Counting Sheep
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Counting Sheep

Counting Sheep

by Claudia Piepenburg

You've probably seen the television ads for a famous mattress manufacturer that features digitized computer-generated sheep, humorously referred to as the "counting sheep" we've been told since we were children that we should count when having trouble falling asleep. The sheep are cute and the ad is funny, but if all you remember about it is the sheep, you're missing the point. And the point is that sleep's important, so important that if you don't get enough of it, you'll experience negative consequences - both physical and psychological.

Sleep Deprivation: A National (and an Individual) Problem
We're a nation of people who don't get enough sleep. Numerous studies over the past several years have come to the same alarming conclusion: Americans are sleeping less, and the negative impact on their health and general well being is suffering because of it. In the 19th century, before the electric lightbulb was invented, people slept nine to twelve hours a day. Their bodies were in tune with the rising and setting of the sun, so they slept longer in the winter and a bit less in the summer; they were in perfect sync with nature.

Now we are exposed to artificial lighting 24/7, many of us get up in the morning before sunrise and we often stay up hours after sunset. Instead of nine to twelve hours of sleep a night, we consider ourselves lucky if we can squeeze six or seven into our hectic schedules. Most researchers agree that nearly one-third of all Americans are getting by (barely) on six hours or less of sleep every night, yet it's commonly known that the average person needs at least eight hours of sleep per night to perform at his or her best. And for runners, either recreational or competitive, it's even more important to get enough sleep.

Consequences of Inadequate Sleep
If you aren't getting enough sleep, you can expect to experience the following (maybe you're already enduring some or all of these conditions):
  • Weak and inefficient muscles.
  • A recent study at the University of Chicago Medical School indicates that sleep deprivation causes glucose metabolism to slow by as much as 30-40%, which affects how muscles perform during endurance activities, and how they recover afterwards. Too little sleep also has been shown to lower the levels of metabolic enzymes in muscle tissue, which affects their ability to contract and relax during exercise.
  • Disorders of the central nervous system.
  • When certain chemicals aren't cleansed from the brain during sleep they can accumulate, leading to nervousness, irritability, unusual fatigue and even depression.
  • Lowered immune system defenses.
  • When you get enough sleep your body properly metabolizes melatonin and cortisol, two hormones critical to maintaining homeostasis (or a stable state of equilibrium). However if you constantly stress your body through training and inadequate sleep, eventually you may develop chronic conditions such as extreme sluggishness and lethargy when waking, lightheadedness, dizziness when standing, frequent colds and even inflammatory disorders such as tendonitis that don't respond to conventional treatment.
Develop Good Sleeping Habits
If you're suffering from sleep deprivation (take the test below to find out!), the sooner you begin to make changes in your sleeping habits, the better. Do keep in mind however that sleep debt is comparable to a bank overdraft-the bigger your sleep debt the longer it will take you to "pay it off" by getting the sleep you need. If you've been sleeping only six hours a night for the past several years, it's going to take you a lot longer to catch up on your missing sleep than someone who has "pulled a few all-nighters" recently.

How Much Sleep Do You Need?
To determine how much sleep you need try this test. Lie down in your bed at 10AM and try to fall asleep. The room must be dark and quiet. Have a watch at your side so you can note the time that you went to bed. Place a metallic plate or tray on the floor beside the bed, and hold a metal fork or spoon in your hand. When you fall asleep the fork or spoon will land on the plate and wake you up. When that happens check the time on your watch to see how long it took you to fall asleep. Ideally you should repeat the test again at 12 Noon, 2PM and 4PM to get an average. The chart below indicates your sleep debt based on the time it took you to fall asleep.

1-5 minutes: Severe sleep debt
5-10 minutes: Moderate sleep debt
10-15 minutes : Minor sleep debt
15-20 minutes: Little or no sleep debt
20+ minutes: No sleep debt

Begin to change your sleeping habits now by:
  • Getting to bed the same time every night, even on the weekends if at all possible. Since studies indicate that the first half of the night (10PM-2AM) is the time when our bodies experience physical repair, you should try to get to sleep by 10PM most nights. (According to ancient Chinese physicians "every hour spent asleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight.")
  • Going to bed earlier and waking up at the same time if you have severe sleep debt. Once you've caught up on your sleep maintain the same schedule for going to bed and getting up.
  • Avoiding beverages that contain caffeine and alcohol four hours prior to bedtime.
  • Avoiding naps during the day longer than 10-15 minutes. Although short "cat naps" have been shown to have a beneficial effect on brain function, longer naps can make it difficult to sleep at night.
  • Getting up at the same time every day, even on weekends. The key to a healthy sleeping pattern is developing a regular schedule and sticking to it.
  • Taking the TV and/or computer out of your bedroom. And because some research indicates that exposure to bright light late in the evening (after 8PM) can inhibit melatonin production, use your computer only until 7-7:30PM and sit at least ten feet away from the TV.
  • Developing comforting bedtime rituals like taking a warm bath and/or reading a non-stimulating book (no murder mysteries, thrillers or potboilers with sexual overtones allowed!)
  • Investing in hypo-allergenic pillowcases, particularly if you know that you have allergies or asthma. (Do you get congested within 10-15 minutes after going to bed? If you answered yes, chances are you're allergic to dust mites.)
  • Investing in a good mattress (yes, we're back to the counting sheep again!) If your mattress is more than five to eight years old, it's time to get a new one. If you sleep with a partner, take him or her with you when you shop so you can try out different sizes, styles and densities.
You'll find that getting out of sleep debt will make a significant change in your life. You'll feel better, look better, have more energy, get sick less often, have a better disposition and chances are your running will improve. Instead of counting sheep you may be counting miles, or even medals! So how about hitting the sack? Just think how good you'll feel when you wake up!

About the Author: RAC member Claudia Piepenburg has averaged 40 miles per week for the last 24 years. She has run 64 marathons and hundreds of shorter distance races, so she understands the need for a good night's sleep! She also writes for several running publications and coaches runners via the Internet.

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