They’re not called pre-sleep supplements for a reason.
Pre-workouts, while awesome for our gym sessions, can be a waking nightmare for our sleep. If you’re like me, you often can’t squeeze a workout until later in the day. By that point, the stress of the day has left you drained. You want to workout, but you don’t know how you’re going to find the energy. A good pre-workout can help.
Unfortunately, if you take most pre-workouts in the late afternoon or evening, you can still feel the effects late into the night.
Thank you, pre-workout, for my energy at 5 pm. But I do not need you to keep energizing me until 1am…
What’s going on here? Why can’t we sleep after taking pre-workouts? Shouldn’t they like, wear off, or something?
In this article, we’ll talk about the process of sleep, fluctuating energy levels, and how pre-workouts fit into that equation. By the end, you should feel the confidence to find a pre-workout that works for training, but allows you to blissfully fall asleep when it’s time.
A brief anatomy of sleep
If you’re one of those people who just looks at a pillow and falls asleep, stop reading right now. I envy you.
I’m only kidding – I spent a while writing this so you better read it…. But those of us who struggle with insomnia, whether from a pre-workout or not, would happily trade.
Even if you regularly hit the bed, blink, and find the morning, your body goes through a few sleep stages to get there. Humans experience four distinct (maybe five, not-so-distinct) sleep cycles during the night.
The first stage
You know when you lay down, close your eyes, and wait to fall asleep (or in my case, go over your to-do list for the next day)? Well at some point, your impatience gives way and the first stage of sleep sets in.
You’re just beginning to fall asleep. Maybe you even mumble a few incoherent words to your partner. Maybe you can still hear some sirens in the distance, but they gradually start to fade. During this stage, your brain is producing alpha and theta waves to lull you to bed.
Depending on a number of factors, this stage lasts around 5-10 minutes. And it might happen multiple times over the course of a night.
The second stage
As you transition to the next phase of sleep, your brain does something amazing. Sleep spindles start to develop. Represented by spider-web like brain waves on an EEG, they’re sudden bursts of activity. They suggest movement of electrical energy from one part of the brain to the next, almost as if your brain is preparing itself. Researchers posit that they actually stop our brains from processing input, letting us fall deeper into sleep. Thanks, sleep spindles.
The third (and fourth) stage
There’s some debate as to whether these are separate stages. But since this isn’t a sleep study, we’re just going to make them one.
During this phase, delta waves appear, your muscles stop responding to any stimuli, and you’re out cold. It’s commonly known as “slow wave sleep” due to delta wave speed. It allows your body to recover physically, regulate and recalibrate synapses within your brain, reset your immune system, and more.
Probably the best known sleep stage, this is where your dreams get wild. Your brain, while still asleep, starts to activate. Your eyes move quickly (hence the name, rapid-eye movement) while your brain consolidates memory and stores learned information. It occurs every 90 minutes or so, lasting around ten minutes at the start and increasing in duration throughout the night.
If you’re wondering why you dreamt of a three-eyed dragon sitting on top of your stove, teaching you how to fly, it’s because of REM sleep. Your brain is simply processing new memories alongside old ones, trying to sort out the confusion of life.
How do we fall and stay asleep?
Much like our actual sleep, everything is cyclical. Day turns to night and night turns to day again. Our bodies have evolved to respond to these signals. Over time, humans developed a circadian rhythm, a sort of inner clock that triggers both sleep and wakefulness.
Our hormones fluctuate naturally with this rhythm, riding the wave to help lull us to bed. Growth hormone, melatonin, cortisol, and more rise and fall in response to environmental factors. As we awake and become alert, our cortisol levels rise while melatonin drops. As we drift off to sleep, the opposite occurs. Growth hormone levels peak right after we fall asleep, and thyroid-stimulating hormone dips as slow wave sleep rises.
While no one has the answer to exactly why we sleep, it’s clear that a delicate balance of internal signals trigger sleep.
The problem with some pre-workouts
Lots of pre-workouts are chock full of stimulants. Whether it’s caffeine, niacin, or nitrate, their goal is to pump you up. Which is great for the workout portion. Not so great for sleep.
Caffeine reacts with your adenosine receptors to inhibit sleep. Normally towards the evening, this neurotransmitter builds and builds in the brain until we feel sleepy. When it clears, it’s left to bind with phosphates, forming adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the body’s source of energy.
When caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, there’s no build up to signal sleepiness. Therefore, those molecules are left roaming around, ready to produce energy and keep us awake.
In addition, niacin has been associated with a massive rise in cortisol about 3-5 hours after administration. Remember, the body associates a cortisol increase with the time to wake up. If you take it at 6 pm before your workout, then right around 10-11 pm you’re going to feel wide awake.
Where can I find a pre-workout without stimulants?
Fortunately, there are lots of great pre-workout ingredients that won’t keep you wide awake. You just have to know what you’re looking for.
Here are the top pre-workout ingredients that won’t disturb your sleep.
First up, the big one. Creatine is in almost every pre-workout for its effects on force production. Supplementing with creatine supports high intensity training by fueling the creatine phosphate cycle. With more creatine, the more ATP you can produce and the quicker you can recover. But it has no effect on sleep.
Citrulline is a precursor to arginine, an amino acid that promotes blood vessel relaxation and muscle recovery. Arginine also facilitates creatine synthesis, so it makes the former more powerful. Unlike niacin, it targets the underlying mechanisms of amino acid production. As such, you can utilize it to work harder in training without worrying about lasting, stimulant effects.
It naturally raises your cells’ ability to use oxygen during workouts, which is crucial to energy production. However, as a natural alternative, it lowers your risk of feeling artificially stimulated way into the night.
Despite being the most abundant amino acid in the body, glutamine is conditionally essential. That means that during high stress, your body can’t make enough to keep up with the demands.
If you’re going to train hard, supplement with glutamine. You need it to keep your gains. It stimulates protein synthesis and minimizes protein breakdown.
What else does it do? Glutamine elevates levels of bicarbonate in your blood. Bicarbonate, a base, neutralizes lactic acid in muscle tissue to extend time until fatigue. Moreover, it lowers soreness and increases recovery after exercise. None of that will disrupt your sleep. If anything, it’ll enhance it.
Maritime Bark Extract
This plant extract is full of antioxidants that raise natural production of nitric oxide.
As a reminder, nitric oxide causes vasodilation to deliver more nutrients, including oxygen, to your muscles. More nutrients = more energy = better workouts. But it only works when you need it. It’s not some crazy artificial stimulant whose effects last for hours. Once you’re done training, you can return to recovery and sleep.
If you’re in the market for a new pre-workout so you can sleep at night, look for the ingredients above. Avoid stimulants if such ingredients as caffeine is affecting your sleep.
You don’t have to sacrifice your beauty rest for a deadlift PR. The two can co-exist with the right preparation, nutrition, and mindset.
There are a few other ingredients that are safe, such as simple sugars, other amino acids, and electrolytes. For the most part, avoid anything that sounds too fake and complicated. Artificial stimulants, while maybe not illegal drugs, can keep you awake in a similar way. And sleep is the best performance enhancer anyway, so don’t skip it.
Even if you don’t take stimulants such as caffeine and still struggle to sleep, then we recommend looking for a natural sleep aid. You can check out our top sleep products on this page.