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How to overcome common sleep issues and get enough rest

Tips to battle issues that keep runners awake and help them get enough deep sleep, crucial for recovery.

Sleep — we all need it to repair the damage waking hours inflict on our body and mind. It’s the time to de-stress, refresh and re-energize. For distance runners, sleep plays a crucial role in recovery process.

The recommendation for an average adult is to get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. For many runners with a busy lifestyle and demanding work and family obligation managing an average of eight hours of sleep per night isn’t possible. Beside the lifestyle demands, a significant percentage of people — runners included — suffers from chronic sleep issues. For them, the problem isn’t having enough bedtime; the problem is getting enough restful sleep during that time.

Running coach Jeff Gaudette identifies following common sleep issues for runners:

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing during sleep. Each pause in breathing, called an apnea, can last from a few seconds to minutes, and may occur five to 30 times or more in an hour. There are three types of apnea — central, caused by a lack of respiratory effort; obstructive, caused by a physical block to airflow (snoring is a common sign); and mixed.

Sleep apnea is most common with overweight men, mostly the ones with a thick neck, which narrows the airways while sleeping. However, a new research points out that even people with thin necks, may suffer from it: once the muscles relax during sleep, a thin neck provides less room for air to pass.

If you snore, find yourself constantly tired during the day despite having enough bedtime, and think you may suffer from sleep apnea, consult your doctor. He will help find the best solution tailored for you.

Cortisol

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the zona fasciculata of the adrenal gland. It is released in response to stress and a low level of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids in blood. Its primary functions are to increase blood sugar, suppress the immune system and aid in metabolism of fat, protein and carbohydrate. Cortisol levels are highest in the morning and slowly deplete during the day.

Although running will make you tired and therefore is supposed to help with sleep, doing it too close to bedtime can have the opposite effect. Hard workouts increase the cortisol levels, which can stay elevated for up to nine hours. With heightened hormonal activity the body will not be able to achieve the restful sleep it needs.

Schedule your runs at least three hours before you go to bed. The more time you leave between the run and sleep, the longer will your body have to lower cortisol levels.

Increased body temperature

Just like with cortisol levels, running will elevate your core body temperature, and it can take up to six hours until it cools down to normal. The remedy is the same — schedule your runs farther from bedtime, and introduce a relaxing routine before sleep: soothing bath or low-stress activities such as reading or listening to music. In the hours before bed, avoid using your smartphone or watching TV, especially hockey — it is known to increase stress and body temperature to most Canadians.

Low blood sugar

Runners commonly have low blood sugar levels. While that in general is a good thing, it may impede your sleep. When blood sugar drops below certain level, cortisol is released and the rush of adrenaline will wake you up feeling hungry.

Don’t go to bed hungry, but don’t overeat either. Consider eating food containing slow-digesting protein (e.g. cottage cheese), or have a milkshake before sleep.

Another important factor which can severely affect your sleep is nutrition. While that topic is extensive enough for a blog post on its own, let’s just review a few common things to keep in mind:

– While you should try to maintain a healthy diet throughout the day, it is especially important to avoid eating heavy, fat, hard-to-digest food before sleep
– Avoid alcohol — while it may make you drowsy, it prevents brain from falling into a deep sleep it needs
– Avoid coffee or energy drinks and other sources of caffeine like chocolate and non-herbal teas