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Sleep Deprivation Ultramarathon Training

Posted by on Oct 18, 2012 | 8 Comments

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!



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  1. Richard
    October 21, 2012

    Jason, like you I stay up all night occasionally – have done since I was a teenager. I don’t do it for ultras, but I’ve found that it kind of resets my body clock and allows me to sleep a lot better afterward.

  2. CG
    October 19, 2012

    My experience, although not through ultra experiences, is similar and I believe applicable. I’m in the Army and have routinely (generally at least 3-4 times a month, sometimes as many as a month on end) been forced to walk/ruck march throughout the night and continue moving into the next day. Also a year in Afghanistan tends to make you a vampire. Anyway – I have found a few things to work on Operations as well as my Runs: 1. Save your Caffeine “Kick” for when it matters – by this I mean instead of keeping a slow drip of caffeine throughout the night, if you know when you normally crash, don’t take in much caffeine throughout the night then start a stady intake an hour before and through the time period you normally crash. This keeps me with a pretty steady energy level. 2. The experience definitely is cumulative, 4 years ago I sucked at it and now it just feels normal 3. Although it may seem vague, use any opportunity you can to relax the mind, believe it or not your body will keep in motion when you are damn near brain dead, if you are spacing out but still moving then just space out, those waking sleep periods help (I learned this through trauma throughout Ranger school). I don’t know if this works for everyone but other buddies in the service that are ultra-runners attest to the same.

  3. Jesse
    October 18, 2012

    Aaah, the good ole days. You’d be “getting up early” at 2am, and I’d be “staying up” unitl 2am. Cold, awful runs.

    I approach sleep deprivation like the occassional fast. Once every few months to act as a “reset” of sorts.

  4. Adam
    October 18, 2012

    Cutting caffeine in my daily life has allowed me to get far more of a Lance Armstrong effect out of the caffeinated gels during the two races that I’ve run thus far. I agree with Rob that getting as much sleep as humanly possible the week before, knowing that anything could happen the night before race day, is absolutely necessary. I made the mistake of depriving myself of sleep the penultimate night before my first race, in the hope that it would allow me to get an even more solid and long night of sleep the last night. Instead, I just had two shitty nights of sleep behind me going into the race, instead of one.

  5. Rob Y
    October 18, 2012

    I totally agree but in a different way. I think experience in this department is cumulative. The more overnight races and training runs I’ve done the easier they’ve become over time. The other thing that has helped (in my case I have no kids) is to get at much sleep and rest before race day as possible because more than likely you won’t get the best sleep before the event. Lastly I think keeping a good caloric drip the entire race is a must to ward off the sleep demons late at night. My biggest calories tend to be in the liquid form as they are much easier to get down and digest. I’ve also experimented with weening myself from caffeine over the last couple weeks before a big event just so when and if I did feel pretty low the caffeine would pack a bigger punch. Really had mixed results with that method; wasn’t really worth giving up coffee for two weeks! Basically tend to steer away from high dosing on caffeine in favor of just pushing more calories… Your mileage may vary.

  6. Roger
    October 18, 2012

    I know that when I worked third shift I was much better at 24 hr events than I am now. With that said I usually don’t have to much trouble until the sun comes up and by that time I’m hopefully near the finish so I just don’t care.

  7. Ben
    October 18, 2012

    I used to work night shifts at Intel as a student.

    You definitely get accustomed to spending the whole night awake.

    I don’t think it’s a psychological change. Having spent 1 or 2 night awake about once a week made a very noticeable change.

  8. Mark Lofquist
    October 18, 2012

    have you ever looked at heart rate while asleep?