How Much Sleep Do Runners Need For Peak Performance?

We spend around one-third of our lives doing it, but have you ever stopped to think about how important sleep is and its role in your running journey? Sadly, most people are sleep-deprived on any given day, and this is particularly true for runners trying to squeeze in morning workouts while juggling busy work, social, and family lives.

We’re often told to get 8 hours of sleep each night (thanks, mom!), but is this scientifically proven to be enough? Or is it too much? 

Below, we’ll look at whether runners need more sleep, how much sleep runners need, whether sleep impacts running performance, and what you can do to get better quality sleep.

Sleep For Runners: What You Need to Know

A sleeping runner

Before we jump into how much sleep you need and how to get better sleep, let’s look at the stages of sleep.

Stage 1 – NREM 1 (N1)

This is the stage where you’re transitioning between being awake and asleep. If you wake someone up during stage 1, they’ll often say they weren’t sleeping; they were “just resting their eyes” – we’ve all been there.

During NREM 1, your:

  • Brain slows down
  • Eye movements, breathing, and heartbeat slow
  • Body relaxes (your muscles might twitch)

This stage in the sleep cycle lasts between 5 and 10 minutes. Your brain is still producing waves in the frontal lobe, meaning your brain is still fairly active in this stage.

Stage 2 – NREM 2 (N2)

The American Sleep Foundation has reported that most people spend around 50% of their sleep time in stage 2, lasting around 20 minutes per sleep cycle.

During NREM 2, your:

  • Body temperature drops
  • Eye movements stop
  • Brain becomes less aware of surroundings
  • Heart rate and breathing regulate

During this stage, your brain will produce quick bursts of rhythmic brainwave activity called sleep spindles. They’re believed to be a process of memory consolidation when you gather, process, and filter your new memories.

Your body is also slowing down to prepare for stages 3 and 4, the deeper stages when your body and brain repair, restore, and reset.

Stage 3 – NREM 3 (N3 – Deep Sleep)

As you move into stage 3, your brain produces slow, deep brain waves called delta waves. Stage 3 is often referred to as deep sleep or delta sleep. During this stage, surrounding activities and environmental noises typically fail to wake a sleeping person.

Sleepwalking is most common during stage 3 and typically occurs earlier in your sleep cycle. Children and teenagers are more likely to sleepwalk than adults.

During NREM 3, your:

  • Breathing slows, and blood pressure drops
  • Muscles are fully relaxed
  • Brain is in its deepest sleep

During this stage, your body begins physically repairing itself, making this the most important sleep stage for athletes. When you get enough deep sleep, you’ll wake up feeling refreshed the next day. Your brain also consolidates your declarative memories, such as statistics, facts, general knowledge, and personal experiences.

Stage 4 – REM

During Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, your brain activity is similar to when you’re awake, but your body is paralyzed as your muscles are immobilized. This is the sleep stage where you have the most vivid dreams, so this immobilization stops you from acting out your dreams. REM sleep starts around 90 minutes after you fall asleep.

During REM, your:

  • Body is immobilized and relaxed
  • Brain lights up with normal activity (experienced as dreams)
  • Eyes move rapidly
  • Breathing is irregular and faster

Much like stage 3, a lot of memory consolidation happens in the REM sleep stage, but emotions are also processed and stored at this point. Your brain uses this stage to commit information to memory, which is vital for the learning process.

Repairing and Rebuilding

As we mentioned, stage 3 and REM are when your body and brain repair and rebuild, but it’s also when your body secretes hormones that promote muscle and bone growth. Your body also uses these deep sleep stages to build your immunity to fight infections and illnesses. This is an essential part of a runner’s recovery regime.

Signs You Aren’t Getting Enough Sleep

How much sleep do runners need?

A recent study found that over 32% of adults don’t get enough sleep each night. Not only that, but the quality of their sleep was insufficient too. If you’ve had 5 hours of sleep and feel tired mid-afternoon, it’s easy to tell that quantity is the issue. If you’ve had 8 hours of sleep but still feel exhausted, the quality of your sleep may be a concern.

