Sleep is essential for runners. In fact, studies show that athletes like marathoners need even more sleep than the average person.
Get enough sleep, and you’ll feel the positive effects carry you through from training to race day. You’ll be more focused and more motivated, able to stick to your training plan without hiccups. You’ll feel stronger, running up hills with more vigor than before. And you’ll experience fewer injuries and recover faster.
Read on to understand the importance of sleep for runners, how to get better sleep during training and recovery, and what you need to be looking for when it comes to finding the best mattress and sleep accessories for runners.
Sleeping Benefits for Runners – Current Findings
Sleep is a key part of good health for everyone, but it’s especially important for anyone who runs, from the casual jogger to the ultra-marathoner. Sleep is a time your body devotes to restoring and repairing your muscles. It’s also important for consolidating memory – and that includes muscle memory, too!
Sufficient amounts of restorative sleep on a regular basis helps runners avoid injury, recover faster, and perform better overall.
Improved athletic performance
Multiple studies have observed that when individuals extended their sleep, their athletic performance improved. They could practice harder for longer, becoming exhausted much later than their counterparts.
During REM sleep, our brain processes information from the day, cementing new learnings to memory, such as a training tip you read or how you move your arms to help you run uphill. Extreme athletes like ultra-marathoners actually experience a shift in their sleep architecture which reduces the amount of REM they get, which is why athletes need even more sleep.
One study in particular followed a group of varsity basketball players at Stanford University. The players were analyzed to establish their baseline sleeping patterns, and then again five to seven weeks later after a period where they extended their sleep, aiming for 10 hours nightly. On average, the players increased their total sleep time by about 1-2 hours, and they saw improved performance across the board: faster sprinting, better reaction times, and improved shooting accuracy. They also reported better well-being, feeling better mentally and physically during games and practice times. The graph below shows the marked improvement in players’ sprint time:
What does this study tell us? Lengthening your sleep can actually make you run faster, but perhaps more importantly, better sleep improves your mood. Ask any runner, and they’ll tell you the hardest part of running is convincing yourself to go for a run in the first place, and not stopping once you do.
Longer, better sleep means better emotional regulation, so you’re equipped mentally and emotionally to motivate yourself to keep running for miles on end. Sleep helps you sustain the mental and physical endurance required for running.
Don’t get enough sleep, and your cortisol levels rise. This stress hormone can stress you out about your race, distracting you from training and instead making your head spin with anxiety.
Besides cortisol, your brain regulates your ghrelin (hunger activator) and leptin (appetite suppressant) hormones during sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep, ghrelin levels rise while leptin drops, so your appetite increases for those overly sugary junk foods that give you a quick energy boost but pack on the pounds.
It’s easier to run when you have a healthy body weight, which is easier to maintain when you’re getting enough sleep.
Fewer injuries and illness
Nothing disrupts a training plan than an unexpected injury. Injury avoidance is yet another area where sleep can help runners.
Sleep deprivation makes you prone to injury from a variety of fronts. The most obvious is the simple fact that you’re not spending enough time asleep, allowing your body to restore and repair your muscles.
Beyond that, though, chronic sleep deprivation (the kind that develops from sleeping fewer than 7 hours a night on a regular basis) lessens your focus. For many of us, this means slower reaction times when we’re driving (hence the rise of accidents attributed to drowsy driving in America) and a tougher time focusing at work. For runners, it means those things in addition to a significantly increased risk of injury. A study of teen athletes found that those who slept fewer than 8 hours a night were nearly twice as likely to incur an injury than those sleeping more than 8.
As a runner, your reaction time and mental focus both suffer when you don’t get enough sleep. You’re more prone to distraction, so you find your mind drifting off during a run and you can’t swerve in time to avoid that pothole in the sidewalk. Your lack of focus makes it harder to stay committed to your training plan, too.
Besides injury, an unexpected illness can knock you completely or at least make running a lot less fun. When you’re sleep deprived, your immune system is especially vulnerable, especially if you’re already overworking it from training for a marathon. In fact, this is why serious runners need even more sleep than the average person, because they’re working their muscles that much harder.
Faster recovery times
Speaking of illness, each night your body works to restore and repair your muscles, bones, and tissue. Basically, it undoes the damage of the day so you’re strong enough to meet tomorrow and not get sick.
