate beverage and most likely beneficial to you.  There are also downsides to drinking caffeine, especially if you drink too much.  Too much caffeine can make you jittery, cause anxiety, and impair sleep.  Now that we’ve discussed caffeine let’s dip into how this can relate to training for an ultramarathon and preparing for sleep deprivation.

Many ultra-runners rely on caffeine to push them through sleep deprivation during long races.  In a study on the efficacy of caffeine and its recovery costs during and following 5 days of sleep restriction, researchers found that those who took caffeine maintained higher alertness compared to those who took a placebo during the first 3 days of restriction (Doty et al., 2017).  Alternately, this effect was diminished by the fourth day.  It also appears that those who took caffeine during the 5 day period displayed a slower return to baseline alertness during the recovery period than did the placebo group (Doty et al., 2017).

So what the research says is that caffeine might help you push through those first few days of an extended duration race, but it will hamper your sleep during your recovery afterward.  Obviously, ultra-running and other endurance sports are performance-driven.  It is an extreme sport, and most runners just prefer to do whatever it takes to get them to the finish line in the shortest time possible.  Thus, many ultra-runners use caffeine to help them push through the exhaustion during a race.  This is oftentimes a game-changer during an exhausting event such as an ultramarathon.

Another Way to Prepare

There is also another option to help allay some of the cognitive fatigue seen during extended-duration events.  Several supplements can be taken to help ward off, and better deal with mental fatigue.  These include BCAAs, Ashwagandha, and Rhodiola Rosea.  Instead of buying all three, you can actually find all three of these supplements in our daily endurance product, T-30.  By taking T-30 daily, you allow these ingredients to build up in your system, providing maximum results.

 

Sleeping After an Ultramarathon

 

After an extended-duration race, you are likely to be in sleep deficit.  Interestingly, research has shown that it can sometimes take up to four days to recover from one hour of lost sleep and even longer to fully recover from a major sleep deficit (Kitamura et al., 2016).  Obviously, as we have already discussed, getting enough sleep is crucial to proper recovery, especially after an exceptionally hard effort.  If you’ve ever run an ultramarathon before, you might have noticed that you slept poorly afterward.  This is due to several things, including dehydration, hormones, sore muscles, and elevated core temperature.  You can try to avoid these issues by ensuring you are properly hydrated and do a proper cool-down routine after a race.  You can also turn the air conditioner up and make your sleeping environment cooler.  To make up for the missed sleep, try to get 8-10 hours of sleep nightly or take naps throughout the day if you are able.  You just put your body through the wringer, so make sure you give it some time to recover before you get back into hard training.

Summary

Generally speaking, getting enough sleep is critical for proper recovery and mental function.  When we chronically lack enough sleep, the effects can wreak havoc on training.  For better or for worse, sleep deprivation is an expected hurdle in ultra-endurance sports.  However, there are ways that you can prepare yourself before, during, and after an ultramarathon or other extended-duration event.  As always, you must listen to your body and do what works best for you.

References

Arnal, P. J., Lapole, T., Erblang, M., Guillard, M., Bourrilhon, C., Léger, D., . . . Millet, G. Y. (2016). Sleep extension before sleep loss: Effects on performance and neuromuscular function. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 48(8), 1595-1603. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000925 [do] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27015382/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC). (2012). Short sleep duration among workers–united states, 2010. MMWR.Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 61(16), 281-285. doi:mm6116a2 [pii]

Chennaoui, M., Arnal, P. J., Sauvet, F., & Léger, D. (2014). Sleep and exercise: A reciprocal issue? Sleep Medicine Reviews, 20, 59-72. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2014.06.008

Ding, M., Satija, A., Bhupathiraju, S., Hu, Y., Sun, Q., Han, J., . . . Hu, F. (2015). Association of coffee consumption with total and cause-specific mortality in 3 large prospective cohorts. Circulation (New York, N.Y.), 132(24), 2305-2315. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.115.017341

Doty, T. J., So, C. J., Bergman, E. M., Trach, S. K., Ratcliffe, R. H., Yarnell, A. M., . . . Quartana, P. J. (2017). Limited efficacy of caffeine and recovery costs during and following 5 days of chronic sleep restriction. Sleep, 40(12), 10.1093/sleep/zsx171. doi:10.1093/sleep/zsx171 [doi]

Halson, S. L. (2008). Nutrition, sleep and recovery. Null, 8(2), 119-126. doi:10.1080/17461390801954794

Hirshkowitz, M., Whiton, K., Albert, S. M., Alessi, C., Bruni, O., DonCarlos, L., . . . Adams Hillard, P. J. (2015). National sleep foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: Methodology and results summary. Sleep Health, 1(1), 40-43. doi:S2352-7218(15)00015-7 [pii]

Kitamura, S., Katayose, Y., Nakazaki, K., Motomura, Y., Oba, K., Katsunuma, R., . . . Mishima, K. (2016). Estimating individual optimal sleep duration and potential sleep debt. Scientific Reports, 6, 35812. doi:10.1038/srep35812 [doi]

Martin, T., Arnal, P. J., Hoffman, M. D., & Millet, G. Y. (2018). Sleep habits and strategies of ultramarathon runners. PloS One, 13(5), e0194705. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0194705 [doi]

Rupp, T. L., Wesensten, N. J., Bliese, P. D., & Balkin, T. J. (2009). Banking sleep: Realization of benefits during subsequent sleep restriction and recovery. Sleep, 32(3), 311-321. doi:10.1093/sleep/32.3.311 [doi]

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