How Much Sleep Do Endurance Athletes Need?

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If you’re training hard for an endurance challenge such as a marathon, triathlon or the Fitbit Fifty – a six-person team challenge to run and cycle from Buckingham Palace in London to Edinburgh Castle and back again in 50 hours – quality sleep is just as important as good nutrition and smart training.

“When you’re pushing your body to the limit in preparation for an endurance event, you need to aim for eight hours’ sleep a night,” says Dermott Hayes of training company RG Active, which has coached a host of amateur marathon runners, triathletes and outdoor swimmers. “Professional athletes can take naps during in the day, but for the rest of us with normal work duties, nighttime sleep is even more important because it’s your main source of rest. Over the course of any endurance training programme, poor sleep will catch up with you.”

Some recommend even longer hours in bed if you have the time. “Eight hours’ sleep would be an absolute minimum for me – but ever since I heard Roger Federer gets 12, I aim for more,” says endurance cyclist John Whitney, who has completed the seven-day Haute Route cycling challenge four times.

Here are three reasons why endurance athletes need better sleep – and some easy tips to help you upgrade your nocturnal habits.

1. Sleep Boosts Performance

The amateur athletes currently following the Fitbit Fifty training plan are powering through a mix of 50km bike rides and 60-minute runs. Scientific studies have shown that a bad night’s sleep can affect everything from your cardiovascular performance and oxygen consumption levels to your peak power output during exercise.

A lack of rest will zap your energy levels and cognitive performance, leaving you feeling unmotivated for those early morning sessions. “Poor sleep will also weaken your immune system, putting you at risk of infection,” says Hayes. That’s especially important for endurance athletes, given that long hours of heavy training can leave you vulnerable to colds and flu.

2. Rest Improves Recovery

Your muscles don’t get faster or stronger when you run or cycle. That all-important physical adaptation takes place when you’re resting afterwards, which makes quality shuteye absolutely vital if you want to get fitter. “The greatest amount of physical recovery comes during stage 4 and REM sleep – essentially very deep sleep,” says Professor Greg Whyte, a physical activity guru and Fitbit ambassador.

3. Napping Leads to a Slimmer Physique

Top coaches recognise the importance of an endurance athlete’s power-to-weight ratio: if you can stay strong but also slim down you’ll have less body mass to accelerate, which means you can run and cycle more efficiently. It’s a little-known fact that sleep quality can have a major impact on your appetite. A good night’s rest has been shown to limit the release of ghrelin (a hormone that makes you feel hungry) and increase the release of leptin (a hormone that makes you feel full) to ensure you don’t raid the office vending machine. “Most studies suggest that people who sleep less tend to put on weight,” says Professor Whyte.

How to Improve Your Sleep

To boost your sleep quality – and ensure you’re always training at your best – Fitbit’s range of wearable trackers, including the SurgeBlaze and Charge 2, have built-in sleep trackers to monitor your body movements during the night and record the quality and length of your sleep.

If you discover you’re suffering a lot of restless sleep, it’s time to make changes. Start by enhancing your sleep environment: make sure your bedroom curtains block out all light and remove any electronic gadgets, including tablets and TVs – even a small red standby light can play havoc with the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. “If you’re training in hot weather, make sure you drink a lot earlier in the day because dehydration can also affect your sleep quality,” says marathon runner Mike Gluckman. “Eating late at night or drinking alcohol or coffee before bed will also reduce your chances of achieving deep sleep,” says Professor Whyte.

The best way to ensure quality sleep is to stick to a consistent bedtime routine. Take a bath, read a book (on paper, not a tablet) or drink warm milk to help you wind down. Fitbit devices enable you to set a sleep schedule and alerts – including bedtime and wake-up targets – to help you plan and follow the sleep routine your body needs. And don’t let travel for work or training camps ruin your sleep schedule. “When I’m away, I take silicone ear plugs and an eye mask,” says Whitney. “Call me a diva but I also request a hotel room on a higher floor, particularly when I’m in a noisy city.”

It may also be worth changing your sleeping position and bedding. According to the US National Sleep Foundation, lying on your back is the best position because it supports your neck and spine in a neutral position to help ward off any aches or acid reflux, which could disrupt your sleep.

Check the thermostat too – experts suggest 16-18°C is the optimum temperature for a blissful doze. Consider getting a microfibre duvet, which adapts more efficiently to temperature fluctuations than natural fillings to help you maintain a steady body temperature. That way you can leave all your sweating and shivering to those epic, stamina-boosting weekend bike rides.

Former contributor

Mark Bailey is a features writer and interviewer who contributed to Coach magazine in 2015 and Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach, until 2019. Mark has also written for national newspapers including The Telegraph and The Financial Times Magazine, as well as magazines and websites such as Cyclist and Bike Radar.