Integral to this process is a little hormone most athletes are familiar with: HGH. The majority of your human growth hormones (HGH) get released during deep sleep, regenerating and growing your muscles, while burning fat. More sleep allows more HGH production to occur. Instead of turning to HGH supplements, you can get a leg up on the competition simply by getting enough sleep.
Glucose is another important part of the recovery process. Your body relies on glucose as fuel during endurance events like your long-distance runs, and it also uses it to rebuild your muscles during recovery. Without enough deep sleep, your body can’t properly synthesize glucose for use during either your race or your recovery.
Sleep Tips for Runners
Here’s the great news: as many studies as there are demonstrating the negative effects of sleep deprivation on runners and athletes, there are just as many showing what a positive impact sleep extension can have.
Below are our top tips for ensuring you get the optimal amount of sleep you need to run your best.
1. Figure out how much sleep you need.
Most adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep a day. As a runner, you’re likelier to need more sleep during bouts of heavy training and less during your maintenance phase.
To figure out if you’re getting enough sleep, leave room for you to get at least 7 hours. Then see how you feel during the following day. If you’re feeling exhausted or irritable, it’s not enough and you need to increase your sleep.
2. Set and follow a consistent sleep schedule.
Once you’ve determined how much sleep you need from tip #1, set regular bed- and wake-times based on that amount. Follow these every day, even weekends, to keep your body in balance.
Naps can help some runners, especially if you’re dealing with jet lag. Just be sure to keep it to a power nap of 30 minutes or less; otherwise you’ll wake up groggier than before. You might even consider including a short nap as part of your post-race or training routine.
3. Develop a bedtime routine.
Just like following a regular sleep schedule, adhering to a regular bedtime routine trains your mind to associate certain activities with sleep.
Develop a 30 to 60 minute bedtime routine that calms your mind and body, preparing you for sleep. Popular bedtime activities include taking a warm bath, aromatherapy, deep breathing or muscle relaxation exercises, and meditation.
4. Follow good sleep hygiene.
Make your bedroom cool and dark. Limit your caffeine and alcohol, especially in the evening. Minimize distractions at night and turn off all electronics. Avoid sleeping pills – they’re addictive, and can interfere with your performance.
Invest in a comfortable mattress that makes you excited to go to sleep. We’ll discuss this more in the following sections, but the best mattress is one that helps you stay asleep all night long, facilitating muscle repair and recovery. It needs to support proper spinal alignment, and provide a cool sleeping surface.
5. Eat well.
Maintaining a healthy, calorie- and nutrient-rich diet is essential for runners. Several foods have been known to promote sleep, while others that are overly fatty, sugary, and spicy prevent it – and they don’t help with recovery either.
Sleep-promoting foods include walnuts, cherries, kiwi, fish, bananas, dairy, kale, and jasmine rice.
6. Defeat runner’s insomnia.
It’s not uncommon to feel all amped up the day before a race or after a day of heavy training. Your body may be dead-tired, but your mind is racing and you can’t sleep.
Runner’s insomnia can hit when you work out too late in the day, the night before a race, or whenever you’ve been training too hard for too long, without a sufficient recovery period or enough slow runs in between. You’re forcing your body to operate at a higher level than normal, increasing your cortisol levels and making your body feel more awake.
To beat runner’s insomnia, always schedule your runs to finish no later than 3 hours before bed. During periods of intense training, make sure you include slow runs and increase your sleep times.
7. Use a sleep tracker.
If you’re like many runners, you may already be using a fitness tracker to keep track of your mileage, pace, and more. Why not activate the sleep tracking features?
Most people overestimate how much sleep they’re actually getting. Using a sleep tracker helps ensure you’re getting enough sleep, and that you’re constantly sticking to your sleep schedule consistently. You can also use it to tweak your sleep slightly during days of heavy training.
8. Prepare for jet lag.
If you’re traveling for a race, prepare for jet lag ahead of time. Slowly adjust your sleep schedule in the days leading up to your race, and aim to arrive at your race destination a day or two early to fully acclimate to local time.
Don’t forget to bring along an eye mask and earplugs so you can sleep easy on the plane.
9. Get ready for race day.
Start mentally preparing for your race in the days beforehand. Visualize yourself running the route, and calmly waking up and arriving to the starting line on the day of your race. Brainstorm anything that could go wrong and plan for it ahead of time, so you won’t have anything to worry about by the night before.
