A Sleep Strategy for DX Contesting
This article originally appeared in the National Contest Journal.
Why am I here? Listen to all these signals. Who are they? Wonder what
they are doing? All this CW sure sounds nice. What should I do with this
keyer paddle? Should I push this button? I can turn this big knob but what
does it mean? Why am I here? There must be some reason, if only I could
It is the 1981 CQ WW CW Contest and my first real attempt at single op
DX contesting from the station of N5AU. Sunrise on Sunday morning is only
minutes away. I remember waking up, sitting in front of the radio, and
experiencing a disorienting state of confusion and wonder. Later, I learn
from N5AU's mother that I sat there for over 15 minutes without moving.
Finally, slowly, I was able to understand what I was doing and why. The
"sleep drunkenness" abated and I returned to the rhythm of the
There have been many articles that describe contest strategy and
station design, but there is little about the mental and physiological
aspects of the sport. Yet we have all known of, or experienced, contest
efforts that were cut short by an operator who could not wake up on Sunday
morning. This article will present a strategy I use to get through DX
contests with the minimum amount of sleep (and maximum score).
I have no medical experience or training. The ideas presented here are
based on techniques learned in conversations with many successful
contesters including N6TJ, N6AA, K5MM, and others. I was also greatly
influenced by an article which appeared in the November, 1988 issue of
NCJ(1) by Scott Johnson, KC1JI. Johnson was a Physician and sleep
researcher at Harvard Medical School. As NCJ editor at the time, I was
fortunate to have had the opportunity to talk with him and gain some
additional understanding of sleep and its effects.
There is no magical or perfect technique for controlling the effects of
sleep deprivation during a contest. Probably the most important aid is
simply the knowledge of what sleep deprivation feels like. The more you
understand the effects and how they influence your own mental and physical
attitude, the better equipped you are to compensate for them.
There are a few basic aspects of sleep that are useful to know.
Researchers have found that sleep is structured into approximately
90-minute cycles. A typical night's sleep typically has 4 to 6 cycles.
Each cycle begins with light sleep, progresses into deep (or delta) sleep,
and ends with dream or rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The first sleep
cycle has a predominance of delta sleep with a short period of REM sleep
tacked on to the end. With each cycle, delta sleep diminishes and REM
sleep occupies more of the 90-minute cycle. By the fifth cycle, sleep is
almost totally REM.
Since REM sleep is associated with being closest to wakefulness, it
seems logical that it will be easiest to wake up during this time. Since
the first sleep cycle ends with a short period of REM, you want to try to
time your contest naps to match the 90-minute cycle.
The body temperature falls during sleep and typically reaches its
lowest point approximately 1.5 hours before the usual waking time in the
morning. This minimum in body temperature coincides with the time of
minimal alertness, if you happen to be awake. Lower body temperature is
the reason that waking up just before sunrise during a contest often
includes a period of chills and uncontrollable shivering. As you become
more awake, your body warms up, and the feeling of cold goes away.
Recently, I read a military training manual that presented some
information on sleep and its effects. It presented several interesting
Before the Contest
Contesting is hard work that places both physical and mental stress on
the body. You can practice the mental skills of contesting by operating in
lots of contests. As for the physical aspect, I divide my preparation into
two parts: fitness and sleep.
Do your family or co-workers laugh when you tell them contesting is a
physically demanding activity? It takes a lot of energy to sit up
straight, talk or send CW, concentrate on listening, type on the keyboard,
and reach all of the switches and knobs found in your station. Dick
Norton, N6AA, uses a very good example which may make it easier to
understand. A 48-hour contest is the equivalent of six 8-hour workdays.
Imagine sitting at your desk at work for just one work day with little or
no breaks and then multiply by six!
At one point in my career, I had a sales job that involved driving
about 4000 miles each month. I noticed that the longer I did this job, the
easier it was to sit up straight through a contest. My body developed the
muscles required for sitting up during the hours and hours of driving.
Several years ago I got a bicycle and began by just riding to the end
of the street and back. Each day I would go a little farther until finally
I was up to 5, then 10, then 15 miles each day. It was fun. When Fall came
and there was not enough light to go for long rides after work, I tried
running. The aerobic workout of the bike made running easy. Once again, I
started just going down the street and back, then increasing the distance
When the contests came, I noticed an incredible benefit of the
exercise. It was as though the physical demands of the contest had
disappeared! I was able to stay awake more easily and my muscles were not
as tired during the contest. Without the physical drag, I was able to
focus all of my energy to battling the mental fatigue. One result was a
48-hour effort (no sleep) from K3TUP for a win and new USA record in the
CQ WW CW. In retrospect, any 3 hours of sleep would have cost me the
record and possibly the contest. Another benefit of the exercise was 25
pounds of lost weight!
