Training Through Insomnia

If you’ve read my blog in the last few months, you know that although I’ve been suffering from terrible insomnia since September, I’ve been able to continue my training largely without interruption. Specifically, I trained for a marathon averaging only 3-4 hours of sleep of night, and after a brief off-season, I’ve started training for the 2015 tri season on equally little sleep. For example, last night, or I guess technically, this morning, I slept from 2:00 a.m. – 4:00 a.m. and today I have a hard 3000 yard swim session on the schedule. I will not be skipping that swim.

Before I get into my tips for training on no sleep, I have to get some things out of the way – it certainly hasn’t been easy; I haven’t been perfect; and I’m not delusional enough to think that my performance hasn’t suffered. It most definitely has. And, there is no way I could have made it this far without a very supportive and talented coach working through this with me.

But, with all of those caveats out of the way, I have definitely learned some things over the last few months that have enabled me to train with chronic insomnia and I’m writing this blog because I think others may be interested in learning from my experience. I also hope that if you’ve had a similar experience, you will add a comment to this post with your tips to help others dealing with this situation. This post is not about taking melatonin (yes, I tried it, it didn’t work), limiting screen time before bed (same), making the bedroom dark (same), not drinking coffee late in the day (duh!), etc., etc. I assure you, I have tried everything over the last few months. Instead, my purpose is to start a discussion about how you can survive marathon or triathlon training on very little sleep.

Here are my top 3 recommendations:

(3) Try to Stick to Your Normal Routine (to the Extent Possible). Even though insomnia completely turns your world upside down, I’ve found that I’ve done better trying to stick to my normal routine as much as possible in terms of wake-up times, eating times, training times, etc. It helps me maintain some semblance of normalcy and also makes me feel like I still have some control over what otherwise feels like a very out-of-control situation. I think it has also helped me distract myself from the lack of sleep. Once I wake up, my day gets started and I don’t have time to dwell on being tired. However, this recommendation is “to the extent possible,” because I’ve also learned I need to be flexible (more on this in number 1 below).

(2) Eat Right. I love deliciously unhealthy food, don’t get me wrong, but not sleeping makes you feel like crap. So, you need to do everything within your control to make yourself feel good. I’ve been eating a ton more veggies, less “junk food,” and less animal products; I’ve been trying to think of “food as fuel” and that has really helped me to change my perspective on food and make better choices; and I’ve been making a concerted effort to plan healthy meals and snacks. I haven’t been perfect by any means, but I think it has really helped me by both increasing my energy levels and helping me take control of something in this otherwise uncontrollable situation (a theme!).

(1) Be Kind to Yourself. Insomnia is upsetting enough on its own – you really don’t need to pile it on. Runners and triathletes tend to be Type A personalities, which can, of course, be a good thing because it makes us dedicated and committed to our sports. On the other hand, we can be really hard on ourselves. Too hard.

If you set your alarm for 6:00 a.m. to wake up and swim, but you only fell asleep at 2:00 a.m., you really shouldn’t beat yourself up over hitting snooze; or pushing your wake-up time back to 6:30; or swimming during lunch or that night instead; or even, occasionally, skipping the workout. The mental and physical strain insomnia puts on you is bad enough. Don’t make it worse for yourself. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend going through the same thing. It’s that simple.

I hope you never have to suffer with chronic insomnia, but if you do, I hope these tips will be helpful. If you have been in this situation, what recommendations would you add to this list?


4 thoughts on “Training Through Insomnia

  1. Sorry to hear you are still dealing with insomnia. But glad you are finding ways to cope with it. I would echo #1 – be kind to yourself. This advice is so relevant in many situations when life interrupts our perfect training plans – yet it is really hard to actually do. I hope you can enjoy some rest and relaxation over the holidays.

  2. I so feel you on this one. I have terrible insomnia issues that come and go. When I was training for the 100K, I had a stretch of 3 weeks where I was getting 3-4 hours of sleep in a night. It was rough. My running coach suggested that I try tart cherry juice before bed. She swears by it. I’m in an insomnia bout again so I’m thinking about giving it a try. I’ll let you know how it works out.

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