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The case for napping during your ultra

Planning to run a race that's going to take hours? Here are some suggestions for how to manage your sleep schedule

Ultra distances are usually considered impressive (or terrifying) because of the sheer volume of running that one person does. The lack of sleep is a just-as-shocking aspect of the sport that’s often overlooked. In an effort to get from one point to another as fast as possible, sleep sounds a little counter-productive. But both a study and anecdotal evidence suggest that a mid-race cat nap may be the biggest gift you could give yourself.

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A 2015 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences looked at UTMB participants and examined their sleep habits. Researchers found that some participants slept and some didn’t. Of those who slept, they were taking quick cat naps (all under 22 minutes, with some only lasting four minutes long).

Gene Dykes at Arches Ultra, Arches National Park, Utah. Photo: Gene Dykes/Facebook

The purpose of the study was to examine the cognitive effects of extreme sleep deprivation while doing endurance-style sport. It turns out that brain function was hugely impaired in many of the runners, as 47 per cent reported extreme sleep deprivation. Extreme sleep deprivation was characterized by (but not limited to) sensation of irrepressible sleepiness, hallucinations and stumbling. Participants even reported slow reaction times (similar to those shown in subjects who are drunk).

If runners took over 36 hours to finish the race, most took a nap. However, interestingly, researchers found a huge range of personal variability when it came to reactions to sleep deprivation–some runners seemed to tolerate the lack of sleep much better than others.

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Camille Herron is making the transition from single-day ultras (24 hours) to multi-day ultras (48 hours and over). This move means running for nearly unfathomable lengths of time. Herron said she’s a napper, but understands that the ability to plop down and snooze isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone. “I’m a night owl, I love doing training runs at night and I have for years. I’m really comfortable with late-night running. I used to run home from the lab when I was in school at like 10 p.m.”

Herron says that she took two power naps at the 24-Hour World Championships, and it freaked her competitors out. “I think people thought that I wouldn’t be able to wake up again, but those naps really helped me. They refreshed my mind so that I could get out there and keep concentrating.”

The ultrarunner says a mid-race nap is less of a sleep and more of a meditation. “Before races I just accept that I may need to lie down and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, with that being said, if I feel sleepy in the afternoon I take caffeine to combat that and I save the short naps for nighttime.”

When Herron isn’t racing, her sleep schedule still includes naps and a late bedtime. “I usually go to bed between midnight and two and I get up between 9 and 10. I’m wired to nap–that’s what works for me. I sleep about seven hours at night and take a two- to three-hour nap in the afternoon.”

Researchers’ (and Herron’s) recommendations if you’re running for over 24 hours for the first time? Plan a snooze. Your brain and your finishing time will thank you.