Running on No Sleep: Do or Don’t?

One of the biggest obstacles for mother runners is getting enough sleep and having time to run. Most of us wake up early before the rest of our families to run, which means we get less sleep. And often, our nights’ sleep is interrupted. So, running on no sleep? Should we do it?

Honestly, running on no sleep is dangerous. Doing it every once and a while is okay. But working out on no sleep regularly, like if you have a newborn or your toddlers are in the “getting sick every week” stage, then exercising on no sleep risks wearing you down and getting you injured or sick as well.

My experience of running on no sleep

Here was my conundrum: when I decided to start running competitively and train for marathons, my son was still in a crib and still needed me to fall asleep. Sometimes I would sit in the chair with him past 11 p.m. (This was also the time when he had a lot of illnesses with lots of wake-ups).

Meanwhile, I was waking up early (some mornings at 3:30 a.m. (!)), to train. As my mileage went up, my sleep went down. Eventually, I got injured. In retrospect, it’s no wonder. My body wasn’t getting the time it needed to recover.

I was also cranky and wished for a nap all the time. I needed better balance.

run on no sleep
Pin these tips for sleeping and running for later!

Moving forward, we moved my son to a big boy bed so I could at least fall asleep with him if needed.  I also arranged for childcare and selected preschool days for him so that I could sleep more and do my workouts later.

At the time I felt hopeless. That sleep and running would always conflict. But my kids are better, more independent sleepers now. And it was a lesson that it was a season. Being able to sleep well and run marathons would come…in time.

The running on no sleep conundrum

Several of my athletes and friends are in similar situations. They have children that wake up frequently to nurse. They have toddlers in daycare who are getting sick all the time. They are averaging 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night. This is not enough to be a functional human being let alone an athlete.

They face performance plateaus or injury and wonder why. Here’s why: you aren’t sleeping enough.

But don’t worry. If this is you, I am here to help.

In this article, I’m going to breakdown:

  • Why runners need more sleep
  • How sleep helps runners
  • What are the risks of not getting enough sleep as a runner
  • How running helps you sleep better
  • Should you run on no sleep
  • Should you run if you’re sleep-deprived
  • How to tell if you should skip your run to sleep
  • And, tips to sleep better and be able to run, too

Do runners need more sleep?

Yes, runners need more sleep. It is recommended that people get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. But, if you’re running, your body needs more sleep than that to repair itself from your training stress.

Thus, most runners need to sleep more than 8 hours a night. Some sleep experts recommend getting an extra minute a night for miles you run a week. So, if you typically sleep 7 hours a night and run 60 miles a week, you aim to sleep 8 hours a night.

Most elite runners, like mother runners Shalane Flanagan and Deena Kastor, reportedly sleep up to 10 hours a night. Many elites also take long naps.

The more you run, the more you sleep. So, if you’re training for a marathon or ultra-marathon, it’s important to factor into your training schedule how much sleep you will get. That should really be a determining factor of your mileage and race goals. (More on that later).

Why do runners need more sleep?

runners needs more sleep
Runners need more sleep. If you find yourself dozing off or wanting to nap during the day, you likely need more sleep at night!

Sleep is when the body repairs itself. Running puts stress on the body, in effect damaging it. During sleep is when your body builds back up to a stronger version of itself.

Specifically, during deep sleep, your body releases Human Growth Hormone which aids in repairing muscles, strengthening bones, and converting fat to fuel.

When you work out harder, your smart body secretes more HGH into the bloodstream to help you repair damaged tissues.

Related: Why You Need to Take a Planned Running Break

What are the risks of running on no sleep?

The risks of running on no sleep are injury, illness, poor performance, and overtraining syndrome.

This is because not getting enough sleep as a runner doesn’t allow time for your body to do what it needs to repair itself and it doesn’t have as much fuel or energy.

Related: 11 Strategies to Bust Barriers to Exercise

Does running help you sleep better?

Many studies show that running helps you sleep better. Indeed, the two have a symbiotic relationship. Sleeping helps you run better. Running helps you sleep better.

Plus, both sleep and exercise overall make you healthier in a multitude of ways. But one should not come at the cost of the other. It can be tough to balance the two as a mother runner.

So how do you decide whether you should sleep in or get up to run?

Should I run on no sleep?

Yes, you can run on no sleep…if it is just one time.

Okay, but: Is it okay to jog on 3 hours of sleep? Is it okay to jog on 4 hours of sleep? Is it okay to jog on 5 hours of sleep? Is it okay to jog on 6 hours of sleep?

The answer is, yes, it is okay to exercise on no or little sleep—if it is a singular incident.

Running on no sleep repeatedly is not advised. In fact, it is a really bad idea that will likely end with injury, illness, and/or poor performance.  

Related: Benefits of an Easy Running Pace

Should I run if I am sleep-deprived?

You can run if you’re sleep deprived if the run does not interfere with your sleep. If you can sleep in more instead of run, do that.

Run to feel energized instead of drained.

How should I run if I’m not getting enough sleep?

run on no sleep
Pin these sleeping and running tips for later!

