by Sophia Pollalis ATC, LAT, CSCS
The prospect of a nap has always sounded great to me. Maybe not when I was a small child, but my parents could tell you more about that than me. I took naps after soccer practice before dinner. I took naps between classes in college (and consequently missed a few). I take naps on the couch with my dogs before I go to work. Napping can be very beneficial to both your sleep schedule and your productivity. Our busy schedules often don’t allow for them, especially if you’re at work when you need one the most. In many areas, such as South America and the Mediterranean, siestas are a normal part of life and are expected during the afternoon.
I have started a course on sleep and recovery as part of my quarantine education. In my readings, I have come across the topic of naps. We are nap masters in my house, and I wanted to share some of the benefits to napping as well as best timing techniques. What does a successful nap look like? At the right time of day for the right amount of time, you will wake feeling refreshed, recharged, and ready to perform. You can probably think of a few naps that fit into this category. I can also think of a few naps that have resulted in feeling groggy and even more run down than before my head hit my desk.
Time of Day
Our circadian rhythms, or internal biological clocks, create a continuous sine wave dictating when we should sleep and when we should be awake. This varies slightly based on whether you’re more comfortable waking up at 5 am or 7 am. This is called a chronotype. Yes, this is a thing and I was relieved to find out that it’s totally normal for me to not be bright eyed and bushy tailed before the sun comes up. You can take a quiz to find out what your chronotype is at www.thepowerofwhen.com. I am personally a bear. In the early afternoon, our bodies experience a small drop in core body temperature, which releases melatonin, a sleep hormone. Our bodies want to shut all its systems down for a quick battery charge. That meeting after lunch you’re dreading because you always nod off? It’s right in that timeline. It’s not your fault that you’re super tired, your body wants and needs a few minutes to collect itself. Studies have shown that taking a brief nap in the afternoon can help the brain function just as well as it does in the morning. Timing also has to do with when you woke up. The ideal time to nap is at least 7 hours after being awake. So, if you woke up at 6am, you shouldn’t take a nap before 1pm. You should also avoid taking naps within 4 hours of going to bed. If you can’t nap between 1 and 3, don’t fret. You could also sneak a nap in when you get home from work between 5 and 7. I had been known to take a snooze or two in that time frame when I was working more traditional hours.
Length of nap
We’ve all heard of and probably taken a power nap. Exactly how long is a power nap? A study looked at the effects of 5, 10, 20, and 30 minute naps in terms of performance gains. They found that a 5 minute nap might as well not have been taken, a 10 minute nap provides immediate, long lasting, and the most performance improvement, and 20 to 30 minute naps take longer for the benefits to appear and they don’t last as long as the 10 minute nap. These differences are assumed to be caused by the type of brain waves you experience during each of these time periods. In 10 minutes you experience restorative waves, while any longer you are getting further into the sleep cycle which makes it harder to wake up. Any college student that has pulled an all nighter can tell you firsthand that those 10 minute naps are key to making it happen. And yes, I’m speaking from LOTS of experience.
Alternatively, you can also sleep for a full cycle, which is approximately 90 minutes. This allows your brain to go through the full cycle. It will be relatively easy to wake up from with minimal grogginess. This length of time is great for an alternative title to nap: Controlled recovery period. Athletes often use this time period for restorative rest after a hard workout. I also think telling your coworkers you went home and had an awesome controlled recovery period sounds way cooler than “I took a nap.”
I also learned some fun facts about naps. In the 60’s and 70’s, people would take what they called a “disco” nap, where they would prepare for a night of dancing by taking a 90 minute nap later in the evening before they got ready to go out. While I never went to any discos, I have frequently taken a 90 min nap before a late night. Even recently when I worked a few midnight shifts, I would sleep for at least 90 min before I would get ready for work. I also learned a quick tidbit about napping and caffeine. This is a trick I used fairly frequently in grad school, but now I’ve read the research. Caffeine takes about 20 minutes to get into your system. So, if you take caffeine supplements or drink a coffee very quickly before taking a nap, by the time you wake up from your power nap it will be ready for your use.
I’ll be writing more articles about sleep in the coming months, but if you want to learn more about sleep on your own, check out The Power of When by Michael Breus. It’s about timing the things you do every day for best results. Finally, if you haven’t seen the YouTube video of the toddler that hasn’t taken a nap and is super cranky then her brother tells her she needs a nap, you should go search for it after you finish reading this article. You will relate to it, I promise.