Hard training is draining! Running miles after mile on top of leading the rest of our lives should leave us spent by day’s end, but sometimes that very activity that’s causing us to be so tired can prevent us from sleeping. Really! There’s this thing called running-induced insomnia.
“What!” you might be thinking, “isn’t exercise supposed to make you tired and want to sleep more?” It’s supposed to, but it doesn’t always work that way.
It turns out that running, or any exercise with high levels of physical exertion, can induce insomnia. I had mild insomnia as a child (actually still do). In high school I read the signs for insomnia are stuff like taking longer than an hour to fall asleep. I was shocked that there were people who could fall asleep in less than two hours after lights out.
Several years later when I was in graduate school, I started exercising more to battle excessive weight gain. Under the guidance of a coach, I learned for the first time how to exercise properly and how to actually exert myself. I found that by engaging in moderate levels of exercise three times a week, I fell asleep quickly and also stayed asleep.
Once I began experiencing what having a full night of sleep was like on a regular basis, I was amazed by how much more well-adjusted I felt! I quickly realized that exercise was a key component to my sleep-health when I quit for a little while. After making that connection, it was clear to me that I needed to exercise to sleep well. Except when I didn’t.
During marathon training, the cure was also the cause of the condition. As the weeks of training progressed and intensified, I found myself once again lying in the dark unable to sleep. It took me a while to figure out what was going on. It started about six weeks into training and at first I had insomnia 1-2 times per week, but over time it progressed to 4 or more times per week!
I wasn’t running every day and shuffled my off days each week, so it took me a while to figure out the connection between running and insomnia. At the very tail end of marathon training, I remember lying in frustration, wondering, “Why can’t I sleep? I ran today! I should be exhausted!!!!” Then ding! I realized that the last time I couldn’t fall asleep was after a run and the time before that, and so forth. But why was this happening? I decided to investigate!
What Causes Running-Induced Insomnia?
While a number of athletes have experienced exercise-induced insomnia, the actual cause for the insomnia induced by exercise is not well known. I decided to take a deeper look at each possible cause to figure out why running was causing my insomnia. I figured my research my help you. So here are the possible causes of running-induced insomnia and also a few tips for prevention.
Exercising intensely before bedtime: Exercise causes the core body temperature to rise, which makes it difficult for you to sleep. Right before we fall asleep, our core body temperature drops, so some scientists theorize that exercising before bed can prevent our core temperatures from dropping, keeping us from falling asleep. As for the science? The jury’s still out: the results from studies investigating this belief is mixed at best.
Since I usually exercise in the morning, exercising before bedtime wasn’t applicable to me, but if you notice you can’t fall asleep if you run later in the day, it’s an easy fix – run earlier!
Anxiety about running: Anxiety is a very common cause of insomnia in all people, and runners are not immune. If you find yourself tossing and turning while thinking about running when you should be sleeping, there’s a good chance anxiety and worrying about running is the cause of your sleeplessness.
If there’s anything you need to know about me, races and goals are not something I worry over, so this probably isn’t my issue. However, if you think your worries are keeping you from sleeping, try to unplug and read a book, stretch, or practice mindfulness techniques to relax before bed. In fact, try to make the hour before bed a run-free time and redirect your attention from anything running-related to, well, anything else!
Nutrition/glycogen issues: On a forum, some people who follow a low carb diet swore that they slept better after eating some carbs before bedtime on a day when they did intense exercise because of glycogen depletion. I ruled this one out for me because I always have eaten plenty of carbs, but it might be worth experimenting with eating more carbs before bedtime, especially after longer harder sessions.
Over-intensity of training: High levels of physical exertion causes your body to release a cascade of different hormones. Of all those hormones, cortisol is the likely culprit when it comes to insomnia. Cortisol is important for glucose regulation, but it plays a role in the sleep-wake cycle. After exercise, levels of cortisol rise as a function of intensity and fitness.
Initially I doubted this was the cause of my insomnia because I was using the Run Less, Run Faster training program and ran less than 30 miles per week. 30 miles per week isn’t very much compared to most marathoners around here. However, as Salty discussed a while back, overtraining is very specific to you and what your body can handle.
The night of my goal fall marathon, I laid awake for hours, not because of the excitement of finishing my first marathon, but because of running-induced insomnia. A week after Wineglass and going back to my usual running habits, I now sleep deeply and fitfully. This doesn’t mean a future marathon is out but I do realize now that I need to be careful about planning and executing a training plan so that I am able to sleep.
Miles to go before I sleep,
Slumber, I’d like to keep.
Have you ever struggled with running-induced insomnia? If so, what do you think is the cause?