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by Susan Dawson-Cook

June 19, 2014

A few night-before-a-big-race sleep tips to help you get some shuteye

For ultra-competitive swimmers, the night before a big race can be filled with hours tossing and turning, worrying about race execution, or having nightmares about stepping on the blocks missing goggles or even a swimsuit. Sometimes the realization that they’re not sleeping causes even more anxiety and wakefulness. Will one sleepless night affect performance? And how can swimmers increase restful hours?

Most studies suggest that one night of poor sleep won’t kill all chances for success. In 2007, two scientists at the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences reviewed myriad studies on the impact of sleep and performance. The data suggested that although mental cognition decreased, physiological markers were surprisingly stable after one or more days’ worth of poor sleep. Leg-strength, fatigue resistance, and oxygen demand at various speeds on a treadmill were all unaffected by a single restless night.

Racing under sleep-deprived conditions might hurt more, though. Subjects rated perceived efforts as higher after a sleepless night. Although the heart, lungs, and legs may still work acceptably, psychological affects, including decreased motivation, increased physical pain, and negative thinking, might be a detriment to race performance.

46-year-old All-American and Texas Masters swimmer Stephanie Stone says, “I usually don't have a hard time sleeping unless it’s a taper meet because I don't get as tired when tapering. I usually watch a movie or take a bath to relax. I sometimes will just ‘veg’ out with relaxing songs too! I don't really have any set routines—I just try different things see what works at the time.”

Based in San Diego, nationally recognized running and fitness coach and owner of Run-Fit, Jason Karp, believes rest several nights before a race is most crucial. “Sleep is one of the biggest things that influences recovery.” The night before, “Accept that you're nervous and that it may be hard to sleep. Try to get to bed earlier to compensate for the potential lack.”

53-year-old All-American distance swimmer, Eney Jones of Colorado, says she tries to, “Focus on getting a good nights sleep two nights before the event. I block out distractions, decline social activities, and create a peaceful environment. The night before is not that critical,” she says. “I must trust my training and focus on taming the last frontier (my mind). I can do this through breath work, or a movie, reading, or hanging out with friends—anything to get me out of my own head.”

For some, sleep aids such as Tylenol PM or Ambien are a necessary part of the picture. Most studies suggest these medications do not impair performance.

Because sleep plays an imperative role in muscle recovery, swimmers should ensure temporary meet-related sleep issues don’t become chronic.

“Sleep: How to Do it Right,” in the March 2014 issue of Popular Science, offered several tips to improve quality of nightly sleep. The author suggests a dark and cool bedroom, a regular bedtime schedule, avoiding exercise four to six hours before bedtime, shunning long daytime naps, curbing caffeine after midday, and turning off the television and computer well before bedtime.

To prepare for an early morning race or a time change, swimmers can gradually shift sleep routine over the course of weeks so an earlier or later bedtime won’t be problematic.


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