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Will a bad night’s sleep the night before a race affect my performance?


You’ve trained for months… you’ve got an early start… you’re excited… you’re nervous… you’re visualising the race… you need to sleep… it’s a downward spiral… the more stressed you become the harder it is to get to sleep the night before a race

Practice does not make perfect. It is practice, followed by a night of sleep, that leads to perfection.

― Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams

If you’re anything like me, I find it difficult to sleep the night before a big race.  I lie in bed willing sleep, but my mind is going 100 miles/hour: Do I have the right kit?  Is my watch fully charged? Was that tickly cough something more sinister?  What about that niggle in my calf when I got into bed?  Even when I do get to sleep, it’s fitful.  Paranoid that I will sleep through my alarm, I keep checking my phone.  

Truth is now I don’t worry about it so much.  I know I won’t sleep well the night before a race, but I don’t let it stress me out.  I know that I have banked enough sleep in the weeks preceding race day, and that I have planned my race day.  

When eventually it’s time to get up, it’s a relief that race day is here, and I can put my race day plan into action.

How important is sleep for runners?

Sleep is sometimes overlooked by runners, with so much emphasis on training.  But while you sleep your body recovers, rebuilds and capitalises on all of that training.  When you train you stress your muscles, breaking them down a little.  When you’re asleep you’re recovering and consolidating on all of that training.  It’s so important to give your body enough sleep.  

Think of sleep as a bank account. 

When you run, you’re making a withdrawal; when you sleep you’re crediting your account. 

So if you’ve built up enough sleep credit, a bad night’s sleep the night before a big race will have little or no effect on your performance.

A look at elite athletes reinforces this: for example, former marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe gets nine hours of sleep at night and tops this up with an hour or two nap every day. 

Plan your race day and be your race day manager

I am meticulous when it comes to preparing for race day.  By doing all this planning in advance I know I’m prepared, so I’m more relaxed, I sleep better and can really enjoy the event.

I become my own race day manager in the weeks before a race, checking everything and leaving nothing to chance.  Not only will I collate all the kit, plan my fueling strategy, familiarise myself with the route, and check everything, but I also visualise and plan step by step my routine from getting out of bed to standing at start.  

So when I get up on race day, I don’t have to think.  I know my bag is packed, my socks are on my shoes, my phone and watch are charged, my bottles are filled, my breakfast is in the bowl with the fruit next to it, the cab is booked etc.  Of course, things don’t always work out exactly as planned, but at least I’ve reduced my nerves and stress by planning everything in my control.

If you enjoyed this article on sleep before a race, you might enjoy my other race tips.

How do you sleep the night before a race?  Share your tips in the comments below.

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