If Your Dreams Are More Graphic or Vivid Than Usual, It Could Be a Sign You’re Not Recovering From Your Workout

Photo: Getty/Justin Case
Forearm massages, windowsill plants that don't require a green thumb, and non-toxic feminine care and sex toys. Another to add my list of—imagine my very best Mary Poppins voice, now—a few of my favorite things? Plopping into bed after a hard AF workout and snoozing straight-through 'til the alarm dings seven or eight hours later. Because really, is there anything better than waking up stronger and better rested? Ya know: Some good old fashioned sleep recover exercise, repeat.

Thing is, while typically hitting the gym results in me hitting the hay that much harder, during my competitive CrossFit season, my sleeps were not only total shit, they were accompanied by graphic and straight-up disturbing dreams (nay, nightmares). Think: all my fingernails falling off to reveal scabby nail-nubs or blood pouring out of my ears.

Curious to find out if there's a link between my Stephen King-esque night-scenes and all the damn fitness I was doing, I called up my go-to fitness expert and a certified dream analyst. I’ve got news: It turns out these sleep disturbances weren’t a random coincidence. Rather, both experts told me they were a sign my body wasn’t properly recovering. Scroll down to learn more about the sleep-recovery relationship, plus expert-backed tips for returning post-workout sleeps to their rightful, restful state.

A primer on sleep, exercise, and recovery

If you’re not familiar, let me give a little summary as to what this world-wide CrossFit competition entails. Every Thursday for five weeks, CrossFit HQ releases a workout that competitors have until Monday evening to complete. Each of these workouts includes some combination of “functional” movements executed at high-intensity. One week the workout required 19 wallballs followed by 19 calories on the rower as many times as possible within 15 minutes (this is known as an AMRAP or "as many reps as possible"). If you’ve never done a HIIT-style workout before, 15 minutes may seem short, but let me assure you that when you're going all out, it takes for-e-ver. Case and point: this video of me rolling on the floor after that exact workout.

“When you’re doing a really intense workout like a CrossFit workout of the day (WOD) or a lot of heavy lifting, it demands a lot from your body,” says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault., Intense workouts require a ton of muscle recruitment and greatly tax your central nervous system—specifically your sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the flight or fight response, he explains.

To recover, clearly you need as much on your side as possible. “Sleep is crucial," he says. "That's when the body goes into repair mode. It’s when your muscles rebuild, when your hormones balance, and when your central nervous system gets rebalanced”  So yeah, sleep is a v important part of recovery, which will come as a shocker to exactly no one.

However, there's also this: It seems counter-intuitive that following really intense exercise, the body might have a tough time sleeping. There’s one main reason, it turns out, that intense exercise can lead to whack dreams and sleep, and it comes back to your central nervous system. According to Wickham, when you do really, really intense bouts of exercise—which he emphasizes is relative to your personal fitness level—it can overly stress out your body and keeps you in a sympathetic state for too long.

The result? “When you’re in the sympathetic nervous system for too long, your body gets jacked up and isn’t able to return the parasympathetic nervous system (the system of rest and digest) which your body needs to be in for a restful night of sleep.” Cue Bobby Lewis, Tossin’ and Turnin’.

Okay, sleep is one thing. What about the bad dreams?

In addition to super-intense exercise leading to disrupted sleep quality, certified dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg, explains that compromised sleep also is behind why I remember my dreams. “The crappier our sleep is, the better we remember our dreams.” Why? Because dreaming takes place in the REM stage, which is actually lighter stage of sleep. “If you’re not getting good sleep you’re going to wake up after REM, which allows you to more easily remember your dreams.”

When I relay blood images in my dreams to Loewenberg, she tells me that I was thinking about how spend I felt. "These suggests a serious amount of energy loss or energy drain,” she says. "When you’re bleeding or you’re seeing blood in your dream it’s an indication that more energy is going out than is being replenished. This energy can be be symbolic of putting too much energy into a relationship or spending too much money, but a lot of times though it will be the physical energy that is being drained.”

As for the nails? Well, you know how when crush something the turn of phrase is, ‘I nailed it!’? “When you don’t nail (AKA accomplish) something you were hoping to accomplish, in your dreams you lose your physical nails,”  she tells me. Fair enough, that dream did take place when I didn’t finish the workout as fast as I was hoping. She says this really points to the narrative I was telling myself as I was falling asleep. “Shift your inner dialogue as you’re falling asleep to change the imagery." And that holds true for whatever you're dreaming (looking at you, old-faithful naked in class dream).

So yeah, recovery is paramount

“If you’re going to be working out at a super high an intensity you need to sleep to recover. And if you’re working out a level of intensity that actually interferes with your sleep you need to prioritize recovery in other ways,” says Wickham.

The first step is just a well-intentioned workout which includes deload weeks, variances in intensity, and a balance of cardio and strength, he says. The second step is to include recovery-boosting activities. “Meditating, breath work, saunas, magnesium salt baths, managing the other stressors in your life like family and sleep, foam rolling, and even experimenting CBD," suggests Wickham. Really, there’s no limit of ways to up your recovery game.

As for the dreams? Promoting recovery and restoring your energy should help, says Loewenberg. “Limit the amount of physical pain your muscles and joints are in before you go to bed will keep these from your physical ailments from becoming ‘outside interferences’.” So, if you notice our sleep quality and/or dreams are off, spend a little more time boosting your recovery, and then hit the hay for the ultimate recovery: ZZZs.

While you’re boosting your recovery, make sure to avoid these post-workout mistakes. And if you’re curious about what some other common dreams mean, here Lowenberg interprets seven more.

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