10. Sleep more the night before your race.
The night before race day, calm your mind by going to bed even earlier than normal. Follow your soothing bedtime routine, and maybe kiss one of your previous participant medals before bed for extra good luck. Get everything ready – your mid-race snacks, your alarms, your race outfit. Charge your fitness tracker or watch.
The goal is to do everything in your power to sleep well. Be aware, however, that pre-race jitters are a common experience, so don’t stress out if you don’t sleep quite as much as you wanted to. As long as you slept well in the days and weeks leading up to your race, you should be fine
Mattress Considerations for Runners
Now that you’re convinced of the importance of a good night’s sleep, you just need to find the right bed to help you get it.
When it comes to runners and muscle recovery, all beds are not created equal. As a runner, you should look for a mattress that’s a bit cooler and softer than average, and offers excellent pressure-point relief.
Soft to medium firm
Runners typically run on the leaner side. Thanks to all that running, you simply carry around less body weight than the average person and even other types of athletes. As a result, you may require a slightly softer mattress in order to experience sufficient give and keep your spine aligned.
The best mattresses for runners are usually memory foam, hybrid, and latex beds. If you sleep on your back or your side, choose a mattress with soft to medium firmness. If you sleep on your stomach, choose one that’s a bit firmer, medium firm to firm.
All sleepers require proper alignment in order to sleep well and not wake up in pain. For runners, it’s especially important so your body can work on recovering your muscles.
Cool sleeping surface
Runners tend to run hot due to their faster metabolism, and it’s not uncommon for them to sleep hotter, too.
Look for mattresses with excellent airflow and temperature control. Innerspring beds are great at this, but they’re not ideal when it comes to support. Fortunately, many memory foam, hybrid, and latex beds offer cooling elements in their comfort layers to bring down the overall heat of the bed.
However, if you already know you run hot, you’ll probably want to avoid memory foam mattresses altogether. Even with cooling gels and copper beads, these trap too much body heat for hot sleepers to sleep comfortably. Instead, opt for a hybrid bed, which combines elements of innerspring with memory or latex foam, or choose an organic all-latex bed with a breathable cotton cover.
Running is hard work. You need a mattress that lets your body take a load off. The best mattress for runners is one that alleviates muscle tension and relaxes your body.
Memory foam mattresses are the absolute best at this. In fact, it’s what they were designed to do. But if a memory foam bed is out of the bed due to sleeping hot, hybrid and latex beds are great too.
All three of these mattress types contour and conform to your body, filling in the gaps between your lower back and waist while your shoulders and pelvis sink in deeper to the mattress. Your body stays in alignment, but everything feels snugly supported instead of uncomfortably floating above the mattress.
In the next section we’ll share the top-rated mattresses enjoyed by runners. Regardless of our recommendations below, keep in mind that the best mattress for you is one that provides adequate spinal support (you shouldn’t wake up with aches and pains) and allows you to enjoy deep, uninterrupted sleep (no waking up from aches, pains, or night sweats).
Pillows, Sleep Apps, and Other Accessories>
Pillows for runners
Ultimately you want to find a pillow that allows you to keep your spine in neutral alignment from your head to your pelvis. In large part, your preferred sleeping position dictates the best pillow for you. Stomach sleepers need pillows with the lowest loft, side sleepers need the tallest pillows, and back sleepers are somewhere in the middle. If you sleep on your side, measure the length between your shoulder and the nape of your neck to find the right height.
As for filler materials, memory foam pillows typically retain too much body heat for runners, while down and feather pillows don’t offer sufficient support. To get a good mix of both support and breathability, look for pillows with shredded memory foam or latex fillers. Some pillows may even offer cooling elements.
Sleep trackers for runners
Many fitness trackers include sleep tracking capabilities. Wearable devices like the Fitbit Surge and Charge 2 track your fitness and your sleep.
The WHOOP wristband is used by LeBron James and has received a lot of coverage for its adoption among college athletes, thanks to its special focus on reducing recovery times and preventing injury through a holistic look at sleep, diet, and activity. The company claims to have helped reduce injuries by 60%.
Sleep apps for runners
If you prefer not to wear a wearable but still want to track your sleep, you can download a sleep app to your smartphone instead.
Many sleep apps use the phone’s built in accelerometer to analyze your movement and breathing to determine your sleep patterns, and then use that information to predict when you’re in the lightest stage of your sleep cycle and schedule an alarm during that time. Many apps also connect with Apple Watch and other fitness wearables. MotionX 24/7 is designed to provide sleep tracking for athletes, monitoring body weight, fitness, activity level, and sleep in one app.
