If you sleep well you most likely take it for granted, as many athletes out there would do anything to fall asleep in a short matter of time and stay asleep until morning. Not only do many runners, cyclists, and triathletes not sleep well, but they think their common sleep problems are normal, though they most likely are not. A restful night in the sack will do wonders for your health and physical performance. Sleep, health, and fitness are all related to one another – the better your sleep, the healthier you will be, and the healthier you are the more fit you will become.
Remember: Training = (Working Out + Daily Stress)/Rest & Recovery
Is it normal for me to take a long while to fall asleep, even if I exercised earlier in the day?
You should fall asleep in a relative short period of time (typically less than 15 minutes). Often an athlete can’t fall asleep because their major stress hormone, cortisol, is too high. Cortisol is a hormone made by your adrenal glands and is normally highest in the morning (6-8am) and then slowly lowers itself throughout the day until it is at its lowest around midnight, ensuring a restful sleep. Fluctuations in this cycle can wreak havoc on sleep cycles, particularly if cortisol levels are high in the late evening. Individuals under high stress and athletes training too hard have a tendency to output high cortisol levels throughout the entire day. Anaerobic workouts where your heart rate is too high, even for a short period of time such as during interval training, will elevate cortisol levels. These can stay elevated for a long time, (Mark Allen says up to 9 hours after a workout), and affect sleep, especially if the workout was later in the day. Even going long periods throughout the day without eating will increase cortisol levels because your body will naturally increase cortisol to balance blood sugar, often at the expense of stored glucose (sugar) and valuable amino acids needed to repair tissue. Many athletes are what I call “tired and wired.” This means they need coffee to get them going in the morning (tired) and then they are more productive in the evening (wired – night owls). Many then resort to alcohol to calm them down at night. You can say it winds you down if that makes you sleep better; yes the pun is intended.
Is it normal to wake up during the night to use the bathroom?
This is perhaps the most common sleep problem and rarely is this normal. Athletes think that this is normal because they’ve been carrying a water bottle around with them all day and think they’re well hydrated. But this is rarely the case. Something is up, (other than yourself in the middle of the night), and it is most often due to some physical, chemical/nutritional, or emotional stress stirring up your adrenal glands. However this time more often from another adrenal hormone other than cortisol.
Aldosterone, another one of the adrenal hormones, is responsible for mineral balance in the body (sodium-potassium). It is higher at night, opposite that of cortisol. High aldosterone means that sodium is retained, which also means that fluid is retained. This means that you sleep better since the dreaded walk to the bathroom isn’t needed. A low aldosterone at night means you are going to have to get up and go, literally.
Another reason for frequent nighttime urination common in athletes is from lactic acid, usually from a hard (anaerobic) workout, irritating the wall of the bladder. This irritation will cause you to wake up and urinate, but often results in low urine volume. That is when you think to yourself, “I got up for this?” – only to return with a similar outcome a couple hours later. For you men out there it is important to note that frequent urination and especially that of low volume can be due to a prostate problem. That is not something you want to ignore.
Is it normal to wake up during the night at all?
Ideally, you should not wake up during your sleep, until you are finally up in the morning. Waking up even once, even for a few minutes, is very common, especially in athletes doing too much anaerobic activity, working long hours, or eating poorly throughout the day (going more than 5-6 hours without eating and/or too many refined foods). The most common reason for this is due to a spike in cortisol and sometimes epinephrine (adrenalin), which occurs in response to a drop in blood sugar. Your body increases these hormones when your blood sugar drops too low so it can make glucose (sugar) from glycogen (stored sugar), as well as valuable amino acid stores, in your liver. That surge in stress hormones will wake you up, and you sometimes may wake up hungry, or not. At night you’re trying to play catch-up because you depleted yourself all day long. Instead of being anabolic (rebuilding tissue and healing organs), during sleep, you’re catabolic (breaking down sugars and muscle to give you energy). Next thing you know you’re up buying a ShamWow at 4am. (I heard they’re actually pretty good though.)
Is it normal to have trouble sleeping the night before a race?
This one is not necessarily normal or abnormal. I’d call it more of a hindrance. I often sleep well the night before a race because I’m used to racing over the past 20+ years. I remember the first year I did Ironman Hawaii in 1996 (which was my first IM race ever). I was 4th in line at body marking. Pre-race jitters might keep you up, and I tend to think they will not cause any negative effect on your race as long as everything else is going well, including sleep the previous nights. Relaxing more during the day before your race, and staying away from all the race hype (away from the expos), might help you sleep better that night too.
Is it normal to wake up at the same time every night?
