Having Problems Sleeping the Night Before a Marathon

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Pre-marathon insomnia is a very common issue (it's even documented by scientific research). Even a seasoned marathon runner can be nervous or excited and have difficulty sleeping the night before a race. In addition, you may be traveling to a race in a different time zone, sleeping in a hotel or at a friend's house, or need to get up hours before your usual time. All of these can contribute to disrupted sleep.

But rest assured: One sleepless night before your marathon won't affect your performance. What matters more is whether you've been able to get good sleep in the week leading up to the race. The pre-race adrenaline rush will help you feel alert and ready to go for your race even if you've been wakeful the night before. Many racers have set personal bests despite pre-race insomnia.

Your Sleep Training Plan

Getting sufficient sleep in the days and weeks prior to the race should be part of your marathon training plan. One study of ultramarathoners showed that sleep extension (adding extra sleep time at night, plus daytime naps) was a useful strategy prior to these challenging races. A small study of basketball players, in which the players were advised to try to sleep 10 hours per night, came to a similar conclusion, as did a review of multiple studies on athletes and sleep: More sleep equaled better performance. To maximize your sleep:

  • Follow these tips for sleeping better, such as keeping your bedroom dark and cool, avoiding screens in the evening, and sticking to a consistent sleep schedule (even on weekends).
  • If you have to be up for your race at a time that's earlier than you're used to, try to gradually shift your sleep schedule in the days leading up to the marathon so that you're going to bed and waking up earlier. That way, it won't feel like a dramatic change when you try to hit the hay much earlier than usual on the night before your race.
  • If you're traveling to a different time zone for your race, take steps to help reduce jet lag. It's best to arrive at least a couple of days before the race so you have some time to adjust.
  • If you're struggling with nighttime sleep in the days prior to your race, try to take naps if you can. In one small study, sleep-deprived athletes showed better performance when they took a 30-minute nap after lunch.

Sleeping the Night Before the Marathon

Some runners have trouble sleeping the night before because they're anxious about the race. Take steps to try to reduce your pre-race anxiety and get some rest:

  • Lay out everything you will need the night before the marathon. Remember the "nothing new on race day" rule. Your race outfit and race nutrition should all be items that you've tried out in training runs. Use a marathon packing list to make sure you don't forget anything.
  • Finish eating a few hours before you're ready to go to bed. If you eat too close to bedtime, you may have a harder time falling asleep. Avoid caffeine or alcohol for at least six hours before bedtime.
  • Have your pre-race breakfast or snack prepared and in the refrigerator so you won't have to worry about it before morning.
  • Start winding down for bedtime early in the evening. Do something relaxing like reading a book, listening to soothing music, or taking a hot bath before turning in for the night.
  • Avoid watching TV or going on your computer or phone right before bedtime. Spending time on social media or playing computer games will make it harder to fall asleep.

If you try these steps and you're still having trouble falling asleep, don't get up and do something, like watch TV or walk around. Just stay in bed so that your body, and especially your legs, are still getting rest. Getting less sleep than you're used to won't affect your performance. You'll be amazed at how the excitement of the race makes you feel wide awake.

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