The physical and mental demands put on ultra runners are massive and we condition ourselves to help meet those demands. But how much “conditioning” goes into our sleep?

Sleep is a state, and the only time our nervous system is inactive, postural muscles are relaxed and consciousness is partially suspended. Sleep is when our body and mind is in the Anabolic state. Therefore, when we are Awake our body and mind is the Catabolic state.
In our modern time or currently, we are putting our bodies into a state of confusion. Most people deprive themselves of sleep due to:

  • Work demands such as shift work; working longer hours;
  • Exposing themselves to artificial light from TV’s, computers and devices for long periods of time;
  • Competing in crazy long ultra-marathon races.

Research shows we sleep 1 hour less than we did 100 years ago and 2 hours less than before electricity.

As Ultra Runners these are some important facts about how our body Repairs, Restores and Recovers when we Sleep.

1. The Brains Garbage Disposal System

The body’s Lymphatic System cleans everything but the brain. There is a fluid filled channel which eliminates the toxins in the brain that allows the brain to have a clean slate to work from after sleep. This network is called the Glymphatic System and its job is to flush out cellular trash in the body. More importantly, we need to know the brain can only perform one task at a time – whether clearing cellular waste or processing sensory information, it cannot do both.

“Therefore, when you’re pushing through your second day of an ultra with no sleep and you start seeing unicorns in the dark, bear in mind the huge amount of toxins building up in your brain and it will continue to build up until you hit the sack.”

2. Tissue Repair and Growth Hormone Release

There are two types of sleep that alternate between each other, Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep aka Dreamless Sleep and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) aka Dreaming Sleep. In NREM sleep there is a stage called Slow-Wave Sleep (SWS). During this stage of SWS the Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is secreted. Growth hormone stimulates amino acid uptake in tissue and promotes protein and RNA synthesis.

“If you want strong legs from that resistance training, get to sleep to grow those muscles.”

3. Immune Boosting

T-Cells fight against infection by activating Integrins, a sticky protein that attaches to the infected cell. Sleep hormones and pro-inflammatory molecules inhibit the “stickiness” of Integrins. During sleep, our levels of these hormones and molecules drop, and the Integrins become more “sticky” allowing for more contact with infected cells.

“It is important for an ultra runner that if you feel a sore throat or runny nose coming on before a race, increase your sleep, not your training.”

4. Detoxification

Our bodies run to a Master Clock that controls smaller clocks or biological rhythms (Chronobiology). Certain functions occur when we sleep, one being detoxification. Between late night/early morning blood circulation concentrates in our liver, increasing the size of the liver. This is the time when the liver is most active at detoxifying our body.

“Your body is already building toxins from the effort of training. Avoid making detoxification harder by pulling late nights or putting our clock out of rhythm.”

5. Memory Consolidation

Memory functions comprise three major sub processes…Encoding, Consolidation, and Retrieval. Sleep plays a critical role in Memory Consolidation, which is the process where temporary, labile memory is transformed into a more stable, long-lasting form. Some research also shows that physical activity promotes Learning and Memory Consolidation.

“So sleep and exercise work in harmony with each other to improve our memory and make sure we don’t get lost out on the course (been there done that).”