How Running Impacts Your Sleep Patterns

April 06, 2016 Posted By: Bob "Wish" Wischnia

There isn’t a runner on the planet who hasn’t had at least occasional trouble falling asleep before an important race. Just when you absolutely need a full night of rest, you spend the night, tossing and turning. Instead of resting up for the big day, you can’t seem to get settled and only drift through brief periods of fitful sleep.

Sound familiar? It should because it’s very common. But, what can you do? And if you don’t sleep well, will it sabotage your big race the next morning?

Certainly, the quality and length we sleep has a significant impact on everything we do—especially running—but a sleepless night before your big race or even a marathon will not have a negative physical effect on your race. But how you have prepared for the race in the months of training leading up to it, may change your sleep patterns.

First off, not sleeping well or having trouble falling asleep is hardly unusual. More than 40 million Americans have chronic sleep problems, according to the National Commission on Sleep Disorders and another 30 million have trouble getting enough rest.

Although a poor night of sleep before a race won’t ruin your race, it’s still psychologically troublesome. Nobody wants to stare at the ceiling all night. But what’s actually more important than your rest the night before the race, is to sleep soundly the week before the race and especially the second to the last night before the race, according to Dr. Timothy Noakes of South Africa, the world renowned author of “The Lore of Running,” who has studied the sleep patterns of runners.

The only downside to loss of sleep the night before the race could be lack of focus or the ability to concentrate. Even so, it shouldn’t negatively effect your endurance or speed.

On the other hand, chronic sleep loss has a greater downside, mainly in the inability to recover from a workout as well as you should. Without adequate sleep, your recovery is greatly compromised.

“Adequate” sleep means something different for everyone. Some people get by just fine on five or six hours of sleep a night, but most of us need between seven and nine hours of solid sleep a night. Somewhat surprisingly, runners don’t appear to need any more sleep than the average American.

What is not surprising, is that a moderate amount of running or even walking can actually help you get to sleep quicker and once asleep, sleep deeper. Any aerobic exercise such as swimming or cycling will have the same effect and researchers agree that regular exercisers, usually sleep better.

There is some evidence that moderate exercise such as an easy run increases levels of a compound called adenosine which promotes sleep. Also, since exercise means greater fatigue and the need for the body to repair itself is another reason it helps. Another theory is that running raises the body temperature which may lead to a greater need for sleep. Yet another reason could be that running acts as a sedative by bathing the brain in endorphins which partially negates stress and anxiety. That’s one reason sleep doctors often prescribe exercise for insomniacs or people battling depression.

When you run, can impact your sleep. A morning run before breakfast seems to have little negative impact on that night’s sleep, but going for an evening run, depending on when you go and what time you go to bed, can get in the way of that night’s sleep because it puts the body and mind in a state of arousal. Still, as running relates to sleep patterns, the best time to run is probably morning or mid-day.

So running is a good thing if getting a good night’s sleep is a chronic problem. But too much running can actually make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Ironically, after a hard long run or marathon or right when you’re in the middle of a high-mileage week–when you need the most rest–the added effort can actually inhibit your sleep.

Anyone who has run a marathon has experienced that supreme fatigue of covering 26.2 miles and that night crave a night of deep sleep. But, often the night after a marathon leads to a troublesome night with extreme difficulty falling asleep. Your legs are beat, but your mind (and more importantly, your heart) is still racing as the adrenergic effects of the marathon are still with you.

Similarly, evidence shows, running over 18 or 19 miles (or three hours), may make it difficult to sleep—regardless of how tired you are. This is truer for newbies than experienced runners because the less accustomed you are to doing long runs, usually means the greater chance it will affect your sleep.

Likewise, lack of sleep (or trouble falling asleep) is a clear symptom of overtraining that many elite runners, covering 120 miles a week or more, experience. Former marathon world record holder Alberto Salazar had such trouble sleeping during his heyday in the early ‘80s that he checked into a sleep clinic in California for a cure. His inability to sleep was a clear symptom of overtraining, but what Salazar also found at the sleep clinic was that he was sleeping a lot more than he thought–he just didn’t know he was sleeping. Salazar thought he was tossing and turning all night, but was actually asleep most of the time.

This is also quite common. We mistakenly believe we are awake or sleeping poorly, but have been sleeping. It just wasn’t as restful or deep as we like.

But lack of sleep as it relates to overtraining doesn’t just bother elite runners. Beginners also complain about a lack of sleep when they boost their training mileage and long runs. It takes the body time to adjust to any new training level, but usually compensates after just a few weeks.

If you are having trouble sleeping, you can always run easier for a few days and give your body a chance to catch up on sleep. Alcohol does not help. Melatonin—a hormone supplement, readily available at pharmacies and health-food stores without a prescription—does. It is very mild and helps people overcome jet lag as well as minor sleep problems. It is not habit forming and there is no hangover effect such as with sleeping pills.

Here are a few sleep hints that may help you fall off easier and stay asleep:

  • Be consistent when you go to bed—and wake up. Don’t go to bed an hour or two early to catch up on sleep. You’ll likely just toss and turn. You can’t store sleep so don’t try.


  • Sleep in a dark, quiet environment.


  • Get away from distractions. Turn off the bedroom phone, stick noisy cats or dogs in another room and turn off all lights.


  • Put away the cell phone.  Also don’t use a Nook, Kindle or tablet to read in bed. It may interfere with your sleep.


  • Don’t drink coffee, alcohol or use non-drowsy medications before bed. Also be aware of side effects of anti-inflammatories, pain relievers and diet drugs.


  • Eat dinner several hours before bedtime. If you want to nibble before going to bed, try a carbohydrate-rich food which is easily digestible.


  • Don’t nap. If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, avoid taking a catnap which may delay when you’re sleepy enough to go to bed at night.


  •  Don’t run or exercise close to bedtime. Give yourself at least three or four hours after you run before going to sleep.


  • Don’t hydrate by drinking a lot of water before bed. A full bladder can interfere with sleep.


  • Turn off your mind. Try not to think about stressful events or duties. You can’t do anything about them now anyway.


  • If you can’t sleep, get up and read or watch TV. Don’t lay in bed for hours. Sleep on a different bed or couch.


  • If you get up during the night, keep the lights off. Bright light can reset your internal clock and make it harder to get back to sleep.


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