Running on Empty?!

I just need to run upstairs really quickly and spend 3 hours begging our toddler to go to sleep.  You’re at their mercy. And they know it. Drinks, pillow adjustments, more Julia Donaldson books— their stalling tactics are endless but my patience is not. Buts it’s only a phase…. Isn’t it? The only thing worse than a child who won’t go to sleep is a child who wakes up a 2 a.m. and refuses to sleep unless they’re snuggled right up to you with one knee in your ribs and little fingers stabbing you in the eye. How is a tiny body able to take up more space than a grown adult? While I try to make the best of the sliver of bed afforded me she sleeps peacefully in the lap of luxury, periodically walloping me in the face just in case I might drift off to sleep. When your definition of a “sleep in” is 7a.m, you know you’re in trouble. So I have some problems that prevent me from getting a good sleep, and they call me Dad.

man in cot

Kids cost sleep; it’s an acknowledged fact of parenting. Four hundred years ago playwright Thomas Dekker described sleep as “the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together”. Unfortunately my children are more into popup books than Dekker, so the message has been lost on them. Going to work on a few hours’ sleep can leave you feeling tired and slow to react, but work just pays the bills. More importantly how does lack of sleep affect running and injuries? Sleep deprivation appears to be associated with an increased incidence of injuries in sports participants (Milewski et al., 2014). Sleep hours may be the strongest predictor of injuries – stronger even than number of training hours. Fatigue is known to significantly reduce reaction times. Even a single all-nighter can reduce reaction times by more than three hundred percent, and recovering takes several days. Even a low level of tiredness can impair reaction times as much as being legally drunk, meaning a tired runner is slower to react to potential danger (Williamson & Feyer, 2000). Shorter sleeping times don’t provide the body with sufficient time to regenerate cells and repair from the abuse of training. Sleep deprivation reduces the immune system’s ability to fight off infection, indicating that training on little sleep is putting you at risk for a cold or sinus infection. (Besedovsky et al., 2012). So over time the inability to fully recover can wear on an athlete and result in missed training and races.

A milestone study in 1999 restricted the sleep of eleven young men to four hours of sleep for six nights in a row – not an unusual week in our house currently. Disturbingly, the men, aged from 18 to 27 years old, showed a host of undesirable metabolic and hormonal responses throughout the week. Levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone” increased markedly. At the end of the week, the subjects who had poor sleep for six nights in a row exhibited hormonal levels more representative of 50 or 60-year olds! Fortunately, these changes were reversible after several days of extra sleep (Spiegel et al., 1999). So it is true, I can blame our children for my premature balding and cognitive deterioration. But instead of bragging about our ability to cope and train with sleep deficits, science suggests we may need a 2 hour nap rather than a Sunday afternoon long run!




Besedovsky L, Lange T & Born J. (2012). Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch 463, 121-137.


Milewski MD, Skaggs DL, Bishop GA, Pace JL, Ibrahim DA, Wren TA & Barzdukas A. (2014). Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. J Pediatr Orthop 34, 129-133.


Spiegel K, Leproult R & Van Cauter E. (1999). Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. Lancet 354, 1435-1439.


Williamson AM & Feyer AM. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occup Environ Med 57, 649-655.



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