Why Can’t I Sleep After a Hard Workout or Race?

Here’s a scenario a ton of athletes experience, but few talk about: The night after finishing a big endurance competition or a long and strenuous workout, you lie awake in bed or toss and turn despite being thoroughly exhausted. Your sleeplessness may be compounded by feeling like you are radiating heat or you can feel/hear your heartbeat. And even if you are able to get to sleep initially, you struggle to stay asleep and fail to have a restful night. What gives?  How can an exhausting event leave you sleepless?

There isn’t one simple cause for post-exercise insomnia, but there are definitely factors that contribute to it:

Hormones

Exercise ramps up your heart rate, core temperature, and sweat rate. It also has an excitatory effect on your nervous and endocrine systems. The more strenuous the exercise and the longer the workout or competition, the longer you have been in this excited or aroused state. Two of the hormones that appear to play a significant role in post-workout sleep disturbances are norepinephrine and cortisol.

Cortisol

Cortisol is released in response to stress, which means elevated cortisol levels are a natural consequence of exercise. This increase isn’t all bad; it contributes to the training stimulus that drives positive adaptation. However, when an athlete’s training workload is too high and someone is struggling to recover from workouts, chronically elevated cortisol levels are likely part of the problem.

On a day to day basis your cortisol levels fluctuate naturally on a cycle which peaks about 30-minutes after you wake up and slowly declines throughout the day. As a result, you are normally at the lower portion of the cycle when you go to sleep at night. A day-long endurance competition like the Leadville 100, Dirty Kanza 200, or an Ironman pushes cortisol levels up and out of sync with the normal daily cycle for cortisol, which can contribute to sleeplessness.

What about shorter workouts or events? A shorter event closer to your bedtime can have a similar effect to a longer event that ends further before bedtime. What matters are the magnitude of the exertion and the time between the finish and bedtime. The good news for athletes who train in the afternoon or evening is that you can habituate to a routine and essentially train yourself to get to sleep after a workout. Post-exercise insomnia is more common when the magnitude of the exertion is greater than normal for you, or the workout/competition is later in the day than you are used to.

Norepinephrine and Adrenaline

Exercise and competition are exciting, and as a result you release more adrenaline and norepinephrine. Adrenaline levels fall quickly after exercise, but according to a 2011 study by Shahsavar norepinephrine levels may stay elevated for up to 48 hours after exhaustive exercise. This may help explain why some athletes can train in the evening and normally sleep fine, but struggle after exceptionally difficult training sessions and/or very long competitions.

Stimulants

Many athletes consume foods or drinks that contain caffeine before or during workouts and competitions. Caffeine is a stimulant you can habituate to quite readily, meaning that some people can drink coffee late in the day and fall asleep just fine. However, if you are a person who struggles to sleep following a late afternoon/evening workout or after long endurance events, take a look at how much caffeine you are consuming and when you are consuming it. In the case of long events, you may realize that you are ingesting a whole lot more caffeine than you normally would over the course of 10+ hours. If that’s a problem, reserve the caffeinated sports nutrition products for when you will benefit most from increased focus and alertness.

Dehydration and Core Temperature

There isn’t too much you can do to change your hormonal response to exercise (although, being more fit and less stressed out will help), but you can absolutely influence your hydration status and its impact on your core temperature. Your body temperature dips slightly during restful sleep and starts to increase again as you awaken. People also sleep better in cooler environments compared to hot ones. When your body temperature remains elevated you are very likely to have trouble sleeping. Exercise elevates body temperature, and cooling the body becomes increasingly difficult when you are inadequately hydrated. Some level of dehydration is highly likely following long endurance events lasting more than 4-5 hours. It is essentially inevitable after ultraendurance events like Western States, the Dirty Kanza 200, or an Ironman. Dehydration also leads to an elevated heart rate, even hours after your workout or race. When these factors combine, athletes report feeling like they are radiating heat while lying in bed listening to their heart rate in their ears.

