Sometimes working out late at night is the only option, but evening workouts have the potential to negatively affect your training. This begs the question: are cycling workouts done just before bedtime even worth doing?
It’s a struggle many cyclists are familiar with: finding time to train during daylight hours can be tough. Jobs, family and friends — while essential — take up valuable time that could be used to get faster. Knowing how the sleep cycle works can show you why evening workouts affect your training.
Understanding How the Sleep Cycle Works
Our bodies’ sleep and wake cycle is governed by something called circadian rhythm: physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light. Circadian rhythm is controlled by biological clocks — groupings of interacting molecules within your body — which are ultimately controlled by your body’s master clock, a group of nerve cells in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. The SCN controls the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy.
Together, these three systems control when you wake up, when you fall asleep and your levels of wakefulness throughout the day.
Why Do Late-Night Workouts Keep You Up?
Increased energy is one of the most heavily promoted benefits of exercise — which is real! It’s the result of several factors, but one of them is catabolic hormone production.
When you train, your body produces cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Cortisol, aka the stress hormone, increases heart rate and adrenaline. Epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine increase strength, blood flow and testosterone production — all of which make you feel more awake. High intensity workouts, like VO2 max intervals or FTP tests, cause your body to produce even more of these hormones.
It’s logical to think the hard work you do during an intense training session will tire you out, but that’s not always the case. Once these hormones have served the purpose of powering you through your workout they don’t just disappear. They stay in your system. Your heart rate and body temperature remain elevated which may cause you to have trouble getting to bed after a late-night training session.
Are Evening Workouts Worth It?
Circadian rhythm is habitual. You can adjust your circadian rhythm by changing your sleep, diet and environment — but changes take time and don’t happen overnight. If your circadian rhythm is accustomed to late-night workouts, their effects on your sleep may be minimal compared to other factors that affect your sleep-wake schedule. That’s a question for athletes to address independently. Real problems occur when the circadian rhythm and workout schedule are out of sync.
The question at hand becomes whether the benefit you’ll gain from the workout is worth the tradeoff of that comes with poor sleep (if your nighttime workout interferes with your sleep in the first place). As your body familiarizes itself to workouts later in the day, your sleep quality should improve. Every body is different, but many people notice changes after 7-10 days.
Some athletes who have trouble sleeping use sleep aids, but there’s a tradeoff with those, too. Sleeping pills might make you drowsy, but the quality of sleep you get from them is not the same as you would get without them. If you’re considering using sleep aids — natural or prescription — you should talk to your doctor to discuss whether they’re the right choice for you..
How to Improve Your Sleep Quality Without Medication
Fitness gains aren’t made while you train, they’re made while you recover. That’s why sleep quality is so important. Your body needs deep, regenerative sleep to complement your training to turn your hard work into gains. If you’re having trouble sleeping after late-night workouts there are a few things we recommend doing (that don’t involve sleeping pills):
- Give yourself a couple hours before bedtime. A workout one hour before bed might keep you awake, but a workout two hours before bed may not. Try to squeeze in an extra hour between when you train and when you fall asleep.
- Avoid workout supplements with a high caffeine content. This one speaks for itself. If your training drinks keep you up, skip them in the evening.
- Block blue light on your devices. Your SCN is located right above your eyes near your optic nerves. When it recognizes blue light from phones, tablets and computers, it halts melatonin production to keep you awake. Reduce the effects of blue light on your sleep schedule with nighttime settings — like the iPhone’s Night Shift. Night Shift removes the blue light from your screen to make it easier to fall asleep. You can also pick up a pair of BluBlocker glasses to wear in the evening.
- Do some yoga. Training before bed gets your blood flowing and raises your heart rate, but yoga mellows the body out. Take 10-15 minutes before bed to focus on your breathing, relax and meditate.
Listen to Experts Discuss This Training Topic and More on the Ask a Cycling Coach Podcast
The TrainerRoad pros discussed night-time workouts on last episode 50 of the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast. Listen below to hear what they had to say.
TrainerRoad’s Ask a Cycling Coach podcast is dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. It gives you the chance to get answers to your cycling and triathlon training questions from USAC certified coaches Chad Timmerman, Jonathan Lee and special guests. Learn more about other topics we covered in the latest episode with our resources below:
- How to adjust your training during the offseason
- How to train for criterium racing
- How to pace an FTP test
- How the 8 Minute Test works
- What type of racing are you best at, and how do you find it?
- Does fitness for one type of racing translate to another?
- How to train for cyclocross racing
- Is fasted training different than fat adaptation?
- Is it normal to have your cadence drop during hard efforts?
- How to increase your cadence
- Is training at night bad?
- How to recover even after training at night
- Hacks and tips on how to improve the quality of your sleep
- How to get back into training after a long hiatus
- Is it okay to repeat a base training phase?
- How to stay motivated during base training
- How to train with a busy schedule
- What is better: Normalized Power or Average Power?
- Is it possible for normalized power to be lower than average power?
- Which matters more during an interval: live power output or average?
- How to transition to a different type of cycling
- Can crit riders be good endurance riders?
- Can endurance riders be good crit racers?
- How to race successfully out of your element
- Can you change the type of athlete you are, or are you stuck?
- How age affects your ability to raise FTP
- Thyroidectomies and cycling
- Upcoming podcast topics from Interbike!
If you have a question that you’d like to ask Coach Chad, submit your question here. We’ll do our best to answer it on the next episode of the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast.
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