Here are the signs that you aren’t getting enough good-quality sleep:

  • It takes more than 30 minutes to fall asleep
  • You’re groggy and drowsy during the day
  • You need lots of caffeine to make it through the day
  • You make up more than once per night
  • It takes over 20 minutes to fall asleep again after waking

If you experience any of these issues, worry not! Next, we’ll look at how you can improve your sleep quality (and quantity) each night.

How Much Sleep Do Runners Need For Peak Performance

Studies have found that most runners need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep. The more active you are, the more you need. Many elite runners aim for 9 to 10 hours of sleep to ensure their bodies are getting enough recovery and rest time. When you wake up after a night of quality rest, you should feel refreshed and energized, ready to greet the day.

Of course, as we’ve mentioned, getting a good quantity of sleep isn’t the only thing you should focus on. You also need to ensure you are getting good quality sleep. Quality is always more important if you need to prioritize one over the other.

Is there a minimum amount of sleep a runner needs? YES! Anything less than 7 hours is potentially dangerous. Check-in with your body and see how it’s feeling physically and mentally. The amount of sleep each of us needs differs based on our bodies, activity levels, diet, etc. So keep an eye on how you feel – this will inform how much sleep you need.

6 Tips for Better Sleep

Rather than worrying about statistics and medicines, you can make a few small changes that can significantly impact your sleep quality and quantity. Here are six strategies to help you become a better sleeper and, as a result, a better runner.

1. Sleep in Total Darkness

If your neighbor’s security lights or the street lights shine through your bedroom curtains, consider purchasing black-out blinds. Don’t sleep with a side lamp or passage light on. The darker your room is, the better.

2. Use Blue Light Glasses

In the hour or two before you head to bed, use blue light glasses. They help get your body and brain into a normal sleep cycle by minimizing disruption to melatonin production. Melatonin is a sleep hormone and is critical to the quality of your sleep.

3. Follow a Bedtime Routine

Our brains thrive on routine, and having a normal sleep pattern is one of the best things you’ll do for your quality and quantity of sleep. Wake up and go to sleep at the same time each day, even if you haven’t got work or appointments.

4. Steer Clear of Alcohol or Coffee Before Bed

Alcohol and coffee are well-known sleep disruptors, so avoid drinking them later in the evening. If you can, stop drinking coffee at least 4 hours before bed – even more if possible.

5. Skip Sugar Before Bed

We hear you – having chocolate or some candy while watching your evening TV show is great, but it’s not doing your sleep any favors. Sugar spikes then crashes your blood sugar levels. It impacts your body clock, making you struggle to fall asleep.

6. Avoid Screens

Most of us know that too much screen time isn’t good for us, yet we do it anyway. Here’s the thing – looking at screens (phone, tablet, TV, laptop) suppresses your melatonin production, making it harder to fall asleep. Avoid screens for at least an hour before going to bed.

How Does Sleep Impact a Runner’s Body

As runners, most of us want to know what impact sleep has on our bodies, how it improves our recovery, and how it can help us run better. The great news is that getting high-quality sleep daily has a massive impact on your recovery and training.

Most of the recovery-boosting benefits of sleep happen during stage 3, so this is the number you want to track (we’ll talk more about this later). 

Stage 3 is when we see:

  • Memory consolidation
  • The release of growth hormone
  • Tissue repair

What happens to your body when you give it the right fuel is amazing. The human body is a well-oiled machine that knows how to work – give it the basics, and it will run very well.

Do Runners Need to Get More Sleep

We’re sure you’ve gathered by now that sleep is critical for muscle repair. Because of this, we’re sure you’re wondering whether a runner needs more sleep than those who don’t run.

