Jeff Gaudette—Sleep. Almost all runners could use more of it, but very few are able to get the optimal number of hours they need every night. Running magazines and websites routinely publish articles on the importance of sleep, so it’s no surprise that runners understand the critical role sleep plays in the recovery process. Unfortunately, some runners simply can’t find the time to slumber 7 to 8 hours per night and still fit in everything else they need to do in a day. For these athletes, getting a full night’s sleep may end up low on the priority list even though they know it should rank high in order of importance.
About 40 million Americans—and by extension thousands of runners—suffer from chronic sleep issues. But what about the runners who understand the important role sleep plays in the recovery process, and diligently try to get in their 7 to 9 hours each night, but can’t because of sleeping disorders? Take for example Bobby Curtis or Tera Moody, elite runners who suffer from insomnia despite taking extreme measures to reverse the situation and get the sleep they need. What can runners like them do to improve their sleep quality? And is it possible that running might be the cause of sleep-related issues?
In the following sections we’ll examine four common, and often overlooked, sleep issues that affect runners and offer some helpful suggestions for those unfortunate athletes who suffer from sleeping trouble despite their best attempts to get the rest they know they need.
Common Causes Of Sleeping Issues For Runners
Sleep apnea, generally characterized by abnormal pauses in your breathing rhythm while sleeping, is most commonly seen in overweight, older men (mainly individuals who have thick necks, which narrow the airways when sleeping). However, recent research published in the journal Clinics in Sports Medicine suggests that even a thin neck—commonly found on gaunt but healthy distance runners, as well as most women—can also be a risk factor for sleep apnea.
Simply speaking, a thin neck provides less room for air to pass through once the muscles relax during sleep. This paradoxical phenomenon may cause many runners with sleep issues to be misdiagnosed, or for sleep apnea to be ignored as a possible cause for sleep issues all together.
What you can do:
Potential cures for sleep apnea are more extensive than this article can cover. However, if you snore, find yourself constantly tired throughout the day, or think you may be suffering from sleep apnea, consult your doctor. Don’t be afraid to voice your concerns. Even medical professionals fall victim to categorizing certain conditions based on genetic or lifestyle factors.
High Cortisol Levels And Increased Body Temperature
Running will usually make you tired, and partaking in the activity often does the trick for most people who suffer from sleeping issues. However, running too close to bed time can impair sleep, mainly due to elevated cortisol levels and increased body temperature.
Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands that increases blood sugar levels, suppresses the immune system, and aids in fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism. Cortisol is normally highest in the morning and then slowly lowers itself throughout the day. However, hard workouts elevate cortisol levels (and can keep them elevated for up to 9 hours post workout), which can wreak havoc on an athlete’s sleep cycle.
Likewise, running elevates your core body temperature, even if it’s cold outside or you’re not running particularly hard. It can take 4-6 hours for the body to cool back down to a normal temperature after running. This prolonged increase in body temperature will delay the transition to deeper sleeping patterns.
What you can do:
- Try to schedule your run so you finish at least three hours before going to bed, especially if you are the type of person who becomes more alert with exercise. The further away from bedtime you can run, the less likely you are to suffer from these issues.
- Develop a routine and stick with it, even on weekends. Go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. Set and maintain a sleep schedule. “Sleeping in” on the weekends will make it harder to wake up on Monday morning because it resets your sleep cycle.
- Likewise, develop a relaxing routine before bed. This may include a warm bath, light stretching, listening to soothing music, reading or other low stress activities.
Low Blood Sugar
Low blood sugar levels, which are common in runners, may also lead to a lack of deep, consistent sleep. Simply speaking, when your blood sugar drops below a certain level, cortisol is released (see above) and the surge in adrenaline forces you to wake up feeling hungry.
In addition to disturbing your sleep, low blood sugar levels will keep your body in a catabolic state throughout the night instead of the anabolic process that is critical to repairing muscle damage incurred through training
What you can do:
- Don’t go to bed feeling hungry, but don’t eat a big meal right before bedtime, either. Try eating some cottage cheese, which contains casein, a slow-digesting form of protein, or a drinking a protein shake before bed.
- Try not to drink fluids at least two hours before bedtime as a full bladder can interfere with sleep.
- If you do get up during the night, do not expose yourself to bright light. Intense light can reset your internal clock and make it harder to get back to sleep.
Nutrition’s Effect On Sleep
In addition to not going to bed hungry, you should closely examine the quality of your nutrition and the foods you’re eating throughout the day if you have trouble sleeping. What you’re eating and how it’s affecting your liver, gall bladder, and large intestine could be making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night.
The gall bladder, which is most active between the hours of 11 PM and 1 AM, is responsible for digesting fats and is sensitive to caffeine. Therefore, eating too many bad fats or consuming caffeinated beverages can keep you awake during these hours, especially if you have existing gall bladder issues.
Moreover, the liver becomes most active during the hours of 1 to 3 AM, which may cause many runners to awaken from their restful sleep if it’s stressed too heavily. The liver has to detoxify cortisol and estrogen and process medications, such as sleep medicines or anti-inflammatories. Avoiding certain medications and spikes in cortisol is important if you want to stay asleep.
Finally, the large intestine is highly active from 5 to 7 AM, which can cause digestive issues from a food sensitivity, food allergy or harmful bacteria. One of the more common digestive issues for runners is gluten sensitivity, often caused by eating too many refined carbohydrates.
What you can do:
- Maintain a healthy diet that is absent of unhealthy fats and be acutely aware of any food sensitivities or allergies you may have.
- Know the side effects of your medications, including anti-inflammatories.
- Avoid drinking alcohol close to bedtime. While it may initially sedate you, alcohol keeps your brain in light sleep – you have trouble getting to the deep sleep and REM sleep phases and your sleep is less efficient.
- Avoid caffeinated drinks because they act as stimulants in the late afternoon and evening. Caffeine sources include some soft drinks, coffee, chocolate, non-herbal teas, some pain relievers and diet drugs. Caffeine can stay in your system up to 14 hours.
Finally, another major issue for runners who suffer from insomnia is stressing about not sleeping, especially before races. This is obviously a vicious cycle, so it’s important to try and relax about your sleep issues as much as possible.
Research has shown that sleep loss ranging from 16-24 hours does not impair performance during aerobic and anaerobic events. The adrenaline rush of competition appears to override any negative physical consequences of sleep deprivation. Therefore, if you miss several hours of sleep for a night or two before your race, your performance is not likely to be impacted unless you are particularly susceptible to sleep deprivation.