It’s the eve of the big race, so you go to bed early to prepare. But it turns into the longest night ever.
Excitement and nervousness combine and you can’t switch off. Before you know it, normal bedtime is in the distant past. The harder you try to get to sleep, the more implausible such a notion seems.
Turning over on to your other side will do it, you think. No? How about on your back? Or counting your running shoes? Nothing helps. All of a sudden, you start counting down on one hand the number of hours to alarm time.
Before you know it, and after what feels like five minutes of sleep, you’re rudely disturbed by the sound of a rooster screaming out of your phone.
We’ve all been there. Runner Rebecca De Jager told us: “I usually have really weird dreams about missing the start because I have forgotten my trainers and then having to run home to get them. In my dream, by the time I get to the start line with my trainers I am exhausted and the race has already started. Horrible!”
#Run1000Miles participant Neil Shoesmith added: “I drive to where the race is the night before to arrive around midnight and kip in the back of my van. It means I’m normally waking to a cracking view and no worries about getting to the event on time... The only problem is a lack of local knowledge the night before one race led to me spending it in a dogging spot. Not much pre-race sleep that night!”
But, is the amount of sleep you get the night before really the be-all and end-all?
First, it’s important to note that sleep is very important when it comes to athletic performance. If you’re especially active, sleep is even more important as it’s key for recovery. However, it seems it can have a shorter-term effect, too.
A 2019 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found time trial results for endurance cyclists increased from 58.8 to 60.4 minutes after just two nights of having their sleep reduced to under five hours a night, from their usual six and a half to seven hours. Further, when sleep was increased to more than eight hours a night for three days, times dropped from 58.7 minutes to 56.8.
It’s maybe why top Kenyan athletes, away from the stresses of Western life, are said to sleep up to 14 hours each night.
However, when it comes to preparation for a big race, it’s believed that getting enough sleep two nights before is the all-important factor. As marathoner and sleep therapist Dr Nerina Ramlakhan tells us we shouldn’t stress too much about race-eve shut-eye.
If you are staying in a strange environment or hotel room, have familiar things around you, including sights, sounds and smells. If you use lavender oil in your own bedroom, take this with you when you travel. Sleep on your favoured side of the bed. Take photos of your loved ones or pet and put them on your bedside table. Creating a feeling of inner safety around you will settle your nervous system and enable you to rest more easily.
Performance anxiety, be gone
Stop worrying about how you’ll perform the next day. We’re a great deal more resourceful than we think we are, and sleep, although vital, is only one way in which we get energy. Our energy levels are also bolstered by the way we eat, drink, move, breathe, and even think. Studies show that a night of poor sleep the night before a significant event such as an exam, presentation or a physical event such as a race has a negligible effect on your performance. This is where adrenaline, determination and high levels of motivation can really go a long way. The bottom line? The night before a big event, try your best no to worry too much about the sleep you are or aren’t getting.
If you’re having difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, get into a comfortable position in bed, close your eyes and slowly think of all the things that you’re grateful for in your life. What has gone well in your training? Who are you grateful for in your world? What are you feeling grateful for right now? Place one hand over your heart and one on your belly and allow yourself to feel the feelings of gratitude. Soften into the feelings of gratitude. Smile inwardly.
Forget the clock
Obsessively checking the time during the night will not help your inner perfectionist, who will immediately go into calculating and catastrophising about what might happen if you don’t get x hours of sleep. And know that it’s normal to wake up during the night. The average person wakes 10 to 15 times a night and it’s actually an evolutionary survival mechanism in which we wake up and check the ‘cave’ is safe. If we didn’t do this, we would probably be extinct! We don’t remember waking this many times (hopefully) but checking the time brings you into full consciousness, thus making it difficult to return to a relaxed state of sleep.
Use your breathing to put you to sleep. Put one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Follow your breath without trying to control it while silently repeating the words “in” and “out”. Gently prolong the exhalation and allow the inhalation to take care of itself. This will help to deepen and slow down your breath, which activates the vagus nerve which controls the relaxation response.
Marathoner Dr Nerina Ramlakhan has worked as a professional physiologist and sleep therapist for 25 years, including with Chelsea Football Club. The former insomniac has appeared as a TV expert and is the author of Tired But Wired, Fast Asleep, Wide Awake and The Little Book of Sleep: The Art of Natural Sleep.