I had a teammate in college that always used to say "you can sleep when you're dead." She was one of the most successful athletes the program had ever seen and eventually went on to a professional running career, so I took her advice to heart. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I worked, took classes and ran 70-80 miles a week, not leaving much time for proper rest and sleep.
By that fall cross country season, I was sitting on the sidelines, not cleared to practice, because I had come down with mono. Not exactly what I had planned. This was the first (but certainly not the last) time I learned that sleeping when you're still alive is pretty important too.
As athletes, most of us focus on how to work harder so that we can get stronger and faster. We want to run more miles, do more tempo runs, spend more time in the weight room (okay, maybe not), and make our long runs even longer and harder. I can relate, as I am one of these people! But very few focus, really focus on the tools of recovery, which are just as important a piece of the puzzle as training.
And tops on the list of ways to recover? SLEEP. It's just as, if not more so, important than nutrition and the host of other recovery tools available. And best of all? It's free.
What do you stand to gain from adequate amounts of sleep?
1) Endurance: According to a study by Martin, et al, sleep loss results in an 11% reduction in time to exhaustion. You get tired, faster. Simply put, the less you sleep, the more your training suffers.
2) Weight Control: When you get less than 6 hours of rest each night, leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite, isn't secreted in adequate quantities.
3) Alertness/Attention/Decision Making: It has been well documented that lack of sleep reduces your reactivity and attention as well as affects your decision making ability. Just a 20-30 minute nap can improve alertness dramatically. This makes sleep quite important when it comes to the mental capacity to train and get the most out of each workout.
4) Immunity: People who get 6 hours or less of sleep each night, have 50% less immunity protection when compared to those that sleep 8 hours per night. This is especially important for athletes who are already vulnerable to getting sick during marathon training.
So now that you know how important adequate sleep is, how do you determine what "adequate" is for you? The amount of sleep each individual needs varies and even among individuals can vary during periods of heavy training vs times of less mileage/intensity. Sleep experts recommend calculating your sleep needs by keeping your wake-up time the same, but going to bed an hour earlier, for the next four days.
If, after four days, you are still sleepy when you wake up and tired throughout the day, go to bed 30 minutes earlier. Can't fall asleep? Go to bed 15 minutes later.
Continue until you've found that spot where you can fall asleep but wake up feeling refreshed!