Recommendations

If you have suffered through a sleepless night or a night of tossing and turning after an already-exhausting endurance event, here are some recommendations for getting more and better sleep next time:

  1. Maximize your fitness: As with many aspects of performance, fitness solves most problems. The more fit you are, the better you will cope with the acute stress from a workout or event. Essentially, your fitness gives you greater ability to absorb the stress before it impacts your sleep.
  2. Minimize lifestyle stress: “Let it go, let it go…” Seriously, the stress you’re carrying from your job or your busted car or your visiting in-laws just pours more cortisol on the fire and heightens the sensitivity to excitatory hormones like epinephrine (until a chronic overload of these hormones subsequently reduces your sensitivity to them).
  3. Ease up on the stimulants: Remember, caffeine doesn’t actually give you any additional energy. It primarily helps with focus and awareness, and in that regard consuming more doesn’t necessarily lead to greater benefit. In long events, caffeinated products are not likely to help you all day. A better strategy for endurance events is to consume caffeine before a portion of the race where you actually need it. Read more on caffeine for endurance athletes.
  4. Proactively cool down: Many athletes have gotten the message about post-workout or post-event rehydration and fuel replenishment. But proactively bringing your body temperature down is also important. Effective methods include wrapping yourself in wet towels, dousing clothing with cold water, ice packs, cool water immersion (not necessarily ice baths), cool showers, and hanging out in an air-conditioned environment.
  5. Cool your sleeping environment: Both core and skin temperatures decline when you fall asleep, and a cool sleeping environment helps create a temperature gradient that facilitates this process. Everyone is a bit different, but optimal room temperatures for promoting restful sleep are typically in the 60-70 degree Fahrenheit range.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS


Shahsavar, Ali Reza, and Mohammad Javad Pourvaghar. “Follow-Up Alterations of Catecholamine Hormones after an Intensive Physical Activity.” Biosci., Biotechnol. Res. Asia Biosciences Biotechnology Research Asia 8.2 (2011): 591-95. Web.

 

23 Responses to “Why Can’t I Sleep After a Hard Workout or Race?”

  1. sbonga

    I usually have a bike race on Wednesday night 6pm-7pm and can never fall asleep that night. It’s a real problem this one.

    Reply
  2. Kevin H

    Did the Thursday night MTB race series last night at 6:30 (and also used a decongestant before hand due to sinus issues.) No wonder I could sleep last night!! Now I know.

    Reply
  3. Mike

    I struggle so much with exercise induced insomnia. Some nights I’ll fall asleep initially for an hour and then toss and turn all night long. Some nights I am up in the middle of the night wandering around the house or eating or wide eyed watching tv again or reading. Drives my wife crazy to the point she often just sleeps in another room. I’ve tried OTC products to no effect. My schedule for training and local events and races is so wacky, evening, mid day, evening, mid day, early morning, all day endurance, rest day thrown in. Been like this for years. Unless I travel for a training block where the training is similar every day for a week or two and the regimen is the same… A timely article for me. At least Chris explains some of the whys, which is always good to know.

    Reply
  4. Chris

    This is a common problem for me too. I also find I have ‘twitchy legs’ which adds to the overheating and brain racing, which stops me getting to sleep. I have found taking a taurine supplement before bed really helps. Its is a protein used widely in the body (immune system, nervous system, cardiovascular system and more). It calms my twitching muscles and my racing mind which helps me get to sleep more easily and sleep better overall. I prefer it to taking an anti-Inflammatory or sedative.

    Reply
  5. Robbie bell

    Unlike most of the people who have commented on the this site I am not very fit and this is partly due to the fact that if I train hard ,be it weight training or tramping were hills are involved I have a real problem staying asleep.i mostly get to sleep fine but will wake an basicly have a interrupted sleep. No one I have spoken to have even heard of this let alone have a remedy so it’s quite annoying. These effects can last for several days even if all I did was one heavy set with the weights. If anyone has any ideas I’m all ears,thanks Robbie

    Reply
    • Philip

      For what it’s worth, which isn’t a lot, I’m in the same boat. I discovered when I stopped exercising that I felt a lot better, slept better, etc. The downside is, obviously, that after 4 or 5 years (now in mid-50s) my muscle has turned to fat–leaving me skinny but with a roll around my waist. My doctor and a sleep specialist said I could lose a few pounds, but if I exercise much I spiral downward. I’ve found that I can do a lot of walking and it doesn’t interfere with my sleep. So I’ve been doing about half an hour almost every morning and then incorporating it into my day. That has helped without hindering my sleep (I usually wake up at 3:30 if I exercise). I’m trying to very gradually build up to where I can get some real exercise, and will restrict it to the morning. Hopefully that will let me sleep.