When my travel schedule made it impossible to maintain this exercise
regimen, the weight came back and I noticed how much more difficult it was
to get through the contests. You spend hours developing your station and
operating skills. Can you ignore physical fitness as a component of a
winning contest effort? For best results, you should begin your physical
preparations a minimum of 12 weeks prior to the contest.
The sleep preparation for a contest begins five to seven days before
the contest. The goal is to be as well rested as possible going into the
event. I try to get as much sleep as I can each night during the week.
While sleep can not be "stored," the benefits of starting well
rested are obvious.
The night before the contest I go to sleep as early as possible. I have
learned that excitement, anticipation and nervousness will have me awake
at dawn. Some people even take a sleeping pill Thursday evening to insure
a sold night's sleep. Not knowing if there are residual effects of these
pills, I have avoided this.
One questionable technique many people try is to stay up late on
Thursday evening in the hope of sleeping late on Friday morning. This
sounds like a good plan but there are several things at work against it.
The body's natural rhythms, referred to as circadian rhythms, modulate the
physiologic functions such as sleep, hunger, etc. If you normally wake up
at 7 AM, there is a good chance that you will wake up at 7 AM the morning
of the contest. If you stayed up late, you are just reducing the amount of
sleep you are likely to get. Nerves and anticipation will increase the
chance of waking early and not being able to fall back asleep.
I usually go to work on Friday morning. This keeps the mind busy (and
off the contest). I try to get to the station in the early afternoon. I
turn everything on, make sure it's all working, and then head off to bed
for a nap. A 1.5 or 3 hour nap prior to the contest is crucial in making
it through the first 24 hours without sleep. You may find it difficult to
sleep with the contest only hours away, but it has to be attempted. I
often practice relaxation techniques to help fall asleep. If I wake up
early, I repeat the process. I want to wake up about an hour before the
The last bit of preparation before the contest is a meal. I try to keep
it light and not drink too much liquid. The goal is to have enough fuel to
make it through European sunrise (0900z) without having to get out of the
The First 24 Hours
For me, the first 2 or 3 hours of the contest are some of the most
difficult. The nerves are on edge, adrenaline is flowing, and the body
must adjust to the demands of operating. It is even harder when no one
answers your CQ and all that energy must be channeled into a search &
I have two simple goals for the first 24 hours of the contest: operate
as much as possible and maximize the score. For most contests, I am out of
the chair no more than three times for a total of less than 15 minutes in
the first 24 hours. I do not even consider sleeping. By pushing so hard
the first night and covering all the bands, I usually have a good
multiplier and understanding of the available propagation. This will be
important when planning the sleep strategy during the second night.
If you do need to sleep the first night, the best time (from the
Eastern USA) seems to be the hours between European sunrise and local
sunrise. The 09 - 11Z hours are often very low rate multiplier chasing.
You can sleep for 90 minutes at a cost of approximately 30 contacts and 10
If you can arrange your shack so that you can see the sun rise through
a window, this can be a great lift. There is something about seeing the
sun come up that energizes the body and improves alertness (remember those
circadian rhythms). It also keeps you in tune with when you should make
the last low band sweep for multipliers before moving to the higher bands.
I also use the full 24 hour first day effort as a form of motivation.
We began noticing at the K5RC multi-single efforts that we could predict
our final score based on the 24 hour score. My formula is to double my 24
hour score and add 10 percent. For example, if I have 1.8 Million points
after 24 hours, I estimate my final score to be 3.6 plus 10%, which is
just under 4.0 Million. My focus for the remainder of the contest is to
make that formula come true!
Much of contesting is a series of mental games. Each one designed to
give a short term target that maintains focus on increasing the score.
Trying to maximize my 24 hour score provides a big boost for me during
late Saturday afternoon when the first signs of tiredness begin.
The Second 24 Hours
I am convinced almost anyone can get through 24 hours of contesting
just on their love of the game. But the second day requires a solid
commitment, desire, and preparation. The fact that contesting is a
solitary pursuit both helps and hinders the participants. It helps because
the scores of other participants are not known, which makes it easy to
justify continuing. The enemy is fatigue which will cause doubts and
questions on whether it is even worth continuing! Or, as Vince Lombardi
once said, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all."
The top competitors have committed themselves to the contest. They know
they must go on no matter what. It's not easy, but this little fact will
help them ride through all but the worst problems. Everyone feels the same
pain and effects of sleep deprivation. It's really a question of how bad
you want to win.
I notice that my commitment to a contest often starts many weeks before
the contest. As the contest approaches, I become more focused and more
committed to doing a full effort. The build up and motivation gained over
the weeks makes it almost impossible to give up or stop.
