One thing I had to my advantage during my competitive running days was that I always slept well. Even when I was away in foreign countries for races I had no problem sleeping, which meant I was well-rested and able to perform to the best of my capabilities.
Things are different now as I have to piece together a daily schedule which includes family, work and training. Most of you reading this article are in the same situation and it can be a difficult juggling act.
The daily schedule item that often gets hit is sleep and this is unfortunate because sleep may be one of the most important aspects of any endurance athlete's life.
Sleep is a time when your body repairs itself so that you can prepare and recover from training and competition. The harder you train, the more vigilant you need to be about your rest. Athletes spend a lot of money and effort to reach their peak and getting enough sleep is crucial for performance. Nothing has more benefit to you in sport, or indeed life, than an extra hour of sleep each night.
Whether you're an Olympic athlete, club runner or a lunch-break walker, getting enough sleep is important for lots of reasons. Most people need about seven to nine hours per night. But if you're training that may not be enough as you are putting your body under stress and you need more time to recover.
People underestimate the importance of sleep. My mother is of the opinion that sleep is more important than food. If you don't get enough sleep, your body's ability to store glycogen reduces and, therefore, you will lack energy. Sufficient sleep also helps to increase your resistance to colds, improves your memory and helps with weight loss. Sleep deprivation increases the risk of injury and slows down the healing process.
Having a busy lifestyle makes it difficult to get as much sleep as we should. Realising the importance of sleep may make you turn off the television or organise yourself in such a way that you can 'hit the pillow' earlier.
Get into a good routine – go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Before going to sleep, tell yourself that you are going to have a solid night's sleep and you are going to wake up feeling refreshed.
Focus on relaxing your body, one muscle group at a time, starting from your toes and working your way up. Many people stress about not sleeping, which delays sleep, but remember peaceful rest is nearly as good.
If you do wake up during the night, which is normal, don't stress about it. Be happy that you don't have to get up yet, and take slow, relaxed breaths to help you bet back to sleep. Replace worrying thoughts with pleasant and relaxing ones, and remember, a lot of things we worry about never actually happen.
I remember listening to a 100-year-old lady who was asked what her secret to living so healthily for so long was. She answered by saying that she never worried. Her husband died at 70, he worried about worrying!
Avoid caffeine, alcohol and large meals four hours prior to sleep. Small snacks before bed are okay, particularly if you are hungry. A glass of warm milk, hot chocolate or a bath can sometimes help you sleep. Avoid exercise if possible three hours prior to bedtime. Establish a relaxing bedtime routine by reading or listening to soothing music with some gentle stretching.
Poor performance may result if you have prolonged lack of sleep. One sleepless night is not necessarily associated with any negative effects on performance. So, don't allow yourself to get stressed if you toss and turn the night before a race.
Power naps are a great way to reduce recovery times and increase regeneration of muscles. They also boost your immune system and control inflammation and soreness. If you can manage a 20-minute nap during the day, three times a week, it will really enhance your performance.
Employing good sleep practices will help you recover from the rigours of training and work, while ensuring you will get the most out of yourself on race days. From now on, make regular sleep as much of a priority as healthy eating and remember the 'difference between hope and despair is a good night's sleep'.