How to Sleep Like a Rock the Week Before Your Race
Stress, nerves, time zone changes, unfamiliar surroundings—the week before your race is loaded with sleep saboteurs. Here's how to get some solid shut-eye ahead of your big day.
Race week is finally here. You’ve put the hay in the barn, your training is easing up, and you’re looking forward to one sweet celebration day out on the course. Your nutrition’s on point, logistics are in place, and you’re ready for a few good nights of sleep before the starting gun goes off. If only it were that simple…
Sleep disturbances are common during race week. We know how critical sleep is for peak performance, so when it evades us during the most important week, we tend to freak out, which only makes matters worse. Instead, let’s understand the real relationship between sleep loss and performance, the various reasons why sleep loss occurs, and ways to increase your chances of getting at least a few solid nights.Section divider
Will sleep loss the night before a race affect performance?
There are many forms of sleep loss, all of which you’ve likely experienced. Sleep deprivation is the most extreme form, indicating a complete lack of sleep over a 24-hour period. Sleep restriction is another category of sleep loss and is broadly defined as less than 6 hours of sleep in 24 hours. It can be further divided into three subcategories: 1) early restriction or delayed onset sleep (going to sleep much later than normal, either due to a conflict or due to difficulty falling asleep), 2) fragmented sleep (waking up throughout the night), or 3) late restriction (waking up early). The latter is the norm for triathletes on race day, who must rise early to get to the race. But, it is often also combined with early restriction, due to nerves or travel.
So what is the effect of these forms of sleep loss on athletic performance? Studies have revealed that full sleep deprivation and late restriction are the most detrimental types of sleep loss in general, negatively affecting various types of performance: anaerobic power, skill, strength, and endurance. When we limit the focus to endurance performance, every single type of sleep loss seems to negatively affect it. Bummer! Plus, the day after a night of sleep loss, the outcomes when certain types of exercise are performed are even worse later in the day than in the morning. But unfortunately, yet again, endurance tasks are equally affected in both the morning and evening following a night of very poor sleep.
But here’s some good news: The negative effects seem to be greatest following complete sleep loss, meaning zero sleep over 24 hours, or in the case of one study, a total of 4 hours of sleep across 48 hours. That’s extreme. If, however, you manage to get even 4.5 hours of sleep the night before the race, your physical performance metrics will likely not be affected—only your perceived effort, which we’ll get to below. Furthermore, there are proven strategies for upping your chances of getting a good night’s rest, especially during race week. And if all else fails, finding ways to increase your focus on race day might very well balance some of the negative effects.Section divider
Barriers to sleep during race week
After implementing a solid training routine for weeks or months, race week forces you to slow down as you prepare your body and mind for the big dance. Several factors can get in the way of good sleep in the days leading up to a race.
It’s completely normal to feel some nerves before a race, but it can be really frustrating when they interfere with your sleep. The key to handling pre-race anxiety is to first give it an outlet. Try taking a few minutes each night to journal. Put pen to paper (literally; writing it out old school helps the brain process worrying thoughts) and then allow your hand to free write anything that comes to mind. These are often useless thoughts that are simply getting in your way. But, they may also be reminders to accomplish certain tasks, which can alleviate anxiety.
Next, attack the anxious thoughts from the bottom up. Notice how your body is responding to the stress, and relieve tension by meditating, taking a bath, or practicing a calming breathing technique. The most well-studied technique for insomnia is 4-7-8 breathing. Inhale for the count of 4, hold for 7, and exhale for 8. Repeat this for a few minutes to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and allow your body to slip into restorative sleep.
The taper that normally accompanies race week means that your overall movement has decreased and you’re putting in way less hours than you did during build and peak weeks. This reduction in intensity and volume often leads to a feeling of restlessness, which can wreak havoc on your sleep. One good way to stay connected to your body, but encourage it to relax, is to practice progressive muscle relaxation before bed. You don’t need to follow a particular script, just begin at your feet and one-by-one, tense and relax each major muscle group. For example, while laying in bed, tense your left foot from low to medium to high tension, hold for a couple beats, then slowly release the tension. Repeat this with your right foot. Then, move up to your left calf. Continue all the way up your body, ending with your facial muscles. At the very end, tense your entire body, hold it for a few counts, and then relax fully. This should help you drift to sleep.
