Doc Ott recently wrote a blog post about his strategy for ultra training. He essentially came up with a method that allows him to hit high mileage and still spend time with his family.
His methodology brought back not-so-fond memories of my early days as an ultrarunner. I was more or less in the same boat- I had a finite amount of time to train but needed to build an endurance base to handle the rigors of ultramarathons. My solution was similar to his-
Wake up ridiculously early in the morning _2-3am), run, get ready for work, drop kids off at daycare, work, pick kids up, engage in family time, put kids to bed, spend time with Shelly, go running again, sleep.
I did this for about a year. It served the purpose- I built a pretty good endurance base that has persisted for years. I also got a pretty decent string of sleep deprivation training runs since we had two babies that woke up throughout the night.
My experiences in 100 milers with this sleep deprivation training was mixed. I didn’t get especially tired until about 4am. I didn’t get deliriously tired until sunrise, and the feeling persisted for about two hours. This wasn’t a major issue until the 2011 Grindstone 100 when a 6pm start coupled with a variety of other issues that led to a DNF.
I was determined to find a better method for overcoming sleep deprivation. The applicable science is pretty straight-forward. We normally have a 24 sleep-wake cycle which is one of many circadian cycles that regulate bodily processes. If we have a fairly predictable wake-up time, our body quickly adapts to specific periods of sleep and wakedness. We have the ability to manipulate the sleep-wake cycle. If we stayed awake for 24 hours at a time, we’d eventually adapt to that sleep/wake cycle. Unfortunately we’re continually confounded by the sun. We have light-sensitive photoreceptor cells in our eyes that “reset” our internal clock each day. Besides, those pesky “jobs” usually prevent unusual sleep/wake cycles.
The other biological issue is our biological need for sleep. We can’t live without sleep. Literally. If we lose the ability to sleep, we die. A chemical called adenosine builds up in our bloodstream when we’re awake. The longer we’re awake, the more adenosine builds up. This chemical makes us feel sleepy, impairs cognitive function, negatively affects coordination and balance, and a host of other undesirable effects that sabotage running.
Caffeine, the world’s most popular psychoactive drug, works by temporarily blocking adenosine. One option in ultras is to drink a shit ton of caffeinated beverages. Indeed, Redbull and Monster are staples of my 100 miler drop bags. Unfortunately the effects are short-lived and result in a crashing effect after the adenosine-blocking wears off. You feel even more tired than you would if you hadn’t consumed caffeine.
The other option is sleep, which dissipates adenosine. Interestingly, it doesn’t take much sleep for this effect to occur. A 15 minute power nap should result in a significant reduction of adenosine. That’s the biological basis for the “power nap.” It’s long enough to affect adenosine but short enough to prevent us from slipping into the deeper stages of sleep which makes us feel groggy upon waking. The problem- lying down and remaining immobile for 15 minutes at mile 70 almost always results in severe stiffness (not the morning wood type) and possibly exercise-induced cramping.
My Tested Solutions
I knew the two-a-day runs were not quite as effective as they needed to be based on Grindstone. I had a great opportunity to test a few different strategies at the 72 hour Across the Years race last December. I tried the 15 minute power nap, a 90 minute sleep period (to theoretically go through all five stages of sleep), and several variations of multiples of 90 minute sleep periods (three hours, four and-a-half hours, six hours).
I found four and a half worked well. Three was too short, as was 90 minutes. Unfortunately that didn’t help much for hundos. There’s no way I could give up three hours by sleeping. I’m not fast enough to create a large buffer for cutoff times. That essentially put me back to square one.
The Accidental Solution
Around late winter, Shelly and I decided to alter our travel methods. When we first hit the road and we had a long distance between clinics, we would break up the drive into 6-7 hour blocks. A drive half way across the country might take us four days. Those travel days sucked because our kids were stir-crazy when we stopped. It took forever to calm them down. We decided to experiment with driving these routes in one block- through the night.
At first it was tough. I would stop several times for the aforementioned power nap. After three or four such trips, I noticed my “night endurance” increasing. I felt less drowsy. I had to stop less. I consumed less caffeine.
I didn’t really consider the effects on hundos until Bighorn. The race was an 11am start, which guaranteed I’d be running through the night and well into the following day. Indeed, the race took me over 32 hours. Much to my surprise, I made it through the night with minimal sleep deprivation symptoms. I immediately made the driving connection.
The theory was sort of tested again at the Grand Mesa 100. Shelly and I ended up DNFing, but not before we got a healthy dose of night running. Again, I had very few sleep deprivation symptoms.
The final test was Grindstone. I woke up at 6am the morning of the race (kids are early risers and loud). The race didn’t start until 6pm that evening. I didn’t have any troubles that first night or the following day. I didn’t run into any sleep deprivation symptoms until about 10pm Saturday… 28 hours after the race started and 40 hours since I last slept. Even then, the symptoms were minor. I had trouble focusing on the trail, had some minor hallucinations, and felt a little drowsy. This represented a HUGE improvement from my experiences prior to Across the Years.
So… what would I recommend for sleep deprivation training?
Stay up all night occasionally. I do it about once monthly. Since it is tough physiologically, I don’t recommend doing it more often.
I still question exactly why it was so effective. Did it cause my body to physiologically adapt to an occasional lack of sleep? Or an I simply learning to deal with the symptoms of sleep deprivation, thus reducing their severity? Or it it just a placebo effect and I just believe I can handle it better?
I’m curious to hear how others deal with sleep deprivation. What works for you? What doesn’t work? Share in the comments section!