Athlete In Bed Struggling To Fall Asleep

Can’t Sleep Before a Race? Try These 3 Expert Sleep Strategies

BY Phil White

If you’ve struggled with pre-race sleep in the past, it’s easy to begin catastrophizing once you recognize the same pattern playing out. But before you start spiraling, try these sleep strategies instead.

Struggling to fall asleep the night before a big race is a common challenge for many athletes. It’s completely normal and almost even expected for some people. But what if you’re struggling to fall asleep in the days (or even weeks!) leading up to a big event? This is an equally frustrating and often overlooked challenge.

If you find yourself awake at night ruminating about last-minute tweaks to your race strategy, second-guessing your training, or worrying about logistics, don’t lose hope. Instead, give a few of Dr. Chris Winter’s sleep strategies a try. 

Dr. Winter is a neurologist and sleep specialist with experience working with athletes of all levels. Here, he provides advice on how to shift your perspective, calm your mind, and keep your sleep routine intact in the days leading up to a race.

1. Look at the Big Picture

As humans, we’re naturally focused on the short term. Whether it’s the morning’s training run or the evening’s recovery, most of us think with a short-term view. Fitness and wellness tracking amplified this by putting our latest stats in front of our eyes at all times. 

The same is true for sleep. Whether it’s a smart mattress feeding metrics to an app or a readiness score, we want our current numbers to indicate that we stocked up on sufficient sleep. Then there’s the temptation to get granular with the nitty gritty elements, like the time spent in each sleep stage, resting heart rate, and HRV. Winter believes we should zoom out a little when it comes to assessing sleep, especially before a race. “I often say that sleep is the most important thing in the world, but tonight’s sleep is largely irrelevant,” he said. “How well did you sleep over the past month? It’s similar to your nutrition. Eating well consistently will set you up for success, and one poor meal choice isn’t going to derail everything. Similarly, if you’re getting enough high-quality rest most nights, one disrupted sleep won’t matter that much.”

2. Get Out of Your Head

Before a race, several physical factors impact sleep duration and quality, but often it’s your mind that has the biggest say. Whether it’s second-guessing your race strategy, worrying about the weather, or fixating on an unfamiliar course, many counterproductive thoughts can keep you from falling asleep. Keeping these anxious thoughts at bay is not an easy task, but a few mental tricks can help you get out of your head. 

Use Mental Imagery

Winter advises athletes to get proactive with visualization and mental imagery rather than settling into unproductive thought patterns. 

“Mental imagery can be beneficial the night before an event,” he said. “Imagine how you’ll start the race and then picture yourself going through the first mile in as much detail as you can. You can also problem-solve in advance. Conjure up that tricky hilly section in the middle of the race or what you’ll do differently if you went out too fast last time. This will give your brain something productive to focus on rather than the time on the alarm clock and help you prepare better.” 

There’s plenty of evidence to back up what Winter is saying. Sleep scientists at Oxford University found that people who struggled with insomnia stopped counterproductive thought patterns and fell asleep faster with imagery. They concluded that visualization was effective in “occupying sufficient ‘cognitive space’ to keep the individual from re-engaging with thoughts, worries, and concerns during the pre-sleep period.”   

Stop Thinking About It

When you can’t fall asleep, anxieties can spiral out of control. With a race looming ahead, it’s easy to get freaked out, look at the clock every few minutes, or start doom-scrolling, which only makes you feel more awake. Again, Winter believes that perspective is key.  

“If you still feel wound up at your usual 10 PM bedtime, read or listen to music until 11,” he said. “When you lose your fear of not sleeping, you’ll be much more likely to drift off. Make resting your goal because it’s always within your control.” 

Breathwork Works 

In addition to visualizing and keeping calm, Winter also suggests doing a few minutes of breathwork as you wait to fall asleep. This helps downshift your body into parasympathetic recovery and has a meditative effect on your mind. Try box breathing—inhale, hold, exhale, and hold for four seconds each—or take slow, calming nasal breaths. 

A study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology concluded that a rate of 5.5 breaths per minute had the greatest beneficial effect on HRV, a key marker of nervous system tone and recovery. Try breathing in for five seconds through your nose, then exhaling for the same duration. 

3. Stick to Your Bedtime Routine

Prepare for Different Time Zones 

While pre-race jitters can compromise sleep, circadian rhythm disruption can also play a significant role. If you’re traveling for an upcoming event, a short distance won’t make much, if any, difference. But when your race destination is several hours away, you might shake up your system to the extent that it interferes with your rest. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. An app like Timeshifter can modify your rest patterns so you’re not thrown off when you reach your destination.

“If you’ll be changing time zones, make adjustments ahead of time,” Winter said. “This is particularly important if you’ll be flying east, such as from California to New York. You could start going to bed and getting up a bit earlier and limiting light exposure and caffeine intake later in the day.” 

Maintain Consistency 

When racing nearby, it’s easy to maintain your routine leading up to an event. It becomes trickier when traveling, but that doesn’t mean you should throw your entire routine out the window. 

“Try to keep your routines consistent,” Winter said. “Bring your pillow, the same tea you usually drink in the evening – anything that will bring a sense of familiarity into the hotel.”

Keeping your nighttime routine consistent helps to overcome the dreaded first-night effect. This is when your body stays in a state of alert when it’s in an unfamiliar environment.

“Try to keep your meal and snack schedule the same,” he said. “The same goes if you’ll be exercising before the race. If you usually take a pre-bed shower or bath or read for an hour before bed, do that too.” 

When away from home, Winter always comes prepared to create a relaxing environment in his hotel room. This includes a lavender spray for his pillow, foam earplugs, a sleep mask, and a small white noise machine. He also sets the thermostat between 65 and 70 degrees. Just like at home, if you’re lying down in a cool, dark, quiet space, it’s much more likely that you’ll fall and stay asleep.

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About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

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