Time zone changes
If you’ve competed outside of your local time zone, then you know the difficulty of adjusting to a new clock. Jet lag occurs when your internal circadian rhythm is out of sync with the actual time in your environment. Interestingly, jet lag is worse, and takes longer to recover from, when you travel east than when you travel west. Since your brain’s master clock—located in a cluster of cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, within the hypothalamus—responds to sunlight, the best antidote to jet lag is exposure to morning light and avoidance of artificial light in the evening. So, instead of keeping those blackout shades drawn in the hotel or Airbnb, set your alarm for an early rise, force yourself out of bed, and get outside into natural daylight ASAP. Other tips include staying very well hydrated, limiting caffeine to the morning, and avoiding alcohol during travel and upon arrival in the new time zone.
Sleeping in a new place
We are creatures of habit and our body loves routines. So, when you switch things up, your brain may revolt. The first night’s sleep in a new place isn’t always the smoothest evening. You may wake often or never feel like you’re drifting into deep sleep. There’s a good reason for this. Sleep scientists studied the “first-night-effect” and found that it’s actually a protective mechanism. One half of your brain remains less asleep, responding much more robustly to external stimuli throughout the night (e.g. sounds, changes in temperature, etc.), than the other half of the brain. It’s attempting to protect you from dangerous things in this new environment, which, in reality, is likely not very risky, but alas, this is how we’ve evolved. While you can’t necessarily override this fun feature, you can help your brain feel safe. Your brain responds powerfully to smell, which is intimately tied to memory. So, bring a familiar smell, perhaps in the form of your favorite candle or the soap you use. You should also stick to your regular bedtime routine to enhance the feeling of safety.
Stressing about not sleeping
This one resonates deeply, doesn’t it? You’re lying awake at 2 a.m. the night before your race and you’re worried about not sleeping. This obviously adds fuel to the fire and the increased cortisol and brain activity further prevent any chance of sleep. Instead of putting up resistance, accept it as normal. Commit to letting go of the stress by trusting your training. You can still perform well even after sleep eludes you. Shift your mental energy from focusing on what’s not working to controlling what you can. Use the quiet time to practice mental imagery. Imagine yourself starting the race with confidence, swimming smoothly, cycling with power, and running with joy and ease. Affirm that you can do anything for a relatively short period of time. You can also try the 4-7-8 breathing strategy described above. Lastly, even if you can’t sleep, resting your body (and your mind!) is always beneficial. Just reframe the situation and honor yourself for taking the time to rest. It may not be ideal, but it’s certainly something.Section divider
Performing well despite sleep loss
We’ve established that sleep loss has an effect on endurance performance and we’ve explored common barriers to sleep during race week, plus how to combat them. But, what happens when all else fails and race morning arrives after a week of inconsistent sleep.
In order to strategize, let’s peel back one more layer of the story and understand the reason why sleep loss may affect performance. One study evaluated endurance performance on a treadmill after 30 hours of total sleep deprivation. The performance results weren’t surprising, with sleep-deprived athletes running a shorter distance in the same amount of time as the well-rested athletes. The more interesting finding, however, was that the sleep-deprived athletes reported similar perceptions of effort as their counterparts. So, they ran a shorter distance, but felt it was just as hard. All of this suggests that while sleep deprivation may not have affected physiological measures, it did have an effect on perception of effort. Ultimately, it may have been the altered perception of effort that most greatly affected performance.
So, now for the strategy. If decreased endurance performance is likely due to psychological factors rather than physiological factors, then mind-body practices might help. Take advantage of the finding that perception of effort matters and, well, change your relationship with effort. To give yourself the best chance of maximizing your effort, despite a poor night’s sleep, you’ll want to stay focused. To avoid cognitive fatigue, and believing that the race is harder than perhaps it is, use a mantra to maintain your focus. Each leg of a triathlon is rhythmic, so sync your mantra with your cadence. It can be as easy as “let’s go” with each right, then left swim stroke. Or, “push now” with each leg’s pedal stroke.
Bottom line: A few nights of poor sleep, even during race week, will not necessarily dramatically hurt your performance. The stress of not having slept much is likely worse than the actual negative effects on your ability. It’s important to control the controllables and be proactive in giving yourself the best chance of good sleep. But, if nerves, travel, or anything else keep you from catching lots of solid Zzzzs, then focus on reducing your stress and paying attention to your effort each moment of that race.
Daya Grant, Ph.D. is a certified mental performance consultant (CMPC), neuroscientist, and yoga teacher who empowers athletes to get out of their own way and tap into their greatness. She swims, bikes, and runs in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and their young son.