I just want to find a position that I’m able to do it in and that doesn’t hurt. Most people have a preferred position, some are strange, others more orthodox, some just like to stay still and more like to move nonstop. But sleeping position preference changes as we age (De Koninck et al., 1992) and the position choice could be affecting both the quality of sleep and athletic performance. The effect of sleep, or lack of sleep is well known. 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 injury, missed training and races.
While the benefits of getting a good quantity and quality of sleep are undoubted, the effect of sleeping position on performance levels is less known. We spend a huge portion of our lives sleeping, so it would be silly to ignore our body’s position when we’re not awake. The reality is that the posture we sleep in may be just as important as the postures we adopt whilst awake. Many runners and athletes don’t realise that the position that they sleep in can contribute to the development of injuries, delay healing or even worsen an existing injury. Our preferred sleeping positions are often established early in life and can be hard to change, and we don’t often wake up in the same position in which we fell asleep. But it’s worth trying to start the night sleeping on your back or side in a well-supported, healthy and natural position. This means a position in which the muscles and joints can rest naturally in mid-range, without any real excess pressure or stretch being applied. Stomach sleeping, whilst good for easing snoring, unfortunately it can lead to back, neck pain and shoulder pain (Lee & Ko, 2017). Sleeping on the stomach is tough on the spine, because the back is arched and the neck is turned to the side. But when you have 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 fingers stabbing you in the eye, sleeping position becomes a first world problem. 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.
Besedovsky L, Lange T & Born J. (2012). Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch 463, 121-137.
De Koninck J, Lorrain D & Gagnon P. (1992). Sleep positions and position shifts in five age groups: an ontogenetic picture. Sleep 15, 143-149.
Lee WH & Ko MS. (2017). Effect of sleep posture on neck muscle activity. J Phys Ther Sci 29, 1021-1024.
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.
Tetley M. (2000). Instinctive sleeping and resting postures: an anthropological and zoological approach to treatment of low back and joint pain. Bmj 321, 1616-1618.
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.