Running and Sleep

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Running and Sleep

on 23 September 2014.

We all need sleep to live, even though science still cannot pinpoint just why we need to sleep. Being runners, we can all vouch for the importance of sleep for recovery and if you are like me, we can all use a bit more sleep each night. (I actually list napping as one of my hobbies!) Even though we need sleep and love to sleep, it seems that we don’t get enough, either because of time demands from hectic lives or the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, i.e. insomnia. While actual data is hard to come by, some say that up to 40% of the population suffers from some form of insomnia.

            So can running help us sleep better, or does running interfere with sleep? If you ask most runners they will probably tell you that running helps them sleep better. But is it really true? Well, there are numerous factors that can affect sleep even within the running population. As with anything else, all runners are not exactly the same, and this is especially true when it comes to sleep.

            The type of running that is done can have a huge impact on sleep patterns. Most research on exercise and sleep has looked at aerobic exercise, or in other words, easy paced, extended distance running. Well, in reality the evidence on the effects of aerobic running on sleep is very inconclusive. Some say it helps, some say it has no effect, while others report that aerobic exercise actually disrupts sleep. This would certainly throw a wrench into the long held belief that exercise improves sleep. Youngstedt, O’Connor and Dishman did an extensive review of research on exercise and sleep which was published in the journal Sleep in 1997. In their review they reported aerobic exercise had no effect on the time it takes to fall asleep or how long someone is awake during the night. They did report exercise resulted in a slight increase in the total duration of sleep. So running may increase the need for sleep.


  Our age may be the biggest factor that impacts our sleep patterns. Of course infants sleep the most, anywhere from 16-19 hours per day, while older adults may only average 6-7 hours of sleep per night. Much has been written recently about teenagers and their sleep needs and the lack of sleep brought about by technology, such as surfing the internet, texting and video gaming. However, it may not be the amount of sleep that is most important; it may be the quality of sleep that is critical. It seems that delta sleep is the best sleep. Delta sleep is so named because during this period of sleep brain wave patterns tend to show low frequency, high amplitude patterns called delta waves. Delta sleep is known as restorative sleep and it is very important for recovery. Human growth hormone secretion and cell division are at their highest level during delta sleep, while body core temperature, heart rate and respiration are at their lowest in delta sleep. Basically, we need delta sleep to aid in recovery from running. The bad news is as we get older delta sleep tends to decrease. Delta sleep is highest in young individuals who exercise, so it may be possible that running can improve delta sleep to some degree as we age.

            The time of day when we run may also be a factor to consider in sleep. Most people believe that exercising too close to bedtime may interfere with sleep. Youngstedt and his colleagues reported that the evidence does not support the notion that exercising near bedtime interferes with sleep. There just isn’t enough evidence to draw any definitive conclusion that running near bed time interferes with sleep. Many have speculated as to why there is no clear answer. Maybe those who are really fit and accustomed to exercising at bedtime are totally unaffected, or maybe those runners that normally workout in the morning would see sleep interference by running near bedtime. The intensity of the running may also be a factor with intense running near bedtime possibly interfering with sleep patterns. The bottom line is the effect of running near bedtime is probably an individual thing. If you’re use to it and you sleep well, then go for that night run. More research is needed however that examines the exact time frame between finishing a run and trying to fall asleep. Doing so may reveal a critical time between running and going to bed for the best sleep.

            The diet we eat as runners may greatly impact sleep. Many runners consume high carbohydrate diets and such diets may actually cause sleepiness because of an increase in the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain following a high carbohydrate meal. Turkey supposedly contains high levels of the amino acid tryptophan, which is easily converted to serotonin in the brain, so a turkey sandwich may be a good evening snack to help sleep. However, a large meal very near bedtime can interfere with sleep.

            Many runners consume caffeine on a regular basis, whether it is from coffee, tea or energy drinks. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant meaning it should have a negative effect on sleep. However, regular users of caffeine tend to no longer receive the stimulating effects of caffeine; they simple ward off withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, with their caffeine usage. In other words, they have developed tolerance to the drug. This may be the reason why some studies do indicate caffeine has a negative impact on sleep, while other studies have found no correlation between caffeine use and sleep. Again, sensitivity to caffeine may be an individual thing.

            It may sound strange, but the evidence really doesn’t support running improving sleep. For some running may aid with sleep, while for others running may actually interfere with sleep. However, we do know that sleep, especially delta sleep is most certainly needed to recover from exercise and restore the body. So just how can we enhance the chances of a good nights sleep? The following basic tips can increase the likelihood of a good nights sleep. Try to have regular times to go to bed and wake-up each day. Be sure your room is dark as human circadian rhythms are influenced by daylight and darkness. Cool rooms tend aid in sleep, while excessively warm rooms disturb sleep. Alcohol can lead to disturbed sleep patterns and lead to less restful fragmented sleep, so alcohol is not a sleep aid. Lastly, try to simply relax thirty minutes before bedtime. Clear your mind of the worries of the day and try to unwind.

            While evidence concerning sleep and running is often confusing, we do know runners need sleep to recover, adapt to training and feel rested and energized for hard training and racing. Sleep is actually a big variable in any training program, so to get the most out of your training examine your sleep habits. Sweet dreams!

Richard Ferguson is Chair of the Physical Education, Wellness, and Sport Science Department at Averett University and is an AASP Certified Sport Psychology Consultant. He may be reached via e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it   and twitter at [email protected] 

Read more of Dr. Ferguson articles

Don’t Panic! - :

The Mental Maximization of Training -

With the Help of a Friend -

Beating the Winter Blues-

Go For It -

Beating Burnout -

A New Outlook -

Expect the Unexpected -

Pain or Discomfort? -

Keep Your Eye on the Prize -

 Running Free -

Running and Role Models -

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