Running on Empty

If you’ve ever seen a Tom Hanks film, you’ve probably come to believe that all the best things in life happen when you’re supposed to be sleeping.

(If you haven’t seen a Tom Hanks film, sign offline immediately, rent BIG, hop the NQR to 59th St. to play the giant piano, and then we’ll talk.)

Case in point:

  • If you’re Joe Fox, all the best e-mails from your dial-up pen pal arrive when your soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend is sleeping in the next room.
  • If you’re Forrest Gump, the only time it stops raining in Vietnam is after the stars come out.
  • If you’re Sam Baldwin, well, I’m not sure on this one. I think something transpires during a bout of insomnia in Seattle, but I couldn’t be sure.

Tom, as he’s asked me to call him, isn’t the only one romanticizing sleepless nights. “We stayed up all night talking” has become a telltale description of the perfect first date. Ask a friend what he did last night and he’ll tell you he stayed out ’til dawn like it’s a badge of honor. Spend a month in a coma as Peter Gallagher and watch your possible future wife fall in love with Bill Pullman right before your (closed) eyes.

What’s that? You haven’t seen While You Were Sleeping either? That’s it. Get out.

But while rom-coms coast to coast may be idealizing sleeplessness, the truth is a good night’s rest is just as key to marathon training as your weekly long runs. How do I know, you ask? Because, until this weekend, I hadn’t had one in a long, long time.

Is it naptime yet?
Is it naptime yet?

As I’ve mentioned once or twice in recent pity party posts, I’ve had a busy summer, complete with 30-mile weeks, a new job and so much travel I can almost justify having not yet unpacked my suitcase – from June. It’s been a blast, but it’s also been exhausting, and one of the first things to go this season was my coveted eight-hour sleep cycles. “It’s fine.” I told myself. “Seven is totally the new eight.”

Unfortunately, seven is not quite enough for my body’s needs, nor is six and a half, which seven usually becomes by the time I finish trolling the internet for lists of top 25 camels in rollerblades. Every hour I save not sleeping is another hour I can get things done, I thought, but instead, I find myself groggy, unfocused and shorter than usual with the people I love. My running has suffered, too, with my tired self crossing the finish line at last month’s Battle for Brooklyn at 1:23.07 – not a shameful finish by any means, especially considering my fatigued mind had left my Garmin watch at home, but nowhere near my 10-miler PR of 1:17.45 logged in Philly last spring.

It turns out, Runner’s World is right: “Sleep isn’t a luxury – it’s a training tool. Running on empty won’t get you far.”

But running isn’t the only thing that suffers when you push back your bedtime. Your eating habits also go by the wayside, according to both this unfortunately factual New York Times article and my chocolate consumption this past week.

The research showed that depriving people of sleep for one night created pronounced changes in the way their brains responded to high-calorie junk foods. On days when the subjects had not had proper sleep, fattening foods like potato chips and sweets stimulated stronger responses in a part of the brain that helps govern the motivation to eat. But at the same time, the subjects experienced a sharp reduction in activity in the frontal cortex, a higher-level part of the brain where consequences are weighed and rational decisions are made. … A sleepy brain appears to not only respond more strongly to junk food, but also has less ability to rein that impulse in.

Or in other words, a lack of shuteye can cause even the most rational individual to eat everything in sight.

I'm getting some nutty undertones.
I’m getting some nutty undertones.

I’ve set a lot of goals for myself this year – get a new job (done), set a new marathon PR (in progress), wake up just once without crumbs in my bed (it’s best we don’t address this one) – but here’s one more to add to the mix: work harder at prioritizing sleep. Starting right now. Or, more likely, starting right after reading “10 Llamas Who Wish They Were Models.”

How do you find sleep – or lack thereof – impacts your performance?


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