What If You Can’t Sleep the Night Before Your Race?

Instead of stressing, throw everything you think you know about pre-race sleep out the window and replace it with this.

If you’re tossing and turning the night before your race, you may know not to fret: it’s the sleep two nights prior to race day that really matters, right? Believe that, and you’ll truly freak if something keeps you up (or wakes you up) during that supposedly critical time. Instead of sleep-stressing, throw everything you think you know about pre-race Zs out the window and replace it with this: “While sleep is incredibly important, tonight’s slumber is largely irrelevant,” says Dr W. Chris Winter, a neurologist and author of The Sleep Solution. Winter encourages athletes to remember all the consistent, proper sleep that carried them through their training rather than being anxious over an isolated bad night near the end. “All is not lost if an athlete has a tough night right before the competition,” he says. Here’s how to snooze better, and, failing that, how to respond to maximise your performance potential.

Sleep Better…

Rehearse your rest.
Winter suggests practicing sleeping in difficult situations in the weeks prior to race day. Try napping on a plane or in a parked car, dozing off while your partner still has a reading light on, or incorporating a subtle but irritating background noise (a dripping faucet, a snoring dog) as you go to sleep. The better you adapt to these challenging conditions in training, the better chance you’ll have of overcoming nerves to rest well pre-race.

Don’t overcompensate.
Treat the night before the race like any other night, Winter says – that is, don’t turn in too early. “I often hear, ‘I want to PB tomorrow, so I’ll go to bed at nine.’ Well, are you sleepy at nine?” he says. You’re more likely to nod off easily if you adhere to your usual routine instead of trying to force a few extra hours.

…Or Make the Best of Subpar Rest

Frame it right.
An inability to sleep may mean that you are well-rested and you have energy to spare. Remind yourself of this, and use your awake time to prep for the race. Winter recommends the following script: “I’ve been sleeping well for weeks, and tonight I still have four hours to sleep, which is plenty. I’m going to spend the next 10 minutes visualising how I’m going to approach the back half of the race when it gets hilly.” And take solace in the fact that even if you’re still conscious, spending time lying in bed itself can be helpful. “Resting holds a tremendous amount of restoration,” says Winter. According to the National Sleep Foundation, while it’s not as valuable as sleep, “quiet wakefulness” is still good in terms of calming your mind and letting your muscles and organs relax.

Don’t reach for drugs.
Avoid popping pills in order to nail your sleep goal, says Winter. “There has never been a [sleeping] pill that has been shown to improve performance in any way,” he says. What does help is all the sleep you’ve banked throughout your months of training – focus on that, and you’ll find peace of mind that may help you drift off.


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