How to Prepare for Sleep Deprivation in Ultra Marathons

How to Prepare for Sleep Deprivation in Ultra Marathons

Athletes who push their bodies to the extremes know they need to work hard and recover even harder. Aside from eating proper nutrients, getting massages, foam rolling, and stretching, sleeping is the fundamental time period of recovery. During sleep, our bodies, after all the exertion we've placed on it earlier, can rest, repair, and recuperate. But perhaps you are setting your eyes on competing in an ultra-marathon which may require several hours to days to achieve ultimately putting you into a position of performing while being sleep deprived. Take for example the famous Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in France, this ultra race has a maximum allotted finish time of 46 hours and 30 minutes meaning runners need to finish 171 km with a 10,000-meter elevation in less than 48 hours. What are the proper protocols to follow to help prepare for sleep deprivation in ultra marathons? We have provided some following tips and tricks to help acclimate your body on sleep deprivation during ultra-marathons.

First off, why is it so important to have adequate amounts of sleep? 

If you are in the group that believes sleep is wasted time, we hope that we can convince you otherwise. While there are plenty of studies out there on the benefits of a full night's rest, it is even so much more important for athletes, as a reduction in sleep can lead to injuries and having overall decreased energy because glycogen stores are not replenished properly. Additionally, the training that has been put in prior to the big event puts a toll on your body. Any micro-damage that has occurred will not be properly recovered. Inadequate sleep can also weaken the immune system making you more susceptible to illness.  Aside from physical deficits, lack of sleep can play havoc on your cognitive function and ability to focus on environmental sensory input. A study from 2000 found that 19 consecutive wakeful hours produced the same reflexes and reactions as having a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.05% where response times lessen by 50%. More sustained waking hours can result in having a blood-alcohol concentration of up to 0.10%. These findings are nothing to play around with if you are trekking courses that could involve potentially advanced trails and paths that may be made up of high altitudes, uneven terrains, and even cliffs.

How to tell if you are sleep deprived?

Lack of sleep will result in some, if not all, of the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue

  • Irritability

  • Inability to Concentrate

  • Clumsiness

  • Head Fog or Headaches

  • Hallucinations

What are some solutions to help with sleep deprivation?

Prior to Race Day: 

Try Melatonin: Taking a melatonin supplement in the afternoon or early evening can help to speed up to your body's natural circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is the timeframe in which you start to feel sleepy in order to get you ready for bed. Melatonin is naturally produced in the body but a couple of extra milligrams from a supplement  a few hours before normal bedtime can help to speed up the time you begin to feel more tired resulting in helping you to go to bed at an earlier time. 

Avoid Stimulants: Culprits include screen time, alcohol, large meals, nicotine or caffeine before bed. Avoiding these can help to promote a better quality of sleep. Weaning entirely from caffeine a few weeks prior to race day will decrease your bodies tolerance to it thus aiding in promoted energy when it comes to using caffeine on race day. More on that later. 

Have a Relaxing Bedtime Routine: In addition to avoiding stimulants, try a routine that brings on relaxing feelings. About 30 minutes before going to bed, try drinking something warm like non-decaffeinated tea, reading a book, or even practicing mindfulness and meditation. These relaxation techniques can help to calm the mind and create habits to help you regularly get ready for bed. 

Spend More Time in Bed: By spending increased time in bed, you are susceptible to have increased sleeping hours. Create an environment that enhances quality sleep such as having a cool, dark room. Use sleeping masks or earplugs as necessary. Instead of watching TV and falling asleep on the couch, head to the bed to read or meditate and you're more likely to increase your dozing time.

Nap: About two weeks prior to race day, tapering and physical activities should take up less of your time allowing for more time to take some naps during the day. This study from 2006 found that even a 10 minute daytime nap can improve sleepiness, fatigue, vigor, and cognitive performance, with some of these benefits maintained for as long as 155 minutes following the nap.

Sleep Extension/Banking: This term means to extend the amount of time you sleep nightly up to two weeks prior to the event. This can be done by having earlier bedtimes, later wake up times, and previously mentioned napping during the day. There is a study from 2018  on the sleep patterns and strategies of runners participating in the UTMB. Runners who put into place a pre-race sleep extension strategy finished the race faster than those who did not.  

For Race Day:

Caffeine: Having gels with caffeine or coffee periodically through the ultra race can assist in producing a bit of energy to reduce some fatigue, but may not help with the physical effects like headache or cognitive function. Practice your caffeine intake during long runs earlier on in your training regime to see what you can tolerate and when as to not create an unpredicted onset of gastro-intestinal problems come race day.

Pacing: An article from National Geographic, discussed a Swiss study that found tolerating lengthy endurance races is greatly influenced by a slower and strategic pacing plan during race day. If ultra runners attempted to go fast and far for as long as they could hold out, unfortunately sleep deprivation caught up with most of them requiring more sleep in the later stages to preserve their muscles.  It is suggested that a slower pace can be withstood longer for the duration to completion of the race, even when sleep deprivation kicked in.  

Mindset: Take a look back at our recent article on How to Keep a Positive Mindset During Long Runs.

Nap: Sleep some of the fatigue off. Taking a brief 5 to 15 minutes nap can temporarily reduce some symptoms. Preferably try this at an aide station where someone can keep an eye on you and help to wake you back up at your preferred time.

Hopefully you have been able to learn a few strategies on reducing sleep deprivation prior to and on race day for ultra marathons. Maybe you will even be able to immediately start to incorporate some tricks into your regular daily routine to start improving your sleep quality even when not in training.