Another common sleep problem that athletes have is waking up at the exact same time every night. They will say, “I wake up at 2:55am every night,” or “I can’t get to sleep before 1:00am.” When specific times are involved this has to do with the acupuncture meridian system and its relationship to certain organs during those times. 11pm to 1am is the time when the gallbladder is at its highest energy. So if a person has a problem with their gallbladder, (too many bad fats in their diet and too much caffeine are very common), then they often can’t get to sleep between those times – or if they are asleep before 11pm then they may wake up during that 2-hour cycle. Between 1am and 3am is the liver meridian. This is the most common time a person wakes up and is due to many reasons, but most often from a hormonal influence. As noted above, when cortisol and epinephrine levels elevate to pull sugar from the liver, this will wake you up, as it taxes the liver as well. Also the liver has to deal with detoxification of hormones, such as cortisol and estrogen, leading to more work for the organ at that time. Medications will result in a similar problem, maybe even the same medication you’re taking to get you to sleep! NSAIDs, that many runners and other athletes take often to help with inflammation, can result in this sleep problem too from the effect on the liver. 3am to 5am is the lung meridian – so think any breathing difficulty, and sometimes sinus problems (allergies) can show up here too. 5-7am is large intestine. Though many athletes wake for the day to train during this time I’ve often heard someone say, “I can’t sleep past 5am no matter what”, or “It’s like I’m just wide awake at 6am even though I don’t need to get up until 7″. Their large intestine (colon) is irritated – most likely from a food sensitivity/allergy or some dysbiosis (bad gut bacteria), or gut fungus/yeast. Digestive issues are very common in athletes from eating too many refined carbohydrates especially those found in sports drinks.
Is it normal for me to need any medication/drug to fall asleep?
Definitely not. A healthy athlete should not need to take any medication, herb, or hormone (such as melatonin), to fall asleep. The sleep medications such as Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, and many others work off a powerful inhibitory neurotransmitter (NT) called GABA, to help you relax and get to sleep. A healthy athlete does this without the drug, but many athletes suppress the inhibitory NTs because they have too many excitatory NTs – from hard training/racing. The drugs do not allow you to go through the normal sleep cycles, so you may feel like you’re getting great sleep, but it’s not as good as if you were sleeping without the drug. Likewise, you should be making your own amount of melatonin, from your pineal gland. This hormone is often suppressed by cortisol, the same hormone that is high in stressed-out, hard-working, over-exercised athletes.
Check your environment. Make sure it is dark. The pineal gland which secretes melatonin allowing you to sleep is turned off by light sources. So the darker the room the better. I recommend removing major electronic sources from your room – particularly the TV. (I have a small battery clock by my bed – that’s it.) Many people have resolved their sleep problems by removing their TV or their giant LED clock on their nightstand. Even consider using your heart rate monitor watch as your one and only clock. And you should try to get to be around 10pm, 11pm at the latest. A person’s natural circadian rhythm is based off the rising and setting of the sun. Sleeping eight hours from 10pm to 6am is much healthier than 12am to 8am.
Is it normal to have a limb jerk when I fall asleep?
This is not normal, but a sign that your sympathetic nervous system is too revved-up. As you’re falling asleep, your arm, leg, or hand may twitch abruptly, or even in extreme cases your whole body my jolt off the mattress. Don’t worry, you’re not possessed, but you are overtrained and too stressed out. This is a clear sign that you need more rest and aerobic, rather than anaerobic activity.
Is it normal to get leg cramps when I sleep?
Leg cramps at night, especially the excruciating “Charley Horse” cramps that occur in the calves, are most commonly due to poor tissue calcium utilization. Calcium, as most know, is important for bone and joint health, but it is also extremely important for the muscles of athletes. Calcium aids in muscle contraction and if low, can lead to muscle cramping. Most athletes get enough calcium in their daily diet, but they do not use it efficiently. Essential fatty acid metabolism is of utmost importance for calcium to be driven into the soft tissues (muscles) to prevent cramping. This means not eating any trans fats and getting the proper amount of Omega 3s (fish and flax oil), Omega 6s (vegetables, nuts, seeds), and especially healthy saturated fats (egg yolks, butter, cream, coconut oil/milk), fats in your diet. Without them, the calcium won’t be able to get into your muscles. Calcium also needs an acidic environment to work well for you. That is why supplemental forms of calcium carbonate, also known as oyster shell calcium, found in many popular brands of supplements, (TUMS), is poorly absorbed and many times can cause problems. I’ve seen many athletes chew up TUMS all day long. Calcium citrate and calcium lactate supplements are best absorbed into the tissues. However, this does not mean if you have leg cramps as described you should take lots of calcium. Although the deficiency may be the issue, more commonly it is the problem of absorption. If the fats in the diet are off, as well as other health problems such as poor digestion, these issues must be addressed for calcium to work for you. Other signs of calcium tissue “starvation” are cold sores/fever blisters, canker sores, achy muscles especially in Spring/Summer during the first few days of yard work, itchy skin, and bursitis, to name a few. I remember one year Jan Ullrich starting the prologue TT of The Tour de France and Phil Liggett was commenting on his fever blister on his lip. He knew his body was fatigued and overtrained.