Maybe it is just a mental let down, but it always seems as if the
propagation and activity take a dive immediately after 0000z. Rates are
slow because many Europeans have gone to bed and the South Americans have
all been worked before. By 01 or 02z, it is becoming a battle to stay
Stu Santleman, KC1F, recommends that this is an excellent time to catch
some sleep. "Sleep when the Europeans sleep," he suggests. I
disagree with this since it is also the last opportunity to catch many
Europeans on 160 and 80 meters. However, I do feel it is a good chance to
take some time to recharge your batteries. I usually take 30 to 45 minutes
during the 01 or 02z hours to take a shower and eat dinner. The shower
wakes me up enough to get through the crucial hours of European sunrise. I
eat sitting at the radio tuning for multipliers.
After European sunrise, about 0900z, the contest really slows down.
Attention is split between random CQing and tuning for new multipliers.
Here is where commitment will be really tested!
I base my sleep strategy on the activity and propagation that was
available during the first night. I know what multipliers I am missing on
the low bands and can decide if sleep is more important than taking the
chance of finding them.
Once the decision to sleep is made, it is important to get right to
bed. Don't waste time trying to think about the contest. When you lay
down, clear the mind and fall asleep as quickly as possible. Set the alarm
for either 90 or 180 minutes later to take advantage of the natural sleep
cycle. If you try to wake up from deep sleep, a form of disorientation I
call sleep drunkenness may result. Worse than the hallucinations and
disorientation is the real possibility that you will go back to sleep
without ever waking completely up. This has happened to me twice. One time
I even had a conversation with a local multi-op on two meters (so they
said, I can't remember it at all) and woke up four hours later in another
room of the house. This fear of not waking up is usually the real reason I
try to stay awake and keep going!
When you wake up, you will probably feel very cold. Be prepared for
this by having something warm to drink available and a sweatshirt or
sweater you can pull on. Take a few minutes to get fully awake and eat
something. Once you sit down at the rig, you must plan to be there until
the end of the contest (with only short breaks). As soon as the sun comes
up or you pass your normal wake up time, it is easy to stay awake. The
battle is in the minutes or hours before dawn.
The last 12 to 13 hours of the contest coincides with my normal rhythm
for being awake. The only difficulty is fighting the effects of sleep
deprivation. These are not usually obvious at the time. However, there is
an easy way to see just what the loss in mental sharpness is. During the
next DX contest, tape record a run during the first morning. Then tape
record a similar time the second morning. After the contest, play the two
tapes back to back. You won't believe how much your call sign recognition
and ability to get calls on the first try is degraded! Unfortunately,
there is not much you can do except recognize the problem and work through
There are a number of other techniques that you may wish to use as part
of your sleep strategy. One suggested by W2SC is to try taking very short
10 minute naps when you feel sleepy. This appears to offer some rest yet
does not allow you to fall so far asleep that you can not wake up easily.
Notice that I did not mention the use of caffeine in my strategy. I am
not a coffee drinker so I can't speculate on its effects. As I get older I
am finding it much more difficult to fight through the need for sleep. As
a result, I have occasionally taken a caffeine pill (such as No-Doze) to
help stay awake. I take 100 mg of caffeine at the lowest point of each
night. Caffeine can upset your stomach so it is a good idea to eat
something at the same time.
I have had some success with combining caffeine with the short nap
technique. I take the caffeine and then sleep for 10 minutes. The effect
of the caffeine and the nap seem to compliment each other as a way of
getting some rest and yet waking up with a clear head.
I think it goes without saying that drugs and alcohol should not be
used during the contest. Alcohol is a depressant and will cause you to
fall asleep (not to mention interfering with the mental energy you need to
One area of contest physiology that I have not studied is the effects
of diet. I find that I eat and drink very little during the course of the
contest. Working stations is like potato chips for me -- I can't stop!
Several times during the contest I will suddenly realize I am starving,
and yet I keep wanting to work just one more station before taking a
break. And one more. And another!
Not drinking very much has the benefit of reducing the number of trips
to the bathroom. However, this must be balanced against the danger of
dehydration. I have lost as much as 5 pounds during the course of one
contest! If you have discovered a successful contest diet, share it with
After the Contest
One thing I have always been amazed by is the adrenaline generated by
the excitement of the end of the contest. The pressure of the last two
hours is trying to push the score on the computer screen over the next
milestone. Should I call CQ or tune? Or a combination of both. When it's
over, I am tired and almost incoherent (just listen to the single ops on
3830 for proof). Afterwards, I can't fall asleep for several hours. If
only we could bottle that feeling!
Expect any contest effort of more than 44 hours to require several days
of recovery. I usually sleep for 12 to 15 hours after the contest. And I
still feel sleepy until about Wednesday!
I hope the ideas presented here are of help to you in your next serious
DX contest effort. As long as DX contests are 48 hours, the serious single
operator entrants must deal with the effects of sleep deprivation. Good
preparation, serious commitment, and a well-tuned sleep strategy may be
just the edge you need to beat your competition.
(1) "Sleep - A Contest Prescription," T. Scott Johnson,
KC1JI, National Contest Journal, November/December 1988.