Pre-race nerves or jitters can be common the night before a race, and while the excitement building can be a good thing (and an excellent motivator), it’s not helpful when you’re trying to quiet your mind and fall asleep. And when you don’t sleep enough the night before a race, you might feel more tired and moody the next morning, both of which can hinder your performance, results, and recovery.
“A single night of poor sleep isn't likely to cause poor health effects long term, but for some, it may cause short-term declines in concentration and alertness, which can impact coordination during races,” Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, says.
For most people though, the effects won’t be too drastic.
“In fact, a study showed that one night of sleep deprivation resulted in no differences, when looking at reaction time and selective attention tasks,” Jones adds.
Still, you want to prioritize sleep and not make nights with poor or little sleep a routine, as that deficit will add up and lead to sleep deprivation on a more chronic basis.
Skimping on sleep too often will worsen your training performance, and your workouts will feel much harder to complete and make progress in. Plus, lack of results can often lead to discouragement and burnout, so aim for 7-9 hours of sleep nightly.
What Causes Anxiety and an Overactive Mind the Night Before a Race?
“We may see that those who are competing as adults have more of a type-A personality, which can lead to overthinking the race the night before,” Jones says.
Overthinking may present itself as a tendency to run a morning routine through your mind or worry about forgetting to pack something important, getting lost, or running late.
And regardless of your personality type, experiencing anticipation is pretty normal before a big and exciting event, especially for a race that you've devoted so much time and energy training for.
“Some people also just get excited to race and may have a little extra adrenaline and stress hormones pumping, which either is keeping you up or is leading to lighter sleep instead of important deep sleep periods,” Jones explains, the latter being useful for promoting the quality of sleep and feelings of restfulness, come morning.
Establishing a Routine
Bedtime rituals can help you fall asleep faster and have higher quality sleep more regularly, so establish a routine that works best for your individual needs and preferences, as well as lifestyle. Do take note that any new bedtime rituals should be tested prior to the night before your race, as anything new comes with risk, and any adverse reaction will negatively impact your performance the next day.
As a general rule, Jones suggests maintaining 24-48 hours before race day as a precaution when trying a new bedtime ritual. You’re better off sticking with bedtime rituals for inducing drowsiness that you’ve implemented in the past and have found to be beneficial in helping you fall asleep faster. It’s better to be safe instead of sorry.
As long as you have a few days to spare, try these easy and effective tips for calming an anxious mind and dispelling pre-race nerves the night before a big race or competition.
Tips for Calming Pre-Race Nerves and Getting to Sleep
Keep Your Phone in Another Room if Possible
Keep your phone in another room. Blue light can cause sleep problems, and scrolling on social media or reviewing past races will just keep your brain on overdrive.
Read a Book to Power Down
If you can't just lay down and fall asleep without something to "do" in bed, grab a book or print magazine to get your mind off of the race. Just make sure your choice isn’t too stimulating, where it might keep you awake. (So, you might want to hold off on any murder mysteries and books that are part of a series, if you have access to the next book at home.)
Supplement With Magnesium or Run a Bath With Epsom Salts
Lots of people turn to melatonin when they're tossing and turning, but it can often leave them waking up a few hours later or feeling groggy the next day. Magnesium bisglycinate, however, differs in that it can help with promoting relaxation and calming anxiety without causing grogginess, lethargy, or digestive distress — which can happen when taking other forms of magnesium — the next day.
You can also soak in a soothing bath to ease an anxious mind and relax the body. Magnesium or Epsom salts will not only make you sleepy, but they'll also restore tired, sore muscles and repair muscle damage as part of training recovery, too. In either case, be sure to discuss with your doctor or sports dietitian first to ensure that magnesium bisglycinate is right for you.
Have a Glass of Tart Cherry Juice Before Bed...
Drink cherry juice. Whether tart or sweet, cherries naturally contain melatonin, and — when consumed regularly — may help with both sleep and muscle soreness.
... or Drink Warm Herbal Tea
A mug filled with warm, decaffeinated herbal tea can give you that snuggly and cozy feel before bed, which can help you unwind to feel calm, comfortable, and ready for bed.
While Jones enjoys chamomile, certain tea blends may have other herbs that complement chamomile to offer greater anti-anxiety and relaxation benefits.
Eat Melatonin-Rich Foods as a Bedtime Snack
“Eating foods that contain natural melatonin right before you go to bed can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly, with the best foods including almonds, walnuts, and bananas,” Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, says.
Plus, they are fairly easy on the stomach and won’t cause digestion problems, which could affect your performance the following day (and during your race).
Sleep With a Sound Machine
Sound machines help drown out excess noise — like cars honking or noisy neighbors — as well as prevent silence, which can be too quiet and awkward for some, thus making falling asleep more difficult. Plus, many people find white noise or deep fan sounds to be very soothing and rhythmic.
With time, it can be a primer to get you in the mindset of sleeping and reduce any mental overstimulation.
“Having a sound machine in your room or something that produces calming noises can help you focus on something besides your race,” Best explains.
Meditate With Visualization Techniques or Breathwork
“Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or a body scan,” Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, owner of ChampagneNutrition® and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep and How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook, says. “Simply closing your eyes and practicing intentional relaxation may be enough for easier sleep, but you can also use an app or video as a guide."
And for a bonus, consider meditating or focusing on a successful outcome of the race for the next day as a visualization technique that soothes the mind and promotes more positivity and confidence for race day.
“Envision yourself performing during your race in the exact way that you want to as you relax and wind down,” Hultin says.
A few minutes should be sufficient.
Journal for a Few Minutes and Jot Down Your Thoughts
Keep a journal and a pen by your bed in case you ever need to jot down racing thoughts in general, but especially the night before a big race, when there may be extra on your mind.
“Jot down your feelings in a journal or on paper before bed," Hultin says. "Writing about what you’re nervous about, how you want the race to go, or some strategies you’re going to use for success can calm a nervous mind."
This way, you’re saving these thoughts for another time, so you’re better able to allow your mind to rest.
“Bonus: review it the next morning for use as a reminder about how you see yourself performing and how you plan on tackling the event,” Hultin adds.
Do Light Movement or Yoga Flow
Move your body lightly if you’re struggling to sleep, as a little movement will do the mind and body some good.
“Intense exercise can interrupt sleep and make it harder to power down, but some light yoga, an evening walk, or some stretching can be a restorative activity to do before bed,” Hultin says.
You can even plan ahead of time to seek some sort of movement prior to sleeping, as a form of race prep.
“The night before a big race, get some energy out with light, easy activity so that you can get to sleep faster and easier,” Hultin recommends.
Best concurs that practicing yoga can help your body and mind enter a place where it is relaxed and ready to fall asleep.
"This can help you sleep more soundly, too, since your body will likely feel more comfortable, as well,” Best says.
Yoga involves flexibility exercises and stretching, both of which can prepare your body for rest and get out any pent-up tension and stiffness. If you're feeling anxious, simply try doing a yoga flow for 5-15 minutes.