Is it normal to snore?
Snoring – definitely not normal, but very common – and if you’re to the point of sleep apnea and need a CPAP machine, well, you’ve got some work to do. Snoring can result from many problems – hormonal issues (as mentioned above), inflammation (from an injury or even from a poor diet), irritation to the digestive tract (from a food sensitivity/allergy, medication, or gut fungus/yeast living in your belly) – to name a few. I tend to look at snoring as a sign that something is not right and needs to be corrected. When someone’s health improves, so does the snoring. I catch myself (or my wife does) snoring if I’m working too hard or training too hard. It’s my “tell” to let me know I better back off and assess how much I’m pushing my body. You should do the same if you snore, either a little, or a lot.
Is it normal to wake up with stiff or achy joints, whether I worked out hard or not?
The most common reason for stiff joints in the morning is improper calcium utilization. First, calcium must be available. Despite what you might think or have been told to think by the dairy association or most medical physicians, eating or drinking more cow milk is not going to solve your calcium issue. Calcium needs an acidic environment to be properly absorbed, which is why supplements such as calcium carbonate or oyster shell calcium are such poor choices. The acidity primarily comes from proper stomach acid (HCL), which along with proper fatty acid metabolism pushes the calcium into the soft tissues. Lack of stomach acid, which commonly manifests itself as heartburn and indigestion (yes, I said lack of, not too much of) from a poor diet, and excessive training. Poor sources of calcium will contribute to calcium deposits and kidney stones.
It is normal for me to wake up tired – Hey, I train a lot, so isn’t that normal?
You should wake up feeling well rested. If you wake up tired there could be some hormonal imbalance, or a dietary problem. Many people with low thyroid hormone levels wake up tired as do individuals who eat foods high in refined carbohydrates. You will run your thyroid down from even too much aerobic activity – say if you logging in hours on the bike or run each week, even at a low heart rate. Make sure you’re always changing your routine every month or so, and assessing activity duration and intensity.
Is it normal to wake up with a headache?
That is a often a sign that you’re either dehydrated or hypoglycemic, (low blood sugar), or both. Consider drinking more water throughout the day, perhaps back-off on some of the caffeine, and eat more protein and healthy fats to help balance blood sugar levels. Ideally an athlete should be eating at least 1.5grams of protein per kg of body-weight. If you’re training more anaerobically or racing, you may need even more. Check out the Sock Doc Training Principles to learn more!
Adam Pugh says
What’s the best way to fix an improper calcium utilization? And a lack of stomach acid? Are there any foods that would be better for you if you were dealing with that type of stuff?
Sock Doc says
You are referring to the part on leg cramps while sleeping? I discuss things you can do (the fats) and if you follow the link there too it discusses using apple cider vinegar for the stomach acid part.
What about lemon juice instead?
Sock Doc says
Not sure – never tried it. Worth a shot; better tasting! 🙂
What specific vitamins do you recommend for better sleep?
I have lots of job related stress which takes it’s toll on the quality of my workouts and sleep patterns.
Sock Doc says
I won’t give specific nutrient recommendations for sleep via the internet; they are different for everyone. If I had to pick the most common deficiencies I’d say that it’s usually one of the B Vitamins – B1, B2, B5, or B6. Though taking a “multi B Complex” often doesn’t correct the deficiency – it has to be the individual nutrient. For those with high cortisol levels (from stress) I often see success with 20-25 grams of protein (such as clean whey protein or a few eggs) about 30 minutes before bed.
I can see from reading this article that my adrenal gland is stressed.
I have asthma, I can’t get to sleep before about 3am, I get up often to visit the restroom, I’m overweight and can’t lose it, my allergies are over the top this year, I wake up exhausted, and “tired and wired” describes my life.
I listened to the latest Trail Runner Nation podcast so I’m tweaking my diet some more.
My local health food store has different nutrient supplements to help stressed adrenals.
