Pre-Race Sleep

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Pre-Race Sleep

Written by Richard Ferguson Ph.D on 25 November 2016.


It’s the night before the important race you’ve trained months for. You’re excited, nervous and apprehensive, all at the same time. Bed time; get that much needed rest for the big day tomorrow. You lay there, you toss, you turn, your heart races, you’re just ready to race, but you need and want to sleep, but you can’t. It’s a scenario that I would venture to guess all runners have experienced at some point in time.  The bad sleep scenario can even occur for several nights before a highly anticipated race. Currently, there is great interest among researchers concerning sleep and athletic performance and, without question; proper sleep is needed for peak performance. So just how can you remedy the poor sleep predicament before a race?

Pre-race anxiety is very normal and actually can be interpreted as a good thing since it means your fight or flight response is preparing you for action, however the anxiety is inappropriate in the days leading up to the event, especially when trying to sleep. Just what causes all of this pre-race anxiety? Well, in all honesty it’s your thinking. You aren’t running the night before a race, so there is no threat or need for physical action. But you’re thinking about the race. “Am I ready”?  “Have I overtrained?” “I hope that little pain in my calf isn’t serious”. “Will my alarm clock wake me up and what if I miss the bus to the start”? Your mind races and you toss and turn. Gosh, I speak from experience on this one!

In order to reduce the anxiety, work on changing your thinking! Easier said than done, but it can be done!In the days leading up to an important race constantly remind yourself that your training and hard work is done and there is nothing more you can do. The key is to constantly remind yourself to trust! When I say trust, I mean trusting that that you’ve done your best in your preparation and trusting that you will do your best in the race. Be aware of negative thoughtsthat create self-doubt and anxiety and when they do occur remind yourself to trust!  Think positive thoughts and have positive images of your race to come. Why doubt, it simply does no good. So in the days leading up to a big race, and especially the night before, trust your preparation and your effort to come. By trusting you will help reduce your stress hormones, which in turn will increase the likelihood of quality sleep.

There are other tricks to keep in mind to increase the likelihood of sound sleep the night before a race. Even if you are a regular user of caffeine, try not to consume any caffeinated beverages after the noon hour. Just don’t risk taking a stimulant like caffeine, even if you think it has no effect on you. Now the morning of the race, that’s another story! If you tend to take naps, be careful not to take a long nap the day before a big race. Long naps of an hour or more may interfere with your natural sleep cycles and could possibly keep you awake at night. If you do nap, make it twenty minutes at most. Also, do your best to make the day before the race as stress free as possible. Do something that relaxes you, not stresses you out. Stress outside of running can elevate stress hormones and lead to sleep problems. Be careful about getting caught up in pre-race hoopla, like giant expos, stressing over where to eat your pre-race meal or taking long tours of a new city. Make the day before the race as low key and relaxed as possible. You know what stresses you and what relaxes you. Follow your instincts!

A relatively new finding on sleep has to do with tablet and smart phone blue screens. It would appear that spending time on your tablet or smartphone in the evening has a negative effect on sleep. While many of us are in a way addicted to our mobile devices, try to be disciplined and tuck them away in the evening before a big race. Yes, texting and playing with apps can take your mind off stressors, but staring at that screen could interrupt your sleep patterns. On the subject of light, even being in very brightly lit areas with polychromatic lights can negatively affect sleep later that night. So don’t spend too long under bright floodlights or flood lit areas such as stadiums or airports.

Of course there are some general tips that apply to getting a good night’s sleep any night, not just before a race. Your room should be dark. Shut those curtains as tightly as possible and turn out all lights. Turn down that alarm clock light. Light can interfere with your natural circadian rhythms. Your room should also be comfortably cool. Try to have the temperature at 68 degrees or below. Body temperature drops during sleep and a cool room can aid the process. If there is noise you may want to try some ear plugs. Experiment with different types well before your big race and find the ones that reduce noise the most while also being comfortable. Constant white background noise can also aid in relaxation and sleep. A softly running air conditioner or fan can help block noise and provide a consistent background level of sound. You can also purchase actually white noise devices which are small and pack in a travel bag. I personally know numerous people who never travel without their white noise device.

Certain foods can also help or hinder sleep. Of course, try to avoid fatty foods which are hard to digest and could cause indigestion or acid reflux. Most runners generally avoid such foods, but be sure to avoid fatty foods the night before a race. Stick to what you know works and don’t experiment. Some foods may actually enhance sleep. Almonds, turkey, cherries, bananas and yes, warm milk contain high levels of the amino acid tryptophan with is converted to serotonin and melatonin in the brain, both of which help promote sleep. So about an hour before bedtime maybe have a small snack of some of these foods. Melatonin is available in supplement form, but it’s probably a good idea to consult your physician before using such a supplement, especially if you are taking any prescription drugs. Always, always, always remember don’t try something the night before a race that you haven’t tried earlier. Don’t take chances.

So the night before a big race trust your preparation, trust your effort and imagine running like you want to run. Reduce your stress, reduce exposure to light, have a comfortable sleeping environment and eat smart. It’s no guarantee of a good night’s sleep, but the odds are increased. Sweet dreams! Run fast!


Read more of Dr. Ferguson articles on -

The Overtraining Conundrum -


Getting the MOST Out of Training -


 Winning is Personal -


Affirm Your Greatness!!! -

What is Tired? -   

The Reason We Run -

Some New Recruits -   

Are You a RUNNER? -

A Different View -

The Components of Peak Performance -

Running and Sleep -

Don’t Panic! -

The Mental Maximization of Training -

With the Help of a Friend -

Beating the Winter Blues-

Go For It -

Beating Burnout -

A New Outlook -

Expect the Unexpected -

Pain or Discomfort ? -

Keep Your Eye on the Prize -

 Running Free -

Running and Role Models -

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