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Week 17: The power of sleep, rest and tapering
Lessons from Christie Aschwanden's 'Good to Go'
I woke up this morning with a very strange feeling — that of being completely rested and refreshed, ready to bounce out of bed instead of dragging myself out of it.
As good as that felt, it took only a moment or two before another realization came over me — that I felt really different from the way I’ve felt after waking up for a long, long time. In fact, I have a hard time remembering the last time I woke up feeling this rested.
That tells you something about the quality of the sleep I’ve been getting. In the past, I would have shrugged it off. “I can get through the day on coffee, and make up for it tonight,” I would’ve thought, before repeating the same actions the next night (and saying the same thing to myself the next morning).
But we know a lot more today about sleep than we probably ever have, thanks to research that got a lot of attention in a recent book titled Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California-Berkeley.
As he writes in the book’s introduction,
“A balanced diet and exercise are of vital importance, yes. But we now see sleep as the preeminent force in this health trinity. The physical and mental impairments caused by one night of bad sleep dwarf those caused by an equivalent absence of food or exercise...
Based on a rich, new scientific understanding of sleep, we no longer have to ask what sleep is good for. Instead, we are now forced to wonder whether there are any biological functions that not benefit by a good night’s sleep.
Emerging from this research renaissance is an unequivocal message: sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day.”
That’s the good news. (The part I want to hear, amirite?!) Walker’s book also includes many, many warnings about what can happen when you don’t get enough sleep, pointing out something I didn’t want to accept when I first read it, but his evidence shows is true:
“As we approach midlife, and our body begins to deteriorate and health resilience starts to decline, the impact of insufficient sleep on the cardiovascular system escalates. Adults 45 years or older who sleep fewer than six hours a night are 200 percent more likely to have a heart attack or stroke during their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven to eight hours a night. This finding impresses how important it is to prioritize sleep in midlife — which is unfortunately the time when family and professional circumstances encourage us to do the exact opposite.”
Well, that’s fantastic news, isn’t it? Especially for this 51-year-old, whose body is going through exactly what Walker describes. Thanks for the pick-me-up, Matt!
You may be wondering why I’m sharing this. The reason, of course, is that if you’re following the training plan we’ve been running together for the past 17 weeks, we’re now in the final week and a half or so before you run 13.1 miles — which means it’s time to taper.
And tapering means we’re gearing down to a lower number of miles per week and a lower level of effort, a little like a plane coming in for a landing. It’s also a time when we want to make sure we get the rest we need and listen to our bodies closely, because they can tell us things the data on our smartwatches can’t.
That’s a lesson I learned from science journalist Christie Aschwanden's excellent 2019 book Good To Go, which is all about what she calls “the strange science of recovery.”
One of the big risks for athletes training today, she explains, is overtraining. And one of the reasons we do is all the data we’re bombarded with, generated by the devices we strap on ourselves when we exercise.
Especially when we share that data in social apps like Strava or Nike Run Club, where we can compare how we’ve done with our peers. As Kristen Dieffenbach, a sports scientist at West Virginia University, explained to Aschwanden, there’s a lot those apps leave out:
“It becomes a competition for training, but in those apps you don’t log everything else you did during the day. You don’t know what anybody else’s budget is or what genetic lottery she won or trust fund she was born with. Maybe she needs more sleep than you do. Those comparisons won’t tell you that.”
Most people don’t realize we’re still in the first inning of understanding a lot of the data our devices generate, she adds — and, because it’s displayed in colorful charts and graphs on our smartphone screen, we give it a credence we probably shouldn’t:
What makes tracking and data analysis so appealing is also what makes it dangerous — it conveys a sense of certainty that the science cannot yet deliver. The assumption underlying the use of data to make decisions about when to train and when to rest is that we understand the complex ways the body processes stress and recovery, and how various workouts affect an individual. In reality, our current understanding of these processes is still pretty rudimentary.
I’ve bolded that last sentence to emphasize the point that your intuition, your heart and head, are a much better barometer for how ready you are to run a certain number of miles than your device. “One of the most important things an athlete needs is confidence to listen to their bodies and trust in the training program,” Aschwanden notes.
She tells the story of triathlete coach Matt Dixon, who emphasizes that each of the people he trains have to learn to become aware of how they’re responding to training — in their own unique way:
Dixon recalls a conversation he had with one of his athletes, Tim Reed, who won the Ironman 70.3 world championships in 2016. Reed wanted to talk about how other champions had trained. “This is how Craig Alexander did it, and this is how Cameron Brown did it,” Dixon says. “And I said, Tim, if you want to be a world champion, you have to do it the Tim Reed way. You can look over the fence, but ultimately a great champion will do what’s right for them.”
You might feel antsy over these last several days before running 13.1, especially after building up to running longer mileages these past few weeks. That’s okay.
Just remember that this is a time to slow down and let the body rest, to get good sleep, and to listen to how it’s feeling. If you’d like to hear some great advice from fellow readers, we held this great live discussion about tapering a couple of years ago.
(And if you’d like to learn how to get better sleep, these 12 tips from the National Institutes of Health are a great place to start.)
As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running is going 😃
Our training plan for this week
Now that we’re nearing the end of our half marathon training cycle for this spring, you’ll see the mileage amounts are significantly lower this week. That’s okay — you’ve run all the miles you’ve needed to get you to the level of fitness you’re at now. For now, just maintain your pace at a lower mileage level, and you’ll be rested and ready for 13.1.
Here’s our mileage over the next week:
Thursday, April 28 — 4-5 miles/40-50 minutes
Saturday, April 30 — 6 miles/60 minutes
Sunday, May 1 — 2 miles/20 minutes
Tuesday, May 3 — 4-5 miles/40-50 minutes
Let me know how it’s going for you — and if you have any questions 👍