Rather than answer this with a yes or no, let’s look at the facts:

  • While training for his sub-2-hour marathon attempt, Eliud Kipchoge got 8 hours of sleep each night and had a 2-hour nap every afternoon.
  • Marathoner Paula Radcliffe would sleep for 8 to 10 hours per night and had an afternoon nap every afternoon.

This suggests that, yes, runners do need to get more sleep than ordinary people. There are two main reasons for this.

1. Proper Sleep = Proper Recovery

Research has found that you must recover properly to reap the rewards of your running training. What’s the point of putting in dozens of hours of training each week to meet your running goals only to sabotage yourself by under-sleeping?

2. Increased Mileage = Increased Sleep

During your peak training weeks, when your mileage is the highest, your need for more (and higher quality) sleep will be high. You may even find yourself needing to schedule an afternoon nap each day to get those zzz’s. 

Why Do We Need Good Sleep

Studies have shown that chronic poor sleep is linked to an increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Other reports indicated that those who get low-quality sleep or too little sleep have an elevated risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

While most of these studies found these results in extreme cases where the participants had experienced many years of sleep deprivation, it indicates how important sleep is.

Does Good Sleep Reduce Your Risk of Injury

Short answer: YES! Studies have shown that consistent under-sleeping increases your risk of overtraining syndrome and injury. This is because training on fatigued legs without allowing recovery between sessions. Proper recovery is crucial to any training plan, including quality sleep.

Does Running Impact Your Sleep?

As we’ve covered, runners need better quality sleep and lots of it. Do our bodies naturally adjust to sleeping more as we run more? Yes, studies found that as we exercise more, we spend more time in stage 3 deep sleep, bumping up the quality of our sleep.

This is one of the reasons doctors and medical professionals recommend exercise for people with sleep disorders. Those same studies observed the sleep data of over 1,000 runners and found that they didn’t suffer from the same sleep issues as the general population.

That’s excellent news for runners, right?!

Well, those statistics don’t mean you’re personally immune to bad sleep. If you suffer from poor sleep, try our tips above and consider monitoring and tracking your sleep to help you find a solution to getting better sleep.

Does Sleep Impact Your Running?

By now, we’re sure you’ve realized that running and sleep directly impact each other. Here are a few of the ways that sleep impacts your running:

  • Builds muscle
  • Repairs tissue
  • Balances hormones
  • Improves athletic performance
  • Increases water reabsorption
  • Improved concentration
  • Reduces injury risk
  • Boosts immune system

It’s easy to see why getting proper sleep improves running performance.

How Can You Track Your Sleep

Most runners love looking at their metrics and stats, and we’re sure you’re no different. Luckily, when it comes to tracking sleep, it’s stats galore! For simplicity, most runners use their sports watches to track their sleep. 

While the only completely accurate way to track your sleep quality and quantity is to visit a sleep clinic where they run an EEG as you sleep, most sports watching are moderately correct within about 5 – 10%.

The first step is to track how many hours of sleep you get. You can do this by noting what time you close your eyes to go to sleep and what time you open them in the morning. This is very simple to do and surprisingly accurate.

After a few months of using your sports watch, it will likely learn when you are sleeping, and the numbers will be quite similar. These numbers will give you a rough idea of how much sleep you’re getting.

Sleep Well to Run Well

Getting proper sleep is vital for your mental and physical health. There’s no substitute for a good night of deep sleep.

Quality sleep reduces your risk of illness, puts you in a good mood, strengthens the immune system, increases your athletic performance, and minimizes your risk for injury and cardiovascular disease.

Aim for 7 to 9 hours (the more, the merrier) of sleep per night, and watch how your running performance improves.

Author Profile

Thalia Oosthuizen

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Thalia started running during the the pandemic as a way of getting out of the house. The running bug bit, and now much of her life revolves around everything to do with running - videos, podcasts, studies, books, articles, and interviews. She's also done several courses on running nutrition and mechanics to aid in her training and advising others.
Thalia Oosthuizen

Revel SPorts Contributor

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