How Much Sleep Do You Need to Recover from an Ultramarathon? Longer Than You Think

How Much Sleep Do You Need to Recover from an Ultramarathon?  Longer Than You Think

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Despite the prominence and growth of ultra-trail running events in recent years, there remains limited research investigating the physiological effects of such extreme distances and the intricate relationship between sleep and recovery in ultra-marathoners. The biggest hurdle in conducting comprehensive studies lies in monitoring runners amid remote and ecologically diverse conditions.

New research from the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) unfolds new details of sleep and recovery. A recent study published in the Journal of Science in Sport and Exercisetitled “Sleep and Subjective Recovery in Amateur Trail Runners After the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB),” aimed to investigate sleep parameters and recovery in amateur trail runners following the UTMB.

UTMB is a trail running race that sends runners from Chamonix, France, on a 171K (or 106-mile) loop that winds through mountainous terrain in France, Italy, and Switzerland before returning to the finish line in Chamonix. The course, which goes around the Mont Blanc massif, includes nearly 33,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and takes most runners between 20 and 46 hours to complete.

This study took place during the 2019 UTMB with the approval of the UTMB medical committee. This is the first study that has described sleep parameters during this post-race period and its potential subsequent interactions with the recovery process.

Details of the Study

Data from 19 participants were analyzed, including six in the age group of 23–39, eight in the 40–49 age group, and five in the 50–59 age group. These participants wore an accelerometer on their non-dominant wrist for three weeks: ten days before, ten days after, and during the race, allowing continuous monitoring of their sleep-wake cycle.

“The main objectives were (1) to describe sleep parameters during the nights following an ultra-endurance event in amateur trail runners, (2) to evaluate the recovery kinetics, and (3) to assess the relationship between sleep parameters and recovery,” the authors explained.

After the data collection, researchers measured: 1) total sleep time; 2) wake after sleep onset; 3) number of awakenings; and 4) sleep fragmentation. Additionally, participants maintained a daily sleep-wake log, reporting wake-up time, bedtime, and nap times.

During the race, participants were queried at seven checkpoints (29K, 49K, 77K, 101K, 131K, 160K, and at the finish line) about any sleep they had obtained between the start line and the checkpoint. They were asked to provide information on the location and duration of their naps.

Participants completed a sleep quality, stress levels, fatigue, and muscle soreness questionnaire to assess well-being and recovery. The questionnaire was administered twice before and every day for ten days after the race.

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UTMB: Sleep and Recovery Results

“Sleep deprivation during UTMB was significant, as previously observed,” the authors explained.

As expected, the study found that sleep deprivation was a significant issue during the event, which confirms previous observations. However, what distinguishes this study is the realization that the combination of sleep deprivation and the demanding nature of the race took a heavy toll on athletes’ physical and psychological well-being for several days after the event.

“Secondly, the study revealed that the combination of sleep deprivation and the long and strenuous demands of mountain ultra-marathons had a profound physical and psychological impact for several days after the race, as evidenced by the duration of recovery,” they stated.

The analysis of post-race, self-reported well-being showed a prolonged subjective recovery period, with muscle soreness and fatigue playing a crucial role.

“The participants required six days to recover after UTMB, and younger runners appeared to recover faster than older ones,” the authors explained. “Although post-race sleep duration did not increase, the second night was more fragmented, likely due to muscle soreness.”

Contrary to the authors’ expectations, the study did not find a significant increase in sleep duration or improvement in sleep quality immediately following the race. This phenomenon, known as “sleep rebound,” is typically associated with strenuous activities.

Moreover, the study established a link between wake-after-sleep onset and muscle soreness, suggesting that the latter played a pivotal role in sleep disturbances and subsequent declines in sleep quality.

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Age also emerged as a critical factor influencing recovery kinetics, with younger runners demonstrating faster recovery rates than older ones. This finding aligns with recent research emphasizing the importance of age in recovery processes, attributing it to factors such as increased energy depletion, more substantial muscle damage, and altered perceptions of fatigue.

Although it has certain limitations, such as the absence of a control group, utilizing actigraphic measurements has effectively validated the method of objectively assessing various aspects. Actigraphs are compact devices worn on the wrist that can accurately measure sleep patterns, circadian rhythm, activity levels, and overall movement. This research highlights the significance of closely monitoring both the quality and quantity of sleep among amateur trail runners.

While this study focused on the specific conditions of the UTMB trail event, its implications extend beyond this single event. The insights from examining the intersection of sleep deprivation, strenuous exercise, and recovery offer valuable lessons for athletes, coaches, and researchers.

Practical Takeaways

Ultra-trail races have significant physiological and subjective effects on runners, with recovery typically taking around six days, although younger athletes tend to recover faster. Surprisingly, participants did not catch up on sleep afterward, and muscle soreness negatively affected sleep quality, emphasizing the importance of sleep for proper recovery.

Practical takeaways from the study include adapting training methods during post-race weeks to address intense physical fatigue and prioritizing recovery in the immediate week following the race. Additionally, participating in an ultra-trail race can impact personal and professional life. Employing recovery strategies to alleviate muscle pain and improve sleep is recommended.

The study provides valuable insights into amateur trail runners’ sleep patterns and recovery kinetics after participating in events like the UTMB. Adequate sleep is crucial for athletes’ recovery, especially in the days following extreme physical exertion. Age also plays a role, as younger runners recover faster than older ones.

RELATED: It’s OK If You Are Not A Great Sleeper

To add personal experiences to these findings, Ben Balester, 49, of Monterey, California, a participant in the 2022 UTMB, shared his sleep patterns the following week.

“Sleep was minimal leading up to the race (adjusting to the time zone), but I did sleep well a couple of days before and afterward just slept four hours before going out for a few beers,” said Ben Balester. “Felt surprisingly good. I had two twenty-minute naps on the race course and finished in almost 38 hours. Much longer than any hundred I’ve done (usually 20-23 hours). I felt recharged after each nap.”

“My sleep while traveling for the next week wasn’t great, but we were on the move a lot,” Balester recalled. “I’d say my recovery was very good. Typically is being plant-based, thus reducing that inflammation helps.”

Another runner from last year’s race, Eric Rescorla, 50, of Palo Alto, California, recalls his sleep following the start of UTMB on August 26. “Not very good,” said Recorla. “I didn’t sleep well the night of 8/28 and then flew back on 8/29.”

In those days following the race, Recorla’s sleep varied from five hours and forty minutes to four hours and thirty-eight minutes. It took about a week for Recorla’s sleep to rebound near the eight-hour mark. As for Recorla’s soreness after UTMB. “Not too bad,” said Recorla. “Mostly, my ankles swelled up around days four and five.”


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