Insomnia affecting training

Hi all,

About me
I’ve always been a fairly light sleeper, but towards the end of my last training block I started to struggle with sleep - getting a few pretty poor nights (maybe like 4 hours sleep, despite having 8.5 hours in bed). I managed to push through most of my final hard workouts, feeling pretty spent by the end. I’ve tended to struggle sleeping when I’ve built up a ride or event the following day, and know I need to take training a bit less seriously. My theory was that my cortisol levels were higher than normal by the end of 5 weeks loading. The night the training block was over, I slept amazingly, and did so for another 2 or 3 nights after that. Towards the end of my recovery week my sleep started getting worse again - I’ve had 3 nights in a row of taking maybe 3 - 3.5 hours to get to sleep. I guess this rules out my high cortisol theory as my workload has been maybe 40% lower…
I most likely have some sort of undiagnosed anxiety, and have in recent months suffered a few times with ‘tightness’ when breathing at rest.

What happens
When I go to bed I lay there feeling like I might drop off, but I just can’t seem to - I also wake several times after first falling asleep, but can usually drop off again after I’ve been asleep once.

What I’ve tried

  • I’ve tried making the bedroom cool by opening windows
  • Cut down caffeinie (from say 4 coffees a day to 2, and little or no caffeinie in the afternoon)
  • Blue light filter and reduce brightness on my phone at 20:00. I stepped this up to putting my phone onto flight mode and putting it away at 20:00.
  • Attempted some relaxation techniques/breathing exercises, but can’t seem to focus enough to do this effectively when I’m in bed - maybe one to pursue more seriously…
  • Cutting down water before bed to reduce the likelihood of having to get up for the toilet
  • Earplugs - I’ve got some silicone earplugs that I’ve got used to. They seem to help a bit.
  • Eye mask - I sleep on my side and have found decent eyemasks too rigid round the edges, and they just stick into my face.
  • Herbal sleeping tablets (valerian root extract)
  • Drowsy anti-histamine type sleeping tablets
  • Hardcore sleeping tablets (Zopiclone). I was prescribed these over the phone. They do make me fall asleep, but somehow still don’t make me sleep right through. They sound a bit scary - super addictive, and you can easily become reliant on them to sleep. Apparently the effects can last 11 hours, so taking one if you can’t get to sleep after a couple of hours isn’t a great idea. I’ve only used these tablets sparingly - tending to put up with rubbish sleep and hoping to naturally get back to normal. I’ve been told I can only use them twice a week max anyway, and only got 14 in total.

What now?
I was breaking new ground with my training, and now I worry it’s going to all start going down the pan. I assume the wheels could well fall off pretty quickly if things carry on and I attempt to get back to previous levels of TSS (around 550 indoor/7.5-8 hours per week). I’ve already pushed back my FTP test from Tuesday to today - maybe I’ll push it back again…

I’m interested if others have had a similar experience and how you changed up your training (were you able to maintain?), and how you overcame it.

decreased intensity, increased zone 2 work, only do intensity twice a week and make sure its super intense. Seemed to help. Plus ear plugs all the time when i sleep, game changer for quality of sleep. It sucks but everyones journey is different.

Thank you for replying. I missed off earplugs - I’ve tried them with some success. They do cut down noise very slightly, but I can still hear noise through them - maybe I need to jam them in harder!

While you had sleeping problems what intensity did you do out of interest - VO2/anaerobic? Did you just evenly space them across the week?

Not an expert but from what you’ve written I would guess that stress/anxiety is the most likely cause, given that you’re experiencing tightness and finding relaxation exercises hard. Seems like you’ve ticked off the usual physical causes.

Stuff that’s worked for me (excluding the things you’ve listed):

  • Increase the training volume and dial back the intensity. Achieves the goal of being tired
    but doesn’t trigger the higher cortisol levels that can disrupt sleep. Avoiding training too close to bedtime also helps
  • Keep working on the breathing/relaxation/meditation. Can really help and it’s definitely something you can train yourself to get better at
  • Kindle paperwhite. I love reading, takes my mind off whatever is stressing me, and the Kindle allows me to read with the lights off and no blue/white light so I can drop off easily.
  • white noise, Spotify sleep playlists, etc. Have even resorted on occasion to an audio book called The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep which was designed to help kids get to sleep, we used it with both our children and it’s astonishingly soporific, if slightly embarrassing to be listening to as a grown adult…

What hasn’t worked for me:

