8 Expert Tips for Sleeping Well the Night Before a Race

An acclaimed sleep guru shares advice for sleeping soundly before a big race


As if the prospect of competing in a race weren’t nerve-racking enough, many athletes find that it’s very difficult to sleep soundly the night before a big competition.

Maybe you find that (mostly unwarranted) worrisome thoughts run through your mind, or perhaps it’s simply a mixture of anticipation and excitement that keeps you lying awake.

Either way, no one likes tossing around as they count down trying to figure out many hours of sleep they’ll actually get if they fall asleep right now—and especially the night before a race.

If like many competitive athletes you have trouble getting quality shuteye before a competition, consider the following tips from Holiday Inn’s Rest & Run expert, acclaimed sleep guru Sammy Margo.

1. Build a bedtime routine.
Margo says: “Think about sleep as more of a dimmer switch than on-off switch, when it comes to your body. Try to set aside time in your day to unwind and settle before you sleep, setting yourself a technology cut-off time and avoiding any smartphone use in the bedroom. Research has shown that the emission of blue light from these devices can interfere with the release of your sleep hormone, Melatonin, which will in turn affect the quality of your sleep. Have a relaxing shower or bath, listen to some soothing music or an audiobook with a warm glass of milk or chamomile tea. Also, dim the lights to increase your chances of getting plenty of recovery-friendly sleep.”

2. Sleep comfortably.
Margo says: “Just as there are good standing and sitting postures, there is also a great sleeping posture; essentially one that ensures your body is in the midline position with no twists or turns. This can make the difference between a good and bad night’s sleep, particularly if you’ve been putting your body through its paces with intensive training. Make sure that whatever position you sleep in, your body is supported whilst maintaining the natural curves of the spine to minimize stresses and strains, and try to select pillows that hold your neck in the right position.”

3. Wake up well.
Margo says:
“If you need to run in the morning then it’s important to wake up feeling good. During the night you’ll go through cycles of sleep, typically lasting between 90 and 110 minutes each, varying between light and deep sleep. It’s when your alarm wakes you from deep sleep that you will feel groggy. Sleep apps and wearable technology will monitor your sleeping patterns so you can figure out what your cycles are. This gives you the opportunity to set your alarm to wake you when you’re in a light sleep cycle and therefore more likely to feel refreshed and ready for the early morning run.”

4. Indulge in snooze foods.
Margo says: “Foods that contain Tryptophan can help to promote restful sleep as it’s the catalyst to the hormone melatonin, so try to include some of these foods as part of your evening meal. Bananas, for example, are practically a sleeping pill in a peel, while turkey is one of the most famous sources of Tryptophan. Marmite, almonds, oatmeal and warm milk are also effective, particularly when combined with carbohydrates. This means something like Marmite or bananas on toast are great evening snacks if you’re struggling to get to sleep. “

5. Know your stimulant and sedative cycles.
Margo says: “Understanding the potential effects of common stimulants and sedatives means you’re well equipped to know when to avoid them… or when to use them. Alcohol is a key sedative that’s wise to moderate during training. Although alcohol can help you feel relaxed, it may prevent you from getting into the deeper healing stages of deep restorative sleep which is crucial for recovery. Conversely, caffeine is a well-known stimulant that can help your performance, but avoid drinking it between three and eight hours before bedtime, depending on how sensitive you are to its effects.”

6. Understand your sleep states.
Margo says: “The first few hours of sleep before midnight are when you reach a deep slow-wave sleep (SWS), which is the best time for recovery. An hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours afterwards, so for maximum body repair where tissues regrow, bone and muscles build and the immune system strengthens, it can be beneficial to get an early night. In deep sleep there are two states: repetitive eye movement (REM), when you’re likely to dream, and non-repetitive eye movement (non-REM), when the body is doing virtually nothing. During the non-REM state, parasympathetic nervous system activity is high, which encourages protein synthesis and that’s ideal for running recovery.”   

7. Take your bedroom home and away.
Margo says: “For the best chance of a peaceful night’s sleep make your bedroom a safe haven to rest and recover; somewhere quiet, dark, comfortable and cool. A temperature between 16 to 18°C is perfect, and certainly no higher than 21°C. Make sure your feet are not too cold, though. Having cold feet actually reduces your chances of unbroken sleep, so bed socks can be a very wise investment. When staying in a hotel, especially before a marathon, try to replicate the calm of home by asking reception for a ‘soft’ or ‘firm’ pillow, an eye mask and ear plugs, and try to get a room with an eastern or southern exposure to benefit from some revitalizing morning sun.”

8. Return to sleep.
Margo says: “Although you may be able to get off to sleep easily, waking in the night is common especially in anticipation of the big day. If you wake in the night avoid ‘clock-watching countdown.’ Turn the clock to face away or cover it up. If you feel that you have been in bed for longer than 20 minutes without catching any ZzZs then leave the ‘sleepless zone.’ Get up and do something light such as emptying the dishwasher, drinking a cup of chamomile tea or reading a magazine article, then re-enter your bed as if you’re starting your sleep again.”

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