With estimates suggesting there are over 3 million new runners since the pandemic began, we asked elite marathon runner and medical doctor, Eleanor Davis, for an insight into her sleep routine and how she gets the rest and recovery she needs ahead of each event.
How important is sleep to you?
Sleep is so important - I am fairly lucky in that I’m a good sleeper. I have busy days training or working, so when I go to bed, I’m usually tired, physically and mentally, and I’m ready to go to sleep. I do find that if anything interrupts my sleep that has a big impact on my ability to operate the next day. I see sleep as being as important as eating the right things, or following the right training plan, in how it will affect my overall performance as a runner or as a doctor.
How much sleep do you try to get each night?
I try and get at least 9 hours sleep each night. Sleep is a restorative process, it is the time when your body repairs and recovers most effectively so as an athlete I try and get as much as work and life will allow. When I have a bad few nights sleep I do find it negatively affects my performance so I will sometimes take short naps if able to catch up.
What is your sleep like around a big event? Do pre-race nerves mean you sleep worse the night before? And do you sleep really well after you’ve run a marathon as a result of the physical exertion?
I used to sleep really badly before races but as I’ve built confidence with racing this has lessened over time. However I will occasionally still toss and turn before a race. If this happens I try not to worry as I find a one off bad night sleep doesn’t affect performance too much especially if I’ve been well rested in the few days prior, it’s more of an accumulative effect. I find trying to stick to my regular bed time routine the night before a race helps and make sure all my kit is ready to go to eliminate stress in the morning. If all of that fails then a little caffeine boost an hour before the race will help!
What are you currently training for?
I do a mixture of trail and road running so I am currently training for the GB trials for the World Trail Championships which are in Thailand this year . After this I will go back to the roads aiming for London Marathon 2022 and qualification for the Commonwealth Games .
What are your 7 top tips for a good night’s sleep?
1. Eat, Sleep, Repeat
As a long distance runner, fuelling my body is really important, and eating the right things before bed can have an impact. I eat my dinner at around 7pm and will always make sure there is a lot of protein on my plate. Protein is needed for muscle repair and you can optimize your muscle recovery and growth by eating protein before bed. Loading my plate with lean chicken or white fish also stops me waking up in the middle of the night feeling hungry! I also have a protein-heavy snack after dinner, just before I go to bed - usually a yoghurt and, if I’ve done a heavy workout, sometimes I add a protein powder (I use Healthspan Elite products) to the yoghurt, mixed in. Or I’ll have toast with peanut butter, depending on how many carbs I’ve had with my dinner.
2. Pack the Pillow
If I’m travelling to a race, I will always take my pillow with me to the hotel. I find this really helps me sleep better - I think it must be the familiar smell and feel. I have recently changed pillows to a Hungarian Goose Down pillow with medium to firm fill. This supports my neck in the right alignment because I sleep on my side - this is important because it then means the rest of my spine is aligned in the right position too so I don’t wake up in the night stiff or numb, or toss and turn throughout the night. This is important for injury prevention, the body is a chain starting with the head and neck so if there is any misalignment in the neck it will have a knock on effect to the rest of the body and effect running form. I got my pillow from Soak&Sleep and they have a pillow picker tool on their website to help you ensure you’ve got the right type for your sleep position.
3. The Wind Down
I have a strict bedtime of 10pm - I try to keep to that as much as possible and it only varies if I’m working night shifts at the hospital. I start to wind down at about 9pm / 9.30pm and if I’ve done a hard training session, I’ll have a bath. Evidence shows that a warm bath is almost as good as an ice bath for helping your muscles to relax. I’ll take a warm bath every time! I jump into the bath one or two hours before bed and spend about 20 minutes in there - I like to use Westlab magnesium salts with lavender in the water. The salts are good for relaxing muscles and reducing inflammation and magnesium is needed in the body to help you sleep and reduce stress - many people are deficient in magnesium and it’s best absorbed through the skin, so a bath in Epsom salts or magnesium salts is great.
4. The Rub Down
After my bath, I use a muscle rub made by Premax - they create products specially designed for athletes and I love using their Recovery Massage Cream. I use it to massage my muscles and it also keeps my skin in good condition too. It doesn’t smell as strongly as other massage rubs, which I really like, and it doesn’t burn or sting your skin when it goes on. Putting a massage cream on after a bath is one of my favourite bedtime rituals - I find the whole process really relaxing.
5. The Final Stretch
I wind down before bed with a good book . I go between a mixture of non-fiction sports related books and fictional totally non running related books. I recently read Lizzy Hawker’s “Runner”, a fantastic and inspiration read and I’m currently reading “Where the Crawdads sing” by Delia Owens. I’ll spend about 20 minutes reading and while I’m doing that, I like to have a herbal tea. My favourite is Pukka Night Time Berry which contains valerian root which is a natural sleep aid and echinacea for the immune system. I also try to do yoga two or three times a week and I find that really helps with my mindfulness- I always sleep better if I’ve done some yoga that day.
6. A Clean Sheet
I read somewhere recently that a third of the population only change their sheets three times a year! Horrible! I change mine every week and I find that also helps me sleep better. I think it’s partly due to the fact that having a clean and tidy bedroom makes me feel less stressed, and also having all my bedding plumped up and in the right position, not crumpled and wrinkly, just feels more comfortable. I prefer sleeping on bedding made with natural fibres as that stops me getting too hot or cold during the night. I currently use a Soak&Sleep French Linen sheet - the linen is good for the Summer because the fibres allow heat and moisture to escape.
7. Scent to sleep
My last tip is using a pillow spray - I use a lavender one made by This Works. I love the smell of lavender and so I’ll give my pillow a quick spray every night. I associate the scent with sleep now, so it just triggers my brain to start unwinding as soon as my head hits the pillow.
Are you a runner with tips for getting the best nights sleep possible comment below.