  • Anything stronger than herbal medicine. Just becomes a crutch for getting to sleep without resolving the root of the problem, and then when I stop taking it the problem is even worse. So seems a slippery slope to basically taking the stuff forever. Will use melatonin when adjust my sleep cycle (e.g. dealing with jetlag, or when making a conscious effort to go to sleep earlier after a period of working late), otherwise I stick to nothing stronger than herbal tea, hot chocolate, etc
  • Eye masks or ear plugs. Again I just become dependent on them and then sleeping without them becomes even harder. I use them when dealing with temporary poor sleep environment e.g. a noisy hotel room, but since my regular sleep environment is reasonably dark and quiet I don’t want to get used to them. Plus the foam ear plugs always fall out at some point, and the wax ones that go all the way in are so effective at blocking out noise that I’m concerned I won’t hear things that I should like my phone (have it in Do Not Disturb mode but people who might really need to get through like my wife or parents are listed) or the kids
1 Like

I have been a long time insomniac. I found this book/audiobook to be the best. I highly recommended it especially regarding your anxiety. As an addition, the headspace app has been a life changer for me.

As a start. Stop looking at a clock. Go to bed the same time and wake up to an alarm the same time. Never refer to a clock while in bed or review your sleep the next day. You now have built up too much thought surrounding sleep.

1 Like

Recovering insomniac here. As above. Get rid of the clock: go hard on sleep discipline, this really is the realm of marginal gains. I use a Garmin watch with a silent alarm so I don’t wake the wife. No other clocks visible in the room. I would diverge from @MI-XC a little. The only time I check out my sleep quality on the watch is if I think I had a bad night. Usually there is a negative loop in the head there: you spin up a tale to yourself about how crap a night it was. If you look at the watch you can see it wasn’t quite that bad and you break that spiral there.

A couple of issues above those you mentioned trying were: Diet and head position: Carbs in the evening is a bad idea for me. Any ‘white’ food is guaranteed to pop my lights on at 3 am… as will booze. Raising your head a bit in the bed helps circulation and water retention. You don’t fill your bladder as quick… damned if I know how that works.

It really is down to rigid sleep hygiene and persistence. The sleep clinic did a number on me which finally got me through. Their argument for why I was waking in the middle of the night was that I was trying to sleep too much and was trying to fill a 2lb pot with 1 lb of sleep. They had me establish the regular sleep & wake times for a couple of weeks, broken of course. Then they aggressively shortened the time for a week. So they reduced me to a zombie like 5 hours a night. Then they gradually raised it in 30 minute intervals till it started to fall apart again and that was my natural sleep limit established. We set the clock for the last known good time and all was good; more or less. Discipline lapses = crap nights.

2 Likes

Interesting… My going to bed patterns are pretty consistent, but it has changed since Covid, as there’s no commute in lockdown.

Bedtime is about the same - 11pm, but the wife’s alarm in the morning has changed from 06.10 to 07.30. You’d have thought I’d have adapted to the change by now, but that could be part of it maybe. I’d say 8.5 hours sounds like your large pot - I’ve never needed that much to get by.

As someone who struggles with anxiety induced insomnia, I feel you. The only thing really that helps me is meditation/breathing exercises, but following along with an app. I currently use ten percent happier app, and it has like 20 different sleep meditations, but I think most of the popular apps have some sort of exercise. Also, meditation in general will do wonders for helping deal with your anxiety.

2 Likes

Occasional insomniac here.

I find I can get stuck in a cycle at night of thoughts about the day, stuff left undone or coming up at work, relationships, my training, state of the world, whatever, just running around and around in my head for several hours. And then I get stressed about not falling asleep, which makes it harder to get to sleep.

What I find helps is to imagine lying on the banks beside a small stream, I can feel the thick green grass beneath me. I can hear the stream trickling over a small waterfall just upstream. I see the shadows of the trees on the other bank falling across the dark pools of water, while I am still lying in the sun. I can see a leaf floating slowly downstream, I watch 2 white butterflies chasing each other over the zzz…

I don’t know whether it is focussing on each of the small details that drives other thoughts out, or just the inherent peacefulness of the scene, but I am normally out within about 5 minutes of this. Of course, if you were to say that this was meditating, I’d have to administer a sound beating for even daring to suggest that a rational person like myself would fall for such psychobabble nonsense. :grinning:

Seriously though, it sounds like you have most of the normal sleep hygiene aspects well covered. So it is definitely worth investigating some relaxation techniques.

1 Like

Sleep clinic got me to keep a notebook by my bed… any mad assed stuff going through my head in the wee hours was to be popped in the book for actioning in the morning: Freeing the head to sleep…

… You want to see some of the strange sh1t I had in there. Couldn’t make sense of half of it…

BTW best stuff for establishing a sleep rhythm for me were lights with the Nuclear Option of 10mg Melatonin. Family hate me in winter I have all the lights blazing till an hour before bed time. No soft evening lighting for me. Not an issue this time of year.

You have a limit it gets lower as you age. It’s not something adaptable. God knows I tried pushing out for more than 6.5 hours a night. Never works. It is what it is.