      Reply
      • Robbie bell

        That is how it is for me Phillip,frustrated to the max. Seems the moment I over step the exercise I’m doing I’m stuffed for sleep. A chiropractor did help abit. I live in New Zealand an do
        abit of tramping,climed mt egmont this year so feel my fitness isn’t real bad road my Exercycle to hard a week back an had a shocking sleep so go figure. Not sure what to do next other than crack on with it a try to get fitter

        Reply
  6. Reginald Demery

    Been there last night. I could not sleep til about 3 am and my workout was around 6:30 to 7:30 pm. Was having hot flashes, tossing and turning all night. I think I will try next time some of the tips they mention in this article and from some of the replies. Some workout I push myself even further and don’t want to necessary cut back if I don’t have too. Usually I feel better in the morning besides feeling a little tired from less sleep.

    Reply
  7. Jeff Sipos

    Back in the day…September of 2000…whilst (classy, eh?) on a cross country bike ride with PACTour, I found that one Celebrex with my vitamins in the morning and two Darvocet at bedtime helped me cope with the pain and suffering a 100-plus mile bike ride brought about. I slept just fine and was always rarin’ to go the next day. Of course, in the intervening years, both Rx drugs have been deemed unfit, unsafe and unacceptable for human use but they certainly worked wonders for me over the course of the 25 days and 3200 or so miles…though it probably didn’t hurt that I was in the best shape of my life and literally forced myself to stay hydrated (the gallons of Coke at the end of each day notwithstanding…hey, I’m nobody’s poster boy for good habits!). I wouldn’t change a thing.

    Reply
  8. Steven

    Another great article, Thank You so much for your very informative articles!!

    Reply
  9. Phil Heiman

    I don’t always have this issue. But I find that when I do, if I take just one 250mg Motrin right before I go to bed, it quiets things enough that I generally get a good night’s sleep. I don’t know what the dosage works out to be, but I weigh ~184-188 lbs.

    Reply
  10. DAVID

    It’s more of an over load or overheating of the body running on the edge. For periods at a time longer than you normally do. I know if you are slightly dehydrated your heart rate will be up trying to cool off your body from stress. Your post seems right on. Just my thoughts.

    Reply
  11. Gene

    Great article. I’ve Done DK which is associated with all of the elements mentioned in the article. However, other events in which I’ve competed like LoToJa (206 miles to Jackson Hole) and Fireweed 200 (206 miles to Valdez, AK), the temperatures at the finish are quite cool and I find myself needing to warm up after crossing the finish line (and taking a hot shower soon afterwards), yet I still have the same issues falling asleep. This leads me to believe that, at least in my case, the hormones are the cause (I don’t use stimulants). Years ago, I discovered that I could address this problem by taking an ambien just before bed time. That’s my remedy for now, until I can find another to replace it.

    Reply
  12. Steven Donchey MD FACP

    Excellent article Chris!!
    As an endurance athlete who has competed in all the above mentioned events (thanks to Jane ) I find you are right on mark!! In addition to the adaptive responses you mentioned , I find with the restless sleep my sore muscles, legs and feet (on ultra runs) also keeps the sleep disrupted. I will occasionally take a Tylenol with my recovery drinks which helps at times.
    Thank you for all your informative emails !!

    Reply
  13. Cheryl Robertson

    WOW you have just answered all my questions! I have a problem with all these that you talked about Thank You!

    Reply
  14. Dr. Vrzal

    I had trouble calming to sleep after racing our local evening events. I have found the AdrenaCalm cream by Apex Energetics works well post race to calm the cortisol rush necessary to race effectively. FYI I have no vesting in the product, just a fan.

    Reply
  15. Felicia Davis

    Great information. Thanks for sharing. I will pass it on to the participants in my 6:30pm class.

    Reply

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