Growing up, I was a swimmer. From age five through college, it was 1-2 workouts a day, six days a week with a total of two weeks off a year. During high school and collegiate seasons, the evening workout would finish between 6-7pm. During club season, and dependent on the time of year, the evening workout would end between 6:30 and 8:30pm. Yet, I do not recall difficulty falling asleep. Probably because this was the regular occurrence so it had become habit to my body.
As a professional triathlete, balancing the training for multiple sports required some workouts finishing in the evening. Luckily, I was successful enough to not have to fit training around a part- or full-time job, so training after a shift or full work day (in other words, at night) was not something I had to do. I don’t recall ever training at night and there were few workouts that extended into the evening. I tended to get an early start with the first workout of the day and typically finished training by early- to mid-afternoon.
Now, as a Masters cyclist, I typically ride in the early morning, at 0-dark-30 and am done by 6-6:30am. A strength session is added some days over lunch. After the Spring time change, I often participate in a group ride on Tuesday evenings that starts at 6pm and ends somewhere between 7:30-7:45. What I find is that I don’t sleep very well Tuesday night after this evening ride. I’m amped up, my body is restless, my core temp runs a bit hot so I’m uncomfortable in bed. Even though my eyes start to flutter shut as I read in bed to wind down, I get twitchy as I start to fall asleep, ultimately wake up and am unable to fall into a deep sleep for a few hours. Sometimes it feels like I never do fall asleep.
This is a scenario with which many endurance athletes are familiar – restless sleep after a tough evening or night workout, or a race that ends late. It’s frustrating and stressful to lie awake in bed, wondering if your body and mind will ever “turn off” so you can actually get some sleep. Despite being fatigued from the physical effort and tired from the now-late hour, there’s little hope of sleep coming. And, even when you do finally fall asleep, you wake up repeatedly and find yourself watching the minutes on the clock tick away.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer for why this occurs. There are various factors which contribute to post-workout (or race) insomnia, so by better understanding these factors hopefully you will be able to impact your inability to sleep on certain nights.
First off, you’re dealing with dehydration. Because you’ve just worked out, your core temperature is higher and because you’re dehydrated from the workout, your core remains hotter because your body is working harder to do even the simplest of things compared to when you’re properly hydrated. This elevated core temp runs against the nature of things at bed time – lowering temperature, slowing down of bodily functions. Instead, you’re elevated and in a heightened sense.
Next, you’re dealing with the after effects of being in an excitable fight-or-flight state. Your CNS and endocrine system are amped up and don’t immediately “turn off” just because you’re done with your workout or race. Multiple hormones have been released and continue to be released into your system as survival mechanisms – such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine – all of which impact your ability for a peaceful sleep.
Due to the excitement associated with racing and the excitability of the body during long or hard workouts, the body releases more adrenaline and norepinephrine. Adrenaline is the first to drop off and does so fairly quickly once you’re done exercising or racing. However, studies show it may take as long as 48 hours for norepinephrine levels to return to normal. So, while you may sleep just fine after short or easy evening workouts, you may still find it hard to fall asleep after particularly hard ones.
As for cortisol, it is released as a response to stress. This is why you see elevated cortisol levels in over-trained athletes or people who experience way too much work-related stress. Cortisol is not bad, but too much of it certainly is. It’s a hormone that helps drive positive change through training stimulus. When the workload of a workout or series of training sessions or a race is too great, elevated cortisol levels can become regular or even chronic, which in turn represses the body’s ability to grow (in simple terms) because a catabolic rather than anabolic state is perpetuated.
Cortisol levels naturally fluctuate, within a day as well as day-to-day. Typically, cortisol levels are lowest when you’re ready to go to bed (the body is winding itself down). Evening challenging workouts or races drives cortisol levels up and, thus, runs counter to the natural cycle to which the body is accustomed. The closer to bedtime the hard workout or race is completed, the more elevated cortisol will be when you climb into bed.
Some of you may train in the evening or at night most days due to work and family schedules. So, you may be reading this and saying, “Not a problem for me.” Great! This means your body has adapted to your late-in-the-day training habits. The insomnia is typically reserved for those who occasionally exercise rigorously in the evenings; so, something to which these athletes have not created a pattern.
So, if post-workout/race insomnia is an ongoing challenge for you, what can be done about it? Here are just a few recommendations.
First, try to minimize stress in your life. There are three buckets of stressors – physical, mental and emotional – and you fill each of them up to a certain degree every day. The challenge is that the body reads them and reacts to them pretty much the same. So, while it’s important for us to treat each of them separately, the body copes with them collectively. If one or more of the buckets are overflowing, it’s time to make some changes in your life. As discussed above, stress raises cortisol which in turn inhibits sleep which in turn inhibits recuperation. Finding ways to keep your stress levels in check will help you keep your cortisol levels lower. Next, cut the caffeine out either directly prior to or during these evening workouts/races. Caffeine stays in your system for hours, so it may be well after midnight before the stimulating effects of the drug actually wear off and allow your body to calm down enough so you can get to sleep.
After your hard session, drink a cold glass of water, then hop into a cool shower. This approach covers two bases. First, you’ll work on hydration. When properly hydrated, the body doesn’t have to work as hard to do its simple, everyday tasks (like pumping blood). Second, the cold water cools you down from within while the cool shower cools you down from without. Since your core temp and skin temp are both elevated, you will be more sensitive to the temperature of the water. Start with it warm and gradually decrease the temperature until the shower is running comfortably cold. It should feel refreshing in its effect. Let it run over your head, down your back and over the muscles you just worked. The cooler you can be when climbing into bed, the better off you’ll be in terms of actually falling asleep.
Lastly, if you’ve been lying awake staring at the ceiling for over an hour, get out of bed and try to fall asleep somewhere else in the house. Surrounding yourself with different energy is sometimes all that’s required to lower the stimulating feelings you’re experiencing. I find that moving to the couch on the main floor tends to do the trick more often than not. I notice a fairly quick calming down, I settle in to the contours of the couch and I fall into a deep sleep.
We all have those sleepless nights. But, knowing what we can do to minimize their occurrence and their impact when we do get them is more than half the battle.