Why running is the key to a good night’s sleep

Lucy E Cousins interviews exercise scientist Brooke Turner for Real Insurance.

Sleep is the elixir of life. Not only is it essential for numerous brain functions, but it improves our creativity, lowers the risk of depression, helps remove toxins and also contributes to a longer life expectancy. Pretty powerful, right?

But throw in a stressful work situation, finances that could look healthier, kids who are allergic to sleep, rising interest rates (again) and just for fun… a global pandemic we are still reeling from, and sleep becomes as elusive as the Instagram algorithm. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, everything changes and you’re suddenly up instead of sleeping at 3am. 

But it’s not all bad news. According to nutritionist and exercise scientist Brooke Turner, from Balance, Fitness & Nutrition, running might be the answer to catching a few more hours of quality sleep and the key to improving your running performance as well.

“Running has countless benefits for our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, it can increase your cardiovascular health and fitness, boost your immunity, memory, and mood, and decrease health risk factors,” she explains. “And not only that, but it also can help to strengthen bones and muscles and build healthy joints. All of this helps promote a better night’s sleep and as a result, a better performance.”

How running affects our sleep

If you’re one of the 48% of Australians who have at least one sleep condition, or you’re just wanting to improve the sleep your currently getting, then it’s time to rethink your exercise routine. Why? Well, studies indicate that just four weeks of regular cardiovascular exercise, such as running, can help you fall asleep faster and sleep longer.

While researchers are still investigating exactly why that is, one theory suggests that it might be because exercise reduces the risk of depression, stress, and anxiety, which helps you feel calmer before bedtime. Another theory is that exercise, such as running, resets your circadian rhythm, helping to signal to your body that it’s time for bed.

How sleep affects your performance

While running is great for our quality of sleep, Brooke is keen to point out that in fact sleep and exercise have a “bidirectional” relationship, meaning running is beneficial for your body, but can also benefit your performance.

“Rest is an essential element of a successful training program yet is often sacrificed first by staying up later or getting up earlier to fit everything in,” she explains. “So, your muscles aren’t sufficiently recovering and repairing as they need to.”

Recent research also confirms something we all know too well: that insufficient or poor-quality sleep can lead to lower levels of physical activity the following day and on average people who are sleep deprived consume around 300 more calories a day.

But it’s not just about fitting in rest and recovery into your routine, says Brooke. Training too much, without enough sleep is not recommended either.

“When people are excessively exercising or overtraining, it can have implications for their results and their performance,” she explains, “and that can lead to increased risk of inflammation, injury, and illness.”

So, say ‘bye-bye’ to your next PB if you you’re not making sure your sleep is on track, she adds.

How to get better sleep (and run faster)

If you’re wanting to improve your performance on and off the road with better sleep, Brooke says there are some simple healthy habits that will help, starting with reducing the amount of caffeine you consume.

“It can be tempting to head to the coffee machine or reach for sugary drinks when you feel your energy fading mid-afternoon, or as a pre-workout pick me up,” she says. “But caffeine has a cumulative effect on the body, with a half-life of five hours, too much throughout the day can often be overlooked as a factor that impacts restful sleep.”

As well as this, consider reducing the amount of alcohol you consume, Brooke says, because it is a central nervous system depressant and can have negative effects on your mood and sleep as well.

“Sure, a glass of wine may help you nod off initially, but trust me, it will inhibit your REM sleep, which is often considered the most mentally restorative phase of sleep,” she explains.

Also take a general assessment of the areas of your life that add stress to your mental health, including friends, family, finances, and your day-to-day habits, and speak to your doctor about any underlying illness or medication that could be impacting your sleep.

Lastly, she adds, set yourself a goal or have an event in your sights and train each week for that specific distance. Better still, sign up with a friend and make each other accountable.

“Having a goal (the Real Insurance Sydney Harbour 10k& 5k is a great one!), will help you stay focused,” she adds. “And having a purpose behind your training really pays off.”

Feel healthy, have fun and run for a cause with the 2023 Real Insurance Sydney Harbour 10k & 5k

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This article is an opinion only, provided for general information purposes and should not be relied upon as personal advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care professional before starting any fitness program to determine if it is right for your needs.