It is sometimes downright difficult to sleep well the night prior to a race, especially a marathon! I have run two marathons, and one half-marathon with essentially zero sleep the night prior. Those nights seemed to last forever, and made the races feel a bit longer, too. With that, here’s some tips to get sleep better the night before a race (even a marathon!), and what to know if you can’t.
Tips to Sleep Better the Night Before a Race
KNOW THIS: You CAN race well on a bad night’s sleep.
YES, several studies conclude that the impact of a cruddy night of sleep before a race is negligible. In one particular study, the “no sleep” group performed essentially the same as the control group (those that did sleep well)! The two groups covered the same distance in the timed event, and their physiological measurements (including average heart rate) were almost identical.
From personal experience, this is helpful because knowing a poor night’s sleep before a race won’t have much (if any) impact makes it easier to sleep! I personally remember worrying about how poorly I’d run come race time as the hours ticked away. With that concern wiped away, it is certainly one less thing to fret about.
Anecdotally, the two marathons where I didn’t sleep much (~hour) the night before were PR’s!
What matters: a better sleep routine/habits leading up to race day.
It’s more important to get sufficient sleep in the days and weeks leading up to your race. If you get insufficient sleep on a regular basis, THAT will affect your performance.
As such, practice these tips to sleep better as a runner so you are at your best come race day. Some examples: keep your room cave like (cool, dark, quiet), avoid screens in the evening, take a warm bath/shower an hour before bed, and have a consistent sleep schedule (including weekends).
If you must awaken a lot earlier than you normally do for a race (ie: 2:30 a.m. for a runDisney race!), attempt to gradually shift your sleep schedule in days leading up. Meaning, move your bed/awake times a bit earlier each day so the change is not so dramatic once race day eve arrives.
Related Topic: Essential Packing Tips for Your Next Destination Race
Traveling alone can wreak havoc on sleep, so here’s some pointers to consider to get better sleep the night before your race when you’re out of town.
Arrive a couple days if possible to adjust.
Especially if there’s a time zone change, and you encounter jet lag. It’s easier to travel west (“gain time”) for races than the reverse. It typically takes fewer days to adjust when traveling west, and those traveling east typically have more difficulty getting to sleep.
Shoot for two nights “on location” before race day.
Research shows that people typically sleep more poorly the first night in a new location, whether you’re at a hotel, or a friend’s house. Dubbed the “first night effect,” the research claims that when we’re in an unfamiliar location, our brain doesn’t shut down as well. We sleep more lightly and are more sensitive to environmental factors (like the room A/C that whirs loudly when it’s on).
Bring some comforts from home.
No, you can’t bring your bed. But, possibly your pillow, or pillow case/sheets, or something familiar that tricks your brain into a (arguably) false sense of security. But enough so that it’s easier to sleep!
The Night Prior (Race Eve!)
Prep EVERYTHING the night prior.
Your breakfast, race day attire, race day nutrition, your bib, shoes, EVERYTHING. Essentially, prep all you’ll need to not only get across the finish line, but comfy/nourished until you’re back home or at the hotel. Remember, absolutely nothing NEW on race day – all food/nutrition/clothing/shoes have already been tested.
Finish eating a few hours before going to bed.
A heavy meal close to bedtime can make falling asleep more difficult. Another idea: have a larger lunch, and then a smaller dinner. (Of course, caffeine and alcohol should be avoided at least six hours before shut-eye.)
It’s important to choose something you’re familiar with – again, nothing new on (or night before) race day. Save your desire to experiment with a new food or dish until after the race.
Trade screens for a more restful, relaxing activity.
Try to avoid watching TV, or using your computer/phone before bedtime. The stimulation, plus the infamous “blue light” wreaks havoc on melatonin production (key hormone to induce sleep).
What are some more restful, relaxing activities?:
Reading, doing a jigsaw puzzle, listening to relaxing music, meditation, a long warm bath/shower, light yoga/stretches, even coloring/drawing! Why? Focusing on a singular task helps put your mind into a meditation-like state, creating a sense of peace/tranquility.
Start winding down fairly early in the evening.
Fairly self-explanatory! Also, set your alarm and factor in enough time to eat breakfast, use the bathroom (multiple times), drive, park, warm-up, etc. on race morning.
Still have a restless pre-race night?
If you find yourself still struggling to get a good night’s sleep, stay in bed. The typical recommendation for a sleepless night is to get out of bed and do something until you’re tired. In this scenario (race day eve), stay in bed to allow your body, and legs to get rest.