If you are fatigued, run for fun or for base training until you’re in a stage of life when you can sleep more OR when you’ve worked out how to get more shuteye.

I have athletes and runner friends with young children who complain they aren’t getting faster. They want to add more to their training. But that is a mistake:

You should not train harder until you are sleeping more. Optimize your time spent in bed before you try to optimize your training.

There is a big difference between running when you’re sleepy or running when you’re tired versus running when you’re exhausted or running when you’re sleep-deprived.

If it’s a one-off bad night because your child was sick or had nightmares, go ahead and work out. But if is a repeated issue of a bad night’s sleep or not enough sleep, you need to reevaluate your training.

Related: How Many Miles a Day Should I Run?

How can I tell if I should run or sleep?

If the thought of running makes you tired, you should sleep instead of run. If you’ve had more than one night of bad rest in a row or are getting less than 7 hours of sleep most nights, you should opt for sleep instead of running.

Look hard at your schedule and see if there is a way you can sleep more and run at a different time.

5 Tips to Sleep Better & Run Better

Here are 5 tips for what to do when you can’t sleep or get enough sleep.

  1. Look at your training schedule.

    take a nap
    Snag naps when you can!

Make getting enough sleep a priority. If you can’t get the kids to bed until 9 p.m., do not consistently get up at 4 a.m. to run. In the long term, this will end with an injury, illness, or poor performance.

Some questions to ask:

  • Can you run on your lunch break?
  • Can your partner put the kids to bed ahead of mornings you need to wake up early to do a hard workout?
  • Can you optimize your training on the weekends when you can sleep in more (do a tempo as part of your long run, for example)?
  • Can you hire a sitter for you to run?
  • Can you run in the evening?
  • Can you do a stroller run?
  • Would investing in a treadmill so you can run at nap time make your life easier?
  • Can you alter your child’s bedtime so you can get to bed earlier?

Think through all the possibilities to maximize your sleep. And make getting at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night nonnegotiable.

For me personally, getting the kids to bed earlier didn’t work for us. So, I had to think of other times I could get my workouts in. This meant asking for help—something that took me a while to get comfortable with. 

  1. Take a nap.

Sure, getting a solid 8 hours would be amazing but can be impossible for most mother runners. If it’s not the baby or toddler getting you up, it’s the dog, or a freak alarm going off, or anxiety, etc.

If you have an opportunity to lay down, do it! Even if it means closing your office door, giving your kids iPads, or making the laundry wait.

Try to do it before 3 p.m. so it does not interfere with your night’s sleep and try not to nap longer than an hour.

Napping isn’t as productive for recovery as nighttime sleep where you enter deep sleep, but it still helps and may make you feel better!

Caution: Do not use this as a permanent solution. Still, aim to optimize your bedtime.

  1. Journal, meditate and use a happy light.

    happy-light
    The Happy Light and exposure to sunlight can help you sleep better at night.

For those of you who have brains that never stop thinking, I’m with you. My husband calls it my noodle-brain.

Give it an outlet:

  • Try journaling for a couple of minutes a day to quiet your mind.
  • Meditating where you focus on your breath for one to ten minutes a day can also calm those spiraling thoughts.
  • Finally, I started using a “Happy Light” this winter and have found it to energize me while lifting my mood. (Again, stopping the negative thought spiral). Studies show it helps regulate your circadian rhythms, as can sunlight.

All of these results will help you sleep better—and just feel better as a person.

  1. Maximize your rest days.

Sleep more whenever you can. If Sundays are your rest days, sleep as late as you can—even if that means going to church late, or enlisting your partner to take the kids to soccer. (You can pick up his slack on a different occasion during the week).

You can’t catch up on sleep, but getting a few nights of solid rest a week will work wonders for your recovery and your training.

  1. Do the little things.

If you google how to sleep better, a gazillion results will show up with tips. These little things add up. Here are some quick suggestions:

  1. Keep your room dark, cool (60 to 67 degrees), and decluttered.
  2. Stop looking at your phone an hour before bedtime.
  3. Try not to nap, drink caffeine, or exercise close to bedtime.
  4. Take melatonin. Studies show it helps you fall asleep faster.
  5. Don’t drink alcohol or eat a large meal before bed. It interferes with sleep. My whoop has proven this for me.
  6. Stick to a routine. Go to bed and wake up around the same time.
  7. Wear an eye mask and earplugs (if you can while still being able to hear your kiddos if needed).
  8. Get a WHOOP. I overestimated how much sleep I got. My WHOOP tells me how much I got, how well I recovered, and how hard I should work the next day. Get a $30 discount here.

You may find it odd that a running coach who is supposed to get you motivated to run is telling you to skip running in favor of sleeping, that’s because I have learned the hard way. And, studies support that sleep is the bedrock of successful training.

You can’t train or run well if you aren’t getting enough. So, I like to start with prioritizing sleep and then building training into that.

If you’re in a season of life where you aren’t sleeping and you are beyond frustrated, remember, it is a season! And, if you need help brainstorming solutions or your training, learn more about my run coaching services.

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