I’ve done a few races this year, and I’m noticing a frustrating pattern: I have a hard time getting a good night’s rest the night before. Is this something I should be concerned about or should I just chalk it up to pre-race jitters? Does a poor night’s sleep necessarily affect performance the next day? Do you have you suggestions on how to get a good night’s sleep right before a race? Thanks! ~Rebecca
Hi Rebecca. You may be happy to know that pre-race sleep affects all levels of runners from mortals to elites. And you’re right, in most cases it’s due to pre-race jitters.
The good news is you can still perform well even if you don’t sleep soundly the night before. Although you may wake up feeling as if you’ve slept for mere minutes–which is unlikely!–what matters is that you were horizontal, giving your body the rest it needs.
In my adventure racing days, we would race for days on end, powered only by a few hours of sleep on a trail. At some of those races, we actually raced stronger on the final days when our bodies were sleep deprived and fatigued. Now I wouldn’t recommend chronic sleep deprivation, but one night is not enough to make or break your performance. The key is to remind your mind that this is the case.
That said, there are plenty of pre-race sleep strategies that you can employ.
During race week:
- Focus on dialing down your life and commitments so you can bank a few extra hours of quality, peaceful sleep. Heading to bed earlier, taking naps, or sleeping in the weekend before are great ways to weave in a little more pillow time during your taper.
- Create a sound sleep environment by keeping the room cool, dark, and with minimal distraction. Put smartphones, computers, and anything else that might keep you up late in another room.
The day before the race:
- From what you’re going to wear to what you’ll eat and how you’ll get to the start, get organized early in the day so you’re not scurrying around right before you hit the sack.
- Keep a notepad and pen next to your bed. No matter how organized you try to be, there always seems to be something that you’ll forget and want to remember. Physically writing it down helps remove the repetitive thoughts that could make you restless. An even better idea? Create a race day packing list that can do wonders to keep your nerves at bay.
- Before you hit the sack, sit in a comfortable position and focus on your breathing for five minutes to lower your heart rate. Breathe in and out deeply through your nose and into your belly, tuning in to the sound and feeling of air moving through your throat. Let random thoughts come and go. There is no pass or fail with this; it’s all about being relaxed and with your thoughts. It’s amazing what a few focused minutes of deep breathing can do to relax you. (This also works on race day, too!)
- After you calm down, perform this exercise: While breathing deeply, visualize yourself waking up and going through your pre-race rituals. See yourself lining up at the start feeling strong and confident, then running every feeling powerful and smooth. During the challenging final miles, visualize yourself breathing in strength and out fear and fatigue, just as you are now.
- Mentally “run” the course, picturing yourself pushing through all the good and bad moments along the way. Most of our jitters are rooted in the “what if’s…” and the fear of the unknown. Sometimes your race may mean a slower performance (no) thanks to rough weather days. Other times it may mean you set that personal record you’ve been striving for. Don’t stress out about what you can’t control, let go of expectations, and allow yourself to finish accepting whatever the day brings.
- Stress builds when we venture outside of our comfort zone. But look at it this way: When we run into the unknown, we move toward achievement. The nerves are there to keep us present and focused since reaching any great feat–hello new PR!–requires our full attention.
Performing this pre-race routine won’t guarantee a peaceful night’s sleep, but it can calm your racing heart and help you center your thoughts on your inner strength. Like training for any race, this takes time to learn.
And remember: Your performance has more to do with the miles you’ve already logged in training. Then tack on quality nutrition and sleep the week before the race to really set yourself up for success. Whether you sleep soundly or for only a few minutes, remember your foundation will support you through every mile.