What’s the Value in Marathon Training?

Mercy Health Tip of the Week by Michael Neeb, PhD, Director of Mercy St. Anne & Mercy St. Charles Sleep Disorders Centers, Co-Director of Children’s Sleep Disorders Clinic, Mercy Children’s Hospital

First, let’s tackle the basics. What exactly is sleep? Despite decades of research, the exact function of sleep remains mysterious. At its core, however, a night of good sleep sweeps away physical and cognitive debris, leaving us energized to face the challenges of the next day.

Sleep is a state of “perceptual disengagement” from our environment. For hours each night, we leave the conscious, waking world and by morning, have little knowledge of what has transpired in the intervening hours. Apart from vivid dreams, we remember only the awakenings that occur at the beginning, middle, or end of the night. Ironically, the less we remember about a night’s sleep, perhaps the better it is.

For these reasons, the technology market is now saturated with portable devices and applications that allow a sneak peek into the inner world of our nighttime sleep. How much did I sleep last night? How well did I sleep last night? Why do I feel great this morning, or why do I feel I need a nap before noon?

Sleep Tracking Devices (STD) measure several things; some quite well; others a bit of a stretch. The foundation of most STDs is a technique known as Actigraphy, a simple measurement of bodily movements over time. As a result, all STDs are quite good at differentiating periods of rest from periods of motion.

But everyone knows that rest doesn’t always equal sleep. So how do these devices determine when a person is truly asleep? During sleep, the physiological demands on the body are significantly reduced. As a result, temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate drop. Using sophisticated, mathematical formulas, STDs combine these additional variables to determine the onset (and offset) of sleep throughout the night.

But let’s go one step further. Sleep is not a static process. Throughout the night, humans fluctuate between light sleep, deep sleep, and dream (REM) sleep. Using similar recording signals, some STDS claim the ability to detect the cycling of these different sleep stages during the night.

Here’s where the STDs lose steam. As the sleep analysis becomes more refined, the results become increasingly unreliable. The reason is clear. Sleep is entirely under control of the brain, and the accurate detection of sleep stages requires the recording of brain wave activity (or EEG). While the EEG is a standard component of a formal study conducted in a sleep center, it is nowhere to be found in any current STD.

So What Value Do Such Devices Have for the Runner In Training?

  • The ability to closely monitor bedtimes and waketimes, STDs easily determine the amount of time we allocate for sleep each night.
  • Typically provide visual evidence of the consistency of the sleep/wake schedule – one of the most important things a person can do to improve their sleep.
  • Some can detect movement disorders that can greatly disturb sleep continuity.
  • Elevations in heart rate, breathing rate, or nocturnal oxygen may signal underlying sleep apnea.
  • Most provide practical, behavioral tips for improved sleep quality.
  • Apps which also track food intake, exercise, stress levels, and nightly routines can help clarify how these factors improve or disturb the quality or quantity of your sleep.

But perhaps the biggest advantage is this. Psychological research strongly suggests that the simple act of measuring and monitoring a behavior increases the likelihood of positive change. Whether it’s calories to be reduced, pounds to be shed, miles to be run, or sleep to be had, keeping your focus on the goal (and the numbers needed to get there) is one sure step toward success. High tech may not even be necessary; a simple paper & pencil sleep diary may work equally as well.

To go the distance, runners need energy, stamina, concentration, coordination, and clear thinking. Nothing insures these gains like seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Get a leg up on the competition — wake up to the importance of sleep in your training program.

For more information, visit mercyweb.org.

Subscribe to our newsletter and be sure to friend us and follow our posts on Facebook and Twitter, and visit our official training and pace team partner, Dave’s Running.

* This content is not intended to replace any formal training plans directed by licensed coaches. You should always get your doctors go-ahead prior to embarking on any fitness regime. Mercy Health, Glass City Marathon and the Toledo Roadrunners Club are not offering this content to replace a monitored training plan. — Use this content as conversation starters with your doctors, nutritionists, coaches, etc.