You can also purchase meditation to calm pre-race nerves and help you fall asleep. The popular meditation app Headspace offers various coaching for athletes, enabling you to use meditation to stay motivated, sharpen your focus, and be positive during rehab and recovery.
Prefer to listen to white noise instead of a person’s voice? Download a white noise library on your phone. These app libraries range from the most generic of white noise to ambient music and nature sounds. Top apps include Relax Melodies, Sleep Pillow, White Noise, and Pzizz.
Dawn simulators for runners
Dawn simulator alarm clocks mimic natural sunlight, helping you wake more naturally and feel energized, even when it’s pitch black outside and 5:15am. Many runners uses these to help them get out of bed for those early morning runs.
The Philips Hue White Ambiance and the Withings Aura are two such lighting systems that not only wake you up in the morning, but also adjust the lighting in your room during the evening to a softer, darker glow more conducive to falling asleep.
Even more sleep tech for runners
Made famous by Tom Brady, Under Armour’s recovery sleepwear uses infrared technology on the inside fabric to improve circulation and regulate body temperature.
The ChiliPad mattress cover lies atop your mattress and allows you to cool or heat your mattress to your desired sleeping temperature. You can even adjust it for different sides of the bed.
Our Favorite Mattresses for Runners
Most mattresses are designed to provide a comfortable night’s sleep that encourages muscle restoration and repair. However, some are definitely better for runners over others. To save you time sifting through your options, we’ve rounded up the best mattresses for runners here.
The Bear mattress is a hybrid foam bed that offers a cooler sleeping surface than an all memory foam mattress, thanks to the Celliant textile technology in its cover. Celliant also helps promote blood circulation, facilitating muscle recovery.
Why: The Bear bed’s standout feature is the use of Celliant textile technology is its cover. It also runs on the less expensive side for hybrid mattresses.
Why Not: There’s only one firmness option (which is a 6 to 7 on a scale of 1 to 10), making it a better fit for runners of average weight or above.
The Bottom Line: The Bear mattress aims to deliver the pressure point relief of a memory foam bed, without the overheating.
Helix Sleep offers a customizable hybrid foam mattress for an affordable price tag. The company uses an algorithm to design a bed customized to the sleeper’s preferences, adjusting the different mattress components based on their answers to a short sleep quiz.
Why: The Helix mattress is nearly all-foam, with only 2 inches of pocketed microcoils. Those microcoils allow it to stay more breathable like an innerspring bed, but all the foam gives it that cushiony “memory foam” feel that runners love to sink into after a long run.
Why Not: The Helix bed’s comfort layer uses a slightly-lower-than-average density foam, so it may develop a permanent indent or sagging sooner than the average mattress would.
The Bottom Line: The Helix mattress delivers the feel of a memory foam bed, but with less heat and for an affordable cost. If you’re worried about sleeping hot, you can mention that in your sleep quiz to get one that sleeps a bit cooler.
Eight Sleep offers three different mattress models, all of which can be upgraded to include their sleep tracking Smart technology cover. This connects with a smartphone app and other smart home devices to coordinate bedroom temperature, alarms, and more.
Why: All three are hybrid beds, with varying compositions of foam, memory foam, or innerspring layers, so runners can choose the best mattress for their needs.
Why Not: Sleep tracking technology is still developing and is not yet an exact or reliable science.
The Bottom Line: Any of the Eight Sleep mattresses offer runners a comfortable, supportive mattress that enables them to analyze their fitness along with their sleep for ultimate performance.
The Essentia Stratami is a positively-reviewed all-latex mattress made from organic materials that offers runners above-average contour and pressure point relief on a breathable sleeping surface.
Why: Thanks to their organic materials, all-latex mattresses sleep cool and last much longer than your typical mattress. The Essentia Stratami can relieve runners for many marathons to come.
Why Not: As an all-latex mattress, the Essentia comes with an all-latex price tag. These beds are expensive, nearly $2,000 for a queen. At only 60 days, their sleep trial is 40 days shorter than the standard 100-day trial you find online, and it’s not free – returns cost 9% of the original purchase price. There’s also only one firmness level, around a 7 to 8 on a scale of 1 to 10.
The Bottom Line: If you’re looking for a firmer mattress that sleep cool and provides relief for your aching muscles, the Essentia Stratami is a luxury option.