While listening last year to an archived episode of the Phedippidations podcast, host “Steve Runner” mentions that he got a great night’s sleep on the eve of the Cape Cod Marathon thanks to taking the sleep aid Ambien. It was the first time I’d heard of a runner taking a prescription drug to get some zzzzz’s before a big race. Many people, I suspect, won’t risk residual grogginess on race morning from even over-the-counter medication like Tylenol PM.
Bouts of insomnia are common for runners and caused by everything from caffeine and stress to overtraining and pre-race jitters. Sleep also can be compromised by a preoccupation with pre-dawn training runs or a revving evening workout too close to bedtime. Keep in mind that the amount of sleep an individual needs varies greatly; some subsist on four or five hours nightly, while others can’t seem to function well without at least eight.
Exercise often is recommended for the 70 million Americans with occasional or chronic sleep disorders, according to an oft-quoted 1992 National Commission on Sleep Disorders study. (Rest assured the statistic is higher today.) But beware: Running can affect the quality of sleep, just as the amount you sleep may affect your running.
For instance, long runs that leave you dead tired can nonetheless lead to restless nights, according to Devine Sports “Anyone who has run a marathon has probably experienced that supreme fatigue of covering 26.2 miles and yet have extreme difficulty sleeping that night,” according to the site. “Evidently, excessive running over 18 or 19 miles make[s] it difficult to sleep—regardless of how tired you are. The less accustomed you are to doing long runs, usually means the great[er] chance it will affect your sleep.”
Insomnia also can fed on itself, as a recent article in The Washington Post notes. “For the hard-of-sleeping, it’s sometimes a tossup as to which is heavier, the pressure to sleep well or the pressure to do well in the activity being slept for,” notes author Dennis Drabelle, who uses melatonin to help him sleep. “The more you worry about it,…the more power it can exert over you.”
Standard advice, particularly for endurance athletes, is to not expect to sleep well the night before a race. Instead, try to get some good shut-eye two nights before. Devine Sports also offers some tips specifically for runners:
- Be consistent when you go to bed and when you wake up. Don’t go to bed an hour or two early to catch up on sleep. You’ll likely just toss and turn. You can’t store sleep so don’t try.
- Don’t drink coffee or alcohol or use some non-drowsy medications before bed.
- Eat dinner several hours before bedtime. If you want to snack before going to bed, try a carbohydrate-rich, easily digestible food.
- Don’t nap. If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, avoid taking a catnap which may delay when you’re sleepy enough to go to bed at night.
- Don’t run or exercise close to bedtime. Give yourself at least three or four hours after you exercise before going to sleep.
- If you can’t sleep, get up and read or watch TV. Don’t lay in bed for hours. Sleep on a different bed or couch.
- Turn off your mind. Try not to think about stressful events or duties. You can’t do anything about them now anyway.