At the end of a full day,  we runners especially look forward to hitting the sack to recharge before tomorrow’s run, and all the rest of our everyday lives. For many runners though, drifting off to dreamland can be challenging. Insomnia is common among endurance athletes, and we talked with a sleep expert on why this is the case, and how a sleepless runner can finally get the rest they so desperately need. 

Amy Bender holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, is a Calgary-based researcher at the Canadian Sleep Society and she helps Team Canada Olympians fall asleep. Ahead of Rio last year, she studied the sleep habits of 200 athletes (mostly rowers, skaters and curlers) to categorize their sleep problems and make recommendations based on their responses. If athletes score low on their ability to nod off, Bender knows what do about it. Here’s her crash-course on identifying insomnia and then bidding it farewell. 

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Red flags

Do you struggle with insomnia or was it just a bad night? There are a few ways to identify whether or not you have this common sleep disorder. As Bender explains, there are three dead giveaways: waking up constantly throughout the night; not getting restorative sleep; and having difficulty drifting off within 30 minutes after turning out the lights. That last point especially is a big tip that a person is dealing with insomnia. 

Why runners can be prone 

This sleep disorder is probably common among your running buddies. There are a couple reasons for this. The first one has less to do with the action of running and more to do with the personality types that are attracted to this lifestyle. There’s a certain type of person who gravitates towards sticking to a regular workout routine and timing laps and kilometres. “You might be a more A-type person and have more racing thoughts at night,” says Bender. When thoughts of that last 5K flood in, relaxing becomes increasingly difficult. 

Not you? If the clock strikes 2:00 a.m. and your eyes are wide open, consider how strenuous of a routine you keep. “It is the most common sleep disorder. In our screening with Olympians, insomnia is the most relevant in athletes,” Bender notes. But haven’t we all heard that regular exercise is the key to better sleep? That’s partially correct. “I think with the general population, vigorous exercise leads to reports of better sleep quality,” Bender says. As she points out though, there’s a balance. When the workout routine strays from vigorous to extra intense, a person can pay for it when they go to bed. Bender has observed this pattern in many elite athletes and while the evidence is mainly anecdotal, she feels that too much exercise can make someone a great candidate for disordered sleeping. 

A 2014 study supports this notion and tosses another concern into the conversation: overtraining syndrome. Exercise too intensely and you may wind up with a whole slew of symptoms that come with this ailment. And yes, you guessed it, on that list is sleep insomnia. The study, published by Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise monitored 27 male triathletes over a six-week period while one group over-trained and the other did not. The group that was pushed confirmed that sleep disturbances are prevalent among over-trained athletes. 

How it affects the workout

“People with insomnia have fatigue but not necessarily sleepiness. It affects time to exhaustion so you may not be able to run as far as you normally could,” explains Bender. In other words, even if you feel wide awake, your perception of when you tire could make you bow out of that last set of intervals when you otherwise would be ready to power through. Fatigue and hard running simply are not a compatible pair. 

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Fixing it

So you’ve got a nagging case of insomnia… what do you do about it? Lucky, Bender knows several ways to fix it. While severe cases require a visit with a behavioural psychologist, there are some tricks to test before booking an appointment. One running-specific suggestion: run early in the day. “If you’re running outside, getting light exposure before noon, that’s associated with better sleep quality,” says Bender. 

Failing that, your run-of-the-mill advice of no screen time for the hour before sleeping or go to bed early doesn’t always work. “It’s not like we can just turn off a switch and fall asleep,” Bender says. Here are her four suggestions to kick insomnia:

Breathing: Like with running, your breathing has a say on how your sleep. To increase your chances of getting some shut-eye, Bender recommends a sleep exercise. Breathe in for four seconds, hold it for seven and slowly breathe out for eight counts. Repeat that four times before bed.  

Cognitive shuffling technique: Pick a word. While trying to drift off, imagine objects that start with each letter of the word. For example, if the word is “Bedtime” visualize items that start with “B” and then “E” and so on. By focusing on this, those racing thoughts that ward off deep slumbers are less likely to invade your night. 

Progressive muscle relaxation: Runners who pay heed to the workings of their body will like this activity. Tense up different muscle groups one and at time. Then release and focus on keeping tense areas relaxed.

Reading: Invest in a little bed time reading (unless you find reading keeps you awake, of course). Two recommendations that come Bender-approved are Say Goodnight to Insomnia by Greg D. Jacobs and Sink Into Sleep by Judith R. Davidson. Each packs lessons on how to confront and reverse this annoying sleep disorder. 

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