Josh Cox needs his rest. A four-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, three-time U.S. National qualifier and current American record holder for the 50K (he ran the 31.2 miles in a staggering 2:43:45), Cox is one of the foremost athletes in the world.
As with anyone who’s reached such a level, Cox plans his life around optimizing performance. He eats every three hours, pays mind to his every tendon and muscle fiber and regards proper recovery as the most important aspect of his workout. And he ranks sleep as important to his routine as a plate of greens or a PowerBar Harvest Bar.
“Any idiot can run himself into the ground,” he told Van Winkle’s. “In order to get the most from my training, I have to get proper sleep. It's paramount.”
To that end, he schedules recovery naps every day and trains himself to fall asleep at a precise time every night. In his own words, here's how Cox uses sleep to keep moving.
Without a dedicated schedule of rest, I wouldn’t be able to be at my current level. I’m going at a high volume of output, running 140 miles during peak training weeks and need that recovery time. But whether you’re at the gym or on the trails, the very act of physical exertion breaks the body down. And the two key components to rebuilding? Sleep and nutrition. It’s been found that the body recovers from strenuous activity more quickly when you’re getting nine or 10 hours of sleep per night. So, the same way I train myself to consume calories every three hours, I train myself to sleep properly.
One of the most important things I do is set an alarm to go to bed. Most people obviously have one to wake up and I do too, but I need to remind myself when it’s the optimal time for me to sleep. In peak training, that's normally 9 o'clock.
Of course there are nights when I want to stay up and watch a movie with my wife. But I know I have to go to bed because it helps me in the long run.
I also have recovery naps during the day. I sleep for about an hour to help speed up my body’s rebuilding process. For me, napping is as important as eating.
A former trainer of mine convinced me to clear my bedroom of all electronics and ambient light, so I keep my smartphone and all other devices in the other room. My bedroom is completely blacked out. It’s a cave, essentially, totally dark even in the middle of the afternoon when I nap.
I’m not a must-have-nine pillows type of guy. I have a nice mattress and some high thread-count sheets, as well as a down comforter. But the only thing I need to have is a glass a water beside the bed.
When I first started running professionally, I bought an altitude tent and regularly slept in a simulated atmosphere of 12,500 feet above sea level. The low oxygen really stresses the body more but helped me increase my intake later. A lot of top tier athletes use the tents which is why you often see a lot of runners going down to sea level before a big event: this allows them to adapt to breathing rhythms and get their blood volumes back in order.
I wish I had a way to combat jet lag. I’m always flying across the country and I travel to Germany a few times a year as well as Tokyo on occasion. I’m lucky that I have status on airlines and that gets me some more room. But I just try to get onto the new time zone as quickly as possible and stay awake until my standard bedtime. None of my training can solve jet lag.
If I’m tired enough, give me six feet on the floor and I’m out.