As a behavioral sleep specialist, I spend a good portion of my day trying to help people who can’t sleep. One of the biggest errors that we make when trying to cope with insomnia is scaling back our physical activity.
Yes, insomnia makes you feel exhausted and exercising when exhausted is REALLY unappealing, but this really can be THE thing that puts your sleep back on course.
Here’s why running can help you sleep.
Exercise Reduces Stress, Which Helps You Sleep
Running provides feedback to our brain that we are physically handling our problems. When we are anxious or start to experience a lot of wakefulness at night, this is often driven by increased activity in our sympathetic nervous system (called heightened sympathetic tone).
You can think of this as your fight or flight response turned on, and the best possible feedback for the fight or flight response is an actual fight or flight.
The brain will actually reduce this heightened response when we experience a big burst of cardiovascular work because that burst of cardiovascular work would be the sign in our brain and body that we were engaged in a fight or a flight. We don’t need a long burst, but rather a short burst of high intensity.
The hard part with this is that we often acclimate to our normal level of workout, so you often need to switch things up to help manage this tendency to get heightened sympathetic activity. My favorite prescription for times like this? Short hill sprints at maximum pace- aim for 4-6 that last about 45-60 seconds each.
Running “Trains” Your Circadian Rhythm
Running turns on a part of our circadian rhythm that cues wakefulness. Muscle activity is one of the signs for wakefulness in our clock system, so making sure that we have regular bouts of muscle activity will help to entrain this system.
If we happen to also run outdoors in full spectrum light, we are now engaging two key triggers to wakefulness in the brain. The more our brain understands when we are supposed to be awake and when we are supposed to be sleeping, the better you sleep!
Best possible prescription for training your clock system? An outdoor run first thing in the morning (no sunglasses)- lots of full spectrum light and good muscle activity.
Exercise Aids in Mood Regulation
According to Dr. John Ratey in his book “Spark,” physical exercise increases our levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which decreases the brain’s reactivity to cortisol (stress hormone) and increases neuroplasticity.
This is actually just the tip of the iceberg for brain benefits to exercise, but we have repeatedly seen that regular physical exercise is one of the best possible antidepressants available. We sleep better when we are less depressed, which is why mood regulation tends to be a key factor in insomnia treatment.
Mood regulation running prescription? Go outside, pick something on the horizon, and run to it. When you get there, walk until you feel comfortable again, and then repeat. No set agenda or mileage, just spend some time running toward what you see.
You Identify as a Runner, NOT an Insomniac
For many people, insomnia or problems with sleeping can start to become their identity. Their friends and family constantly check- how are you sleeping?
The evening revolves around protecting sleep, while the thoughts at night focus on how much poor sleep is creating negative effects on health and wellbeing. Even though I only run at a 10:30 pace (if I am really honest, it is more like an 11:00 pace), I call myself a runner.
Having the identity of a runner not only boosts self-confidence, but it also can add a sense of purpose. A few times a year, I will go on a weekend out of town because it involves a run somewhere new.
There are running programs intended to make becoming a runner as pain-free as possible (check out Couch to 5K) and it can start with a few steps toward embracing something to focus on other than sleep!
Social Support Keeps You on Schedule
Most of my deepest friendships have come from exercising together, with running and walking being the methods through which emotional intimacy is established. Physical activity creates a common goal and hardship, and it helps to break barriers that might have otherwise limited emotional openness.
I find that I look forward to my runs with friends simply because they act as my therapy, and give me space to process all of the ups and downs in life.
Meeting a friend for a run also means that you have to get up in the morning, which can be really key in helping to sustain a consistent sleep routine.
People who compensate for insomnia by sleeping intend to actually experience worsening insomnia, so it can be incredibly helpful to know that your friend is waiting for you. Go ahead and schedule a morning run for the time you need to get up and use social support to keep sleep on schedule!
So, Can’t Sleep? Go for a Run!
Just like running can be a powerful antidepressant, running is a very powerful sleep aid. Timing does matter, don’t run right before you want to go to sleep!
Most people are more consistent with a morning exercise routine because we tend to run out of self-discipline by the afternoon or evening, but I always say that I would rather you schedule it when you know it fits than not schedule it at all.