Are these supplements a good idea? or just be patient and see if/what changes happen with the dietary changes?
Sock Doc says
Stick with the diet first, that’s always the most important. Though I use supplements when necessary it’s individualized per case. A lot of adrenal supps you can buy at any health food store are adrenal glandulars (actual adrenal gland from a cow) and only recommended when the adrenal glands are very, very fatigued – which believe it or not – isn’t very common.
I’ve been looking thourgh this website because someone recommended it to me on a forum about heart rate variability. I quickly figured out that I’ve been doing way too less aerobic work. I purely do Parkour and some weightlifting to supplicate it, which means I never do any real aerobic work besides my everyday cycling. So I’m getting on that now, taking a pose running seminar with Nicolas Romanov and slowly easing into a bit of barefoot running.
Here’s my question though: Since I started measuring my HRV – and getting the sufficient amount of rest I found myself getting less and less sleep. I would go to bed at around 11:30pm and wake up between 5am and 6am. This is all without an alarm in the morning. I can’t believe that this can be good. From your articles I take it that I should actually sleeping more with better stress management of my training. So the only thing left for me is now to look at my digestive system. And yes it gets irritated in the mornings quite a bit. Where can I now find more information about irritated intestines?
Sock Doc says
If you’re waking up with an irritated gut between 5-7am then consider removing some things from your diet. Start with grains (gluten). If no change then try no dairy (casein). Sugar, caffeine, and MSG can be an issue too. That’s the easiest place to start. Two digestive articles here:
Tanks for the info!
I have been searching for a long time this issue in sleeping disorders and exercise, and have not found any good answer until I read you.
I am an avid runner I love my running, and try to do everything right (train, eat, supplement,etc…) even this, sleep has always become and issue when i exercise. In periods when I dont train I surprisingly sleep better, never wake up at night, and sleep full nights. (but that is only like a month of a hole year because i love to exercise)
After reading this i think is cortisol, but also i wake a often to go to the bathroom is there a solution to aldosterone, is there a way to prevent this. And the cortisol issue will be solved with protein (can it be casein also) thanks a lot. Ricardo from Mexico
Sock Doc says
You’ve got to build your aerobic base. Read the Training Principles: https://sock-doc.com/2012/01/sock-doc-training-principles/.
If you train aerobically then you won’t cause the cortisol spike and you’ll sleep just fine.
Great article and discussion, many thanks.
3 eggs before bed for me then!
Thank you Soc Doc for a great article!
With regards to shift workers (in particular rotating shift patterns) what are your thoughts or approaches?
I need to be aerobically fit and strong for my job as a Police Officer but struggle to find the right solution….
Your feedback is very much appreciated!
Warmest regards from New Zealand,
Sock Doc says
That’s a tough one. Ideally you try to remain as normal as possible in regards to sleep/wake cycle, and eating. So if you work 11pm to 7am 5 days, and then “9-5” for 2 days, try not to change your sleep cycle too drastically on those two days only to have to change it back soon after that.
Interesting article. When I go to fall alseep, sometimes my neck area feels like its racing the heart rate and sometimes it almost feels like reflux. Feels strange when go to sleep. I can’t work it out where its coming from, the neck, the esophagus or a systemic cardiovascular problem. I had a stress echo and they say my heart is perfect as a runner. And then I wake up at 3-4am all hyped up and find it difficult to go back to sleep.
During the day I’ve been having a vague feeling of unwell. And had neck pain and also a sore throat with a salty sweet taste. It feels dry in the morning. All bloods are normal except slight low platlets but previously bicarb was up a bit on some tests. I find I can get rid of the headaches a bit with drinking more water during the day. My systolic is slight raised compared to dystolic as well.
Would it be most likely a sleep apnea problem or is there something hormonal wrong. I have Hashimoto’s AB but the thyroid function tests are all “normal”. Maybe it is an Aldosterone problem?
Maybe I just need to try a CPAC machine to see what happens?
Maybe just overtrained and overstressed lol. I stopped training for 2 weeks but has not changed that much.
Sock Doc says
Tough one here Steven. That’s a lot of symptoms you’ve got, probably all in some way tied to stress of various degrees. Best I can offer you is to read the Training Principles I have here on the SD site and do everything you can to lower your stress levels. If no change, look for a holistically-minded doc to help your figure it out. A CPAP machine may help you sleep, but it doesn’t address the problem.
Norman Williams says
Hi Sock Doc,
We all get needed info from you, & appreciate every bit of it.
