Active rest

Ok, so I know it’s an oxymoron but stay with me on this one.

Sleep is one seemingly small factor that can have a massive impact on performance in all areas of our lives. Whether it’s feeling on top of your work schedule or hitting your target running times, just the simplest thing of having sufficient hours in bed can really make the difference between being on top of your game and falling short. And while just one late night can leave you a bit groggy, built up over a number of days and weeks your body really starts to suffer.

The research linking lack of sleep and weight gain is much cited, and anecdotally you will probably know how tiredness can lead you to take on board those extra comforting carbs, not to mention the impact it can have on your general mood (as I’ve found today after rather restless night last night).

But what is perhaps less often stated is both the immediate and long-term impact that insufficient rest can have on athletic performance and reaction times.

Sleep works on a cumulative deficit system, so when people talk about ‘catching up on their sleep’ (something which until now I’ve quietly scoffed at, as an excuse for a lie-in), they are actually talking science.

While there are some outliers, (those who thrive on only a few hours of bed rest) in general we should be aiming for 7-8 hours of sleep each night. In fact, it seems that getting up at 5am to run 2 hours before work can actually be counterproductive in the long term to your training goals (that’s the news that everyone wants to hear!).

So far, so simple, right?

The problem for me comes when I have to put the 7-8 hours in bed into practice.

Luckily I’ve never been much of a night owl and so the thought of a hot bath and bed by 10:30pm has a certain appeal. However, all too often I find myself reading a book, catching up with my housemates, or listening to a podcast and 10:30pm quickly becomes 11:30pm and before I know it, it’s midnight.

And then there are the evenings of suppers with friends, or that ‘one drink’ after work that suddenly turns into two and even if I make it into bed at a decent hour my sleep is disrupted by even one glass of wine as my blood sugar surges and drops overnight.

To compound the problem, I feel incredibly guilty at the thought of staying in bed any later than 8am on weekends, while weekdays see me up between 6:15am and, if I’m feeling particularly lazy, 6:30am.

What I’ve been noticing lately, however, is that even when my limbs don’t feel especially fatigued, I’m getting incredibly weary from all of my training, while desperately trying to cling on to a semblance of a social life.

So this is where active rest comes in.

If I can convince myself that resting, napping, staying in bed and getting extra sleep is actually an activity that is positively benefiting my training programme – that I am making a choice to get more sleep to make sure I’m performing at my best – then it suddenly seems ok.

As such, on Saturday after my 15 miles, I allowed myself half an hour ‘resting my eyes’ while catching up on some Radio 4, and on Tuesday this week, after running doubles and while waiting for R to get back from training, I curled up on the sofa with my book for an hour.

Research suggests that just increasing sleep by a small amount each night can have a positive effect, while just a few weeks of concentrated sleep catch-up can have a real impact on athletic performance.

I’m starting to enjoy this new aspect of my training programme. Marathon training definitely has it’s perks!

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