Thanks for this - I’ve downloaded the audiobook, so will give it a listen

1 Like

That’s a good idea - I do have some niggling work stuff that I’m procrastinating over. I had a chat with the boss (he’s a brilliant boss), and he’s going to dish some of it out to other people just in case work is playing a roll - top man! Will try making a note of anything that pops into my head - can only help!

Occasional insomniac here - mine is usually from inability to shut off my brain. My fixes:

I second the kindle paperwhite. Reading transitions my brain from work/kids/etc. to whatever I’m reading. It seems much better than a physical book because I don’t have to worry about a lamp.
Try going down to no caffeine at all. It sucks, but you can probably adapt pretty quickly.
On really rough nights, I pop in one earbud and listen to podcasts. Especially podcasts where it is just one person talking (sorry AACC).
No late workouts. I do martial arts in addition to biking. Having someone kick at your head 30 minutes before you are trying to sleep doesn’t work well.
I primarily mtb. I like to visualize a certain trail that I ride frequently. I think about the trailhead, the first curve, the first climb … I usually don’t make it too far before I’m out.

Other things that seem to help me include keeping the room cool and dark.

1 Like

This topic just got linked to another and it prompted me to give a brief update…

I’ve been sleeping quite a bit better recently. I already had sleep hygiene down pretty well, but the recent cooling down of temperatures here means I’ve been more comfortable in bed. I’ve been able to sleep with the windows closed (nobody has air con in the UK), which stops outside noise disturbances (cars, dawn chorus)…

The 2 recommendations @MI-XC made have helped, and I’d also recommend to anyone in the same position. The Sleep Solution both educates, and puts some much needed perspective on things for anxious sleepers. I’m still at the very early stages with Headspace (free trial about to expire). I’d like to continue with it, as I think it did help me somewhat, but not sure whether it’s another expense I can afford to keep paying at the moment. I wanted to schedule 10 minutes or so into every work day, but it never transpired once the day kicks off. I was listening to stress management exercises in the evenings, and sleep exercises (edit - relaxation, not learning techniques) just before bed.

1 Like

Understand the annoyances regard sleep, I have the issue, or had, that sleep would be interrupted late morning.

I’d highly recommend the book by renowned Prof of sleep Matthew Walker entitled “Why We Sleep”. This was a major discovery for me and helped me a good deal. I understood that sleep anxiety is a major problem contributing to thinking you have insomnia, and the number of real insomnia cases are much lower than people think they are.

If you are struggling to fall asleep it means the melotonin release is not instigating it. This can be due to blue light or body temperature, a host of things. I realise you’ve tried a lot but you should be able to drift off with the right conditions. Try this first but get a copy of that book if you can.

1 Like

Stop Trying

Stop looking up better ways to sleep, reading books on sleep, thinking about how you can increase your chances of sleeping. Fundamentally this is the issue and it took me a while to realise this.

Trying so hard at something is often extremely counter intuitive. Its the same with training, big rides etc. The more you build it up, think about it, or put pressure on yourself to perform the more often the results deteriorate. Ever notice how the rides or sessions you don’t overthink usually go great? Always happened with me. Did you sleep well as a kid? Probably, and you never had to try.

Here is what i did and what has helped enormously.

1. Download Headspace on Iphone/Android. Complete the sleep course 10mins per day IN THE MORNING. (I know i just said avoid stuff talking about sleep but this entire course is meant to be done in the morning and teaches you to stop becoming goal orientated when it comes to sleep).

2. Read the book 'No Self No Problem.

Those two things address the root cause of the problem. Sleep books, herbal teas all that stuff just addresses the symptoms.

The first teaches you the techniques to be present and calm the mind. The majority of mental suffering is thinking about the past or future. This is a powerful statement that takes a while to grasp, and even longer to build better habits in.

The second helps you understand why the techniques in number 1 are so important.

I cant really explain how important the things i’ve learned from those two actions, and how much they’ve helped with work, exercise, sleep and general living. If your ambitious and driven chances are you will benefit greatly from the above.

2 Likes

Yep, this is all covered in the Sleep Solution.

It was particularly enlightening to hear about the case of a woman with ‘insomnia’ in a sleep study who was insistent she barely got a wink of sleep, but who actually got 6.5 hours.

Educating myself about the subject helped a lot - and has already pretty much got me not laying in bed ‘trying to sleep’ (this is likely to increase vigilance). I was considering trying my own home-made sleep restriction plan, but I seemed to improve organically before implementing it, I think this was probably by improving my mindset.

Like you say, just relax and know that in 99.99% of people, your body will do what it needs to do. I need to get better at doing this on the bike too - last year a TT with a bone dry mouth was not fun.