As exciting as competing is—especially after any kind of extended layoff—it’s also inherently stressful. Whether you’re racing in an Olympic stadium or on some empty backroads, if the outcome is meaningful to you, some amount of pre-race nerves is inevitable. One runner may feel intense butterflies in her stomach for weeks leading up to a big event. Another may not feel nervous until he arrives at the race venue to warm up. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, the key is to expect what’s coming and have a plan for managing it.
The night before a competition is particularly ripe for race-related stress. You’re still, it’s quiet and dark, and many minds are quick to envision worst-case and what-if scenarios. Common pre-race thoughts include: Am I ready for this? What if a cramp pops up? Will that tender spot turn into something serious on the course? Am I underestimating those hills? What if I disappoint the people who came out to support me? Did I remember to set my alarm?
Once you head down that path, it can be extremely hard to exit the spiral of negative thoughts. Your lack of sleep compounds it all, and the tone of the night has been set. That’s why learning strategies that can help you relax, and incorporating them into your pre-race routine, is worth doing long before race weekend arrives. Here are five proven ways to wind down at night, so you control your nerves before they control you.
Put Pen to Paper
When is the last time you put pen to paper for no reason other than to clear your mind? It may be associated with gossipy girls and historical figures, but journaling offers heaps of mental health benefits for those who partake—athletes very much included. The practice can help you manage anxiety, reduce stress, prioritize your problems, identify patterns from one day to the next, and replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
While any time of day will work, a regular evening session is worth trying if you’re a classic nighttime worrier. Especially before races, make a habit of jotting down the reasons you’ll succeed the next day, what your racing strategy is, what your objectives are, and how you’ll handle possible impediments to the plan. The more of your thoughts you can unload before bed, the clearer your head will be when it’s time to doze off.
Stretch It Out
Most runners, if they stretch at all, assume it’s best done right before or right after a run. But before bed is another great opportunity to loosen up your muscles while also stilling your mind to close out a full day. Even just ten minutes of gentle stretching can leave you a good place for the night; in addition to improving blood flow and relieving tension, it can help you fall asleep and possibly even avoid nighttime pain.
Somewhere in the final hour before hitting the sack, start your routine with deep breathing and then focus on a few stretches that feel good but not intense or painful. Key areas to hit include your neck, back, chest, shoulders, and those all-important hamstrings, quads, calves, and feet. Remember to breathe as you go, and try to tune into your body rather than the stressors of the day.
Slow Your Roll
By now, you probably know that meditation is good for you in all kinds of ways. To name just a few of them, it can help you manage stress, stay in the present, gain new perspective, find a sense of calm, and relax deeply. Regular meditation may also help you manage conditions that are exacerbated by stress, such as chronic pain, high blood pressure, and tension headaches. But it’s one thing to know about those benefits and another thing to act on them.
If you don’t have a meditation habit yet, consider weaving it into your bedtime timeline. If you’re overwhelmed by the many different types—guided, mindfulness, transcendental, and such—start simple and tackle the elements that are common to most: deep breathing, body scan, and repetition of a word, mantra, or prayer. If you find it hard to sit still, try taking your meditation on the move by combining the practice with a walk.
Supplement with a Trusted Source
For athletes who need help falling or staying asleep, or who simply want to optimize their nights, there are safe, science-backed supplements that can help. The reformulated Momentous Elite Sleep stands out among them for a number of reasons. A team of dietitians, nutritionists, and performance coaches crafted it specifically for athletes, and it’s guaranteed to be free of banned substances and contaminants. The four key ingredients—melatonin, L-theanine, tart cherry juice, and valerian root—were hand-picked for their sleep-promoting properties and combined in clinically effective doses.
The recommended dose for Momentous Elite Sleep is two pills roughly 30 minutes before bedtime. To maximize the benefits, you’ll still want to commit to a relaxing evening routine, whether built from this list or from other activities that leave you in a peaceful state.
Take a Dip
Warm baths aren’t for everyone, but if you’re into them, there’s good reason to keep them around—especially as part of your nighttime wind-down. Not only are baths inherently relaxing, they also improve your blood circulation and prompt a drop in body temperature after you get out, which is conducive to quality sleep. In addition, they improve the temperature circadian rhythm, positively impacting how quickly you fall asleep and how sound your sleep is.
Research indicates that taking a bath one to two hours before crawling in bed is best. Even just a ten-minute soak is enough to signal to your body and mind that the time for sleep is imminent. To take it up a notch, light a few candles, dim the lights, and turn on some instrumental music.
A little bit of pre-race anxiety is expected. But that doesn’t mean you should suffer through a night of tossing, turning, and fretting every time a competition comes around. One way to maintain control of your nerves is to identify some activities that put you at ease and induce a sleepy state, and then create a routine around them. Whether you use tactics mentioned above, like journaling or meditating, or something else that works for you, like knitting or playing an instrument, the more you do them at the end of the day, the more you’ll associate them with sleep rather than stress. Ideally, the only different between an ordinary night and a pre-race night is the opportunity that waits in the morning.
1- “Journaling for Mental Health,” University of Rochester Medical Center Health Encyclopedia, available online at https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentID=4552&ContentTypeID=1.
2 - “10 Stretches to Do Before Bed to Improve Your Sleep,” Hospital for Special Surgery, 2021, available online at https://www.hss.edu/article_stretches-before-bed.asp.
3 - Mayo Clinic Staff, “Meditation: A Simple, Fast Way to Reduce Stress,” Mayo Clinic, 2020, available online at https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858.
4 - Momentous, “Your Sleep, Upgraded – How Momentous Elite Sleep Works,” Momentous, 2021, available online at https://amphuman.com/blogs/news/elite-sleep.
5 - Sandoiu, Ana, “When’s the Best Time to Take a Warm Bath for Better Sleep?” MedicalNewsToday, 2019, available online at https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325818.