This Is How Training Affects Your Sleep (and How to Maximize ZZZs)
When training for a race or starting a new fitness program, you might notice that greater frequency or challenge with workouts may start to influence other lifestyle factors, such as your diet, mood, and sleep schedule.
And getting enough sleep each night is so important for not only staying more alert and productive in the day, but also for keeping your immune system high, appetite and hunger levels in check, mood stable (and generally happier, too), and performance and recovery post-workout to be the best that it can be.
Related: 5 Under-the-Radar, Lesser-Known Ways to Boost Your Immune System Right Now
And when you skimp on sleep, you’re too physically and mentally fatigued to perform as well during training sessions and you miss out on pivotal minutes required for muscle repair and strengthening. So, you’re left with damaged muscle that’s not able to recover, leading to a loss in muscle mass, since it just gets broken down without being built back up.
But you can avoid this by making sure that your fitness regimen is tailored to your schedule, where training sessions can promote better sleep and overall wellbeing, as opposed to acting as an interference. These are the ways that training for a race may affect your sleeping behaviors, as well as how best to increase both sleep quality and quantity.
Exercising Regularly Should Help You Sleep Better in General ...
“Numerous research supports the notion that regular exercise can improve sleep quality, and scientists have found that aerobic exercise functions similarly to sleeping pills, making people sleep better subsequently,” Stephen Light, a Certified Sleep Science Coach and the co-owner of Nolah Mattress, says.
So by staying regularly fit, you’re going to have higher quality sleep in general.
“Stress is one of the primary culprits that cause sleep problems, but since exercise can lower stress, it can directly improve sleep quality by making people more relaxed and anxiety-free,” he adds.
However, it then comes down to timing of workouts and what your post-workout meal or dinnertime meal might be, among other examples. These can then decrease quality sleep, if your habit is putting you at a disservice.
... But Not if You’re Working Out Too Close to Bedtime
Increased levels of cortisol and norepinephrine may make it hard to unwind and power down for bed if you finished your workout too close to bedtime. The stimulation, where your mind is racing and your body still feels relatively hot from that workout session, and the surge in these two hormones may prevent drowsiness.
“Exercise, especially vigorous and intense workouts, makes the body produce hormones that help it keep up with training," Light explains. "But when athletes exercise close to bedtime, there are still sufficient amounts of these hormones in the body, making it difficult to fall asleep."
Related: Mistakes You're Making After a Nighttime Training Session That Are Risking Tomorrow's Gains
Make sure to workout at least two to four hours before bed, depending on the activity, if you’re finding it hard to snooze after an evening workout.
“I recommend stopping any vigorous and intense activity at least four hours before rest, while light-to-moderate intensity exercises are okay within two hours before bedtime,” Light says.
This will give you time to get tired so that you don’t end up losing total sleep time, which would negatively impact your performance during training sessions.
You’re Taking Too Many Stimulants
Often, athletes consume stimulants to improve training — whether that be from coffee and tea, caffeine pills, sports drinks, pre-workout fuel, training gels and powders to mix in water, among other forms.
“However, the effects of these stimulants, such as caffeine, still linger even after training and it can make sleep more challenging to achieve, since the body is still in a stimulated state,” Light says.
If you’re taking too many, you may feel jittery or too alert in those evening hours.
Related: Should You Be Taking Pre-Workout Supplements?
Cut back and see how sleep changes — keep cutting back until you’ve reached the amount that doesn’t disrupt your sleep schedule, but can still help rev you up pre-workout.
“Don’t consume any stimulants beyond 3 p.m. to avoid feeling the side effects at night,” Light says.
Some people may not be impacted as much, but if you are sensitive, ending use by 3 p.m. is a good place to start.
You’re Going to Bed Sweaty From an Increase in Core Temperature
Exercises cause the body to heat up, so if you had a workout close to bed and you’re still a bit hotter internally due to a change in your body’s core temperature, you might find it hard to fall asleep with ease. And you might start to sweat in those sheets — not comfortable.
“Since people sleep better in cooler environments, sleep is less accessible when athletes don’t properly cool down,” Light says.
Related: 3 Reasons You Should Never Skip Your Cool-Down
Don’t work out too close to bed, take a cold shower after a workout session to cool off quickly, and sleep in breathable fabrics that wick away and prevent sweat. Plus, turn that fan or air conditioning unit on — the breeze will help.
You’re Working Out Too Intensely
Exercise is good for the body, especially for sleep. However, you don’t want to overexert yourself, as it can lead to pain and injury, as well as other negative effects such as cravings and increased appetite, fatigue, hair loss and brittle nails from nutrition deficiencies, fat storage and loss in muscle mass, and of course, disruption of sleep.
“Exercising at the right intensity at the right time is essential to reap the benefits, otherwise, you might be getting the adverse effects instead,” Light says.
Related: Are You Training Too Hard? Here's How to Know (and What to Do About It)
Give yourself rest days throughout the week, where you can be totally “off” or do more leisure activities to still remain active in the day — like going for a bike ride or taking a long walk. And, of course, leave time to stretch following a workout and before bed — your muscles need stretching to improve mobility and flexibility and to help them repair.