My 7 year old daughter is on a competitive gymnastics team and she has been struggling with going to sleep for over a month now. She is to the point she is having anxiety about the upcoming bed time because she fears she won’t be able to sleep. Is acupuncture safe at her age and would it possibly help? She is a good healthy kid with a regular routine and healthy diet. She isn’t scared or worried. . She is just restless. Sleep is illusive.
Sock Doc says
If it’s because of the gymnastics then you need to identify the issue there first. But yes acupuncture can help any person at any age – of course a lot depends on the practitioner.
My 10 yr old is a competitive gymnast as well. She trains 16-20 hours/week. She has recently developed difficulty falling asleep: her body twitches significantly. She explains her difficulty as follows, “My body is tired, but I can’t turn my mind off.” I read your article on sleep and recognize it might be high levels of cortisol due to her anaerobic training. My question is, is it safe to add moderate aerobic training on her 3 days off from gym (as long as it’s fun and feels good)? Her gym coach changes up workouts very often and they do lots of conditioning but I’m sure it’s still mostly anaerobic due to the sport. Anywho, just checking in to make sure your recommendations for sleep, diet, exercise, etc. are applicable to kids as well.
Sock Doc says
Sure – but I would say very easy aerobic training, rather than moderate. They’d be good active recovery days.
Thank you, Sock Doc!!
Matt Powers says
Wow, really well-written, informative article. I have a question about what to do when you’ve identified that exercise (too much intense weightlifting) is causing sleep disturbances. I’ve been taking breaks, as in a week or two of deloads, but as soon as I start back up, I’ll sleep poorly after a heavy weightlifting session. Typically I wake a time or two during the night, and I can’t sleep more than 6-7 hours.
Do you have any recommendations for how to exercise when sleep disturbances are an issue? How do you know when to resume normal training? I seem unable to find any good information on how to actually adjust training and return to normal when sleep is all messed up. It’s driving me nuts ’cause I’m miserable when I don’t train but I can’t make any progress and I feel like trash because of poor sleep, which messes with the rest of my life!
Dr. Stephen Gangemi "Sock Doc" says
Check out the article on this site regarding overtraining. https://sock-doc.com/warning-signs-symptoms-of-overtraining/
Consider more protein on those high intensity/strength days. Maybe some magnesium might help too.
Jack corbett says
Hi there sock doc just looking for a bit of advice on an issue- I’ve been having frequent nighttime urination on and off during periods of hard training and reckon it may be linked to aldosterone issues as outlined- health and performance otherwise very good and diet excellent just looking to see what your advice for me would be re supplements lifestyle changes etc
Dr. Stephen Gangemi "Sock Doc" says
Check out the 4-part adrenal series on this site!
My husband , a former pro cyclist, keeps me up at night with these little jerky movements while he sleeps. He also gets up to urinate a lot. Shall he start with mineral supplementation ? Calcium? Magnesium ? Also, he drinks a carafe of coffee every morning to wake up . Help?
Hi sock doc, great article. Reading the comments most people are talking about over training during a week but was wondering what can be done to help fall asleep after late night competition basketball games? I was sticking to your aerobic training principles but recently haven’t had much time to fit in any running biking during the week only a moderate basketball training session. I look forward to your reply.
Dr. Stephen Gangemi "Sock Doc" says
Sometime some protein, around 15-20g helps before bed. If not, make sure you get in 40-50g carbs after you play.
Scott Marshall says
Hi Sock Doc….great article. Tryingt to find out what is causing my sleep issues and wondered if you could psosibly advise. I hav been weight training and playing sport for many years, I am a 33 year old male in good shape, but struggle to sleep for a 48 hour cycle whether its playing sport or weight training. Anything that exerts the body playing squash or football or training, anything high intensity, and lasts for two terribly restless nights sleep there after beofre returning to normal which makes me realise how poor my sleep is after these events. I struggle to fall asleep, feeling very alert & heart rate very quik, normally an hour or more to drift off, and then when I do fall asleep, I awake around 4am each night to go for a very lenghty urination, and then struggle to get back to sleep there-after, very restless and completely unrefreshed when I wake. I am often already awake before the alarm goes off at 6.30am, going to bed at 22.30. I have started taking melatonin before bed which helps me to get to sleep quicker, but still always wake to urinate at 4am, and again struggle there-after. Any advice would be most welcome as this has been going on for years and I still no nearer to finding out what is wrong and do not want to give up the things I love to do.
Dr. Stephen Gangemi "Sock Doc" says
Thanks Scott. I can’t give any more (specific) advice other than what is already in this article as well as the other sleep articles on drgangemi.com. I hope reading through everything will give yousome guidance.