Prolonged wakefulness is thought to gradually increase 'sleep need' and influence subsequent sleep duration and intensity, but the role of specific waking behaviours remains unclear. Here we report the effect of voluntary wheel running during wakefulness on neuronal activity in the motor and somatosensory cortex in mice. We find that stereotypic wheel running is associated with a substantial reduction in firing rates among a large subpopulation of cortical neurons, especially at high speeds. Wheel running also has longer-term effects on spiking activity across periods of wakefulness. Specifically, cortical firing rates are significantly higher towards the end of a spontaneous prolonged waking period. However, this increase is abolished when wakefulness is dominated by running wheel activity. These findings indicate that wake-related changes in firing rates are determined not only by wake duration, but also by specific waking behaviours.