This is The Most Beneficial 20-Minute Activity for Athletes
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
We live in fast times, and for Time-Crunched Athletes every minute counts. I know you’re busy, constantly juggling more tasks and priorities than you can reasonably fit into a single day. And on top of the normal career and family priorities, you’re trying to fit high-quality training into your lifestyle. With that in mind, there’s one 20-minute activity that will improve your training, boost your productivity and creativity at work, and help you be a better version of yourself for your relationships at home.
Take a nap.
I’m serious, and there’s plenty of science to back me up. In the United States we have made being busy a badge of honor, and it’s destroying us. It’s not that we should shun hard work, but rather that we need to stop denigrating rest. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” you say. Fine, but that mentality will send you to the grave sooner than you expect.
The average American adult gets nearly 7 hours of sleep per night, which is about an hour less than in the 1950s. And for those who get even less sleep, there may be significant consequences. According to a study by Shanon Halson, sleeping fewer than 6 hours for four or more consecutive nights experience negative effects in cognitive performance, mood, glucose metabolism, regulation of appetite, and immune function. And while getting 8-10 hours restful sleep overnight would be ideal for athletes, short naps can be beneficial no matter how many hours you sleep at night.
What a nap does for you
We need to stop looking at short naps as either an indulgence or a sign of laziness, because they deliver measurable improvements in sport and career performance. These include:
- Improved skill acquisition: According to a study by Nishida et al., daytime naps after learning new skills improves motor memory consolidation, which is the time-dependent process of retaining the skill you just learned.
- Improved patience and focus: Following a post-lunch nap, subjects in a 2015 study by Goldschmied et al. were assigned to solve problems. The nappers stayed focused on the task longer than non-nappers, who grew frustrated and quit earlier.
- Improved reaction time: A 2005 study involving airline pilots showed a 16% improvement in pilots’ reaction times when they were allowed to nap during long haul flights. (Rosekind et al., 1995)
- Improved sport-specific performance: One study that directly examined the effect of utilizing naps to increase total sleep time found that Stanford University basketball players experienced 9% improvements in both free-throw and 3-point percentage, as well as improved speed in full-court sprints. (Mah et al., 2011)
Why 20-Minute Power Naps?
If a 20-minute nap is good, wouldn’t 30 or 40 or 60 be even better? Actually, no. The reason sleep experts recommend keeping daytime naps to about 20 minutes is because longer naps send you into deeper sleep states that are harder to wake up from and often leave people feeling drowsy even after waking. This is referred to as sleep inertia. A study by Brooks et al. compared the effects of 5-, 10-, 20-, and 30-minute naps. Five minutes wasn’t long enough, a 10-minute nap resulted in immediate improvements in alertness and cognitive performance, and a 20-minute nap resulted in similar improvements, but with a slight post-nap delay. In contrast, a 30-minute resulted in significant sleep inertia and reduced alertness and cognitive performance for nearly an hour post nap before experiencing a benefit later. In other words, you want to get to a light sleep state over 10-20 minutes, not all the way into deep sleep in 30.
A Nap After a Poor Night’s Sleep
Pulled a late night at the office, caught the red-eye to get home from a business trip, spent the night caring for a sick child? There are a lot of reasons you might get less sleep than you want on a particular night. If you are mildly sleep deprived (one night of 4-5 hours of sleep), a daytime nap can have an even more positive effect on your cognitive and athletic performance. A study by Waterhouse et al. showed a mid-day nap improved sprint performance for athletes who were restricted to 4 hours of sleep the prior night. A review study by Postolache et al. also suggested afternoon naps are beneficial for morning people who wake up and work out early in the morning.
Best of all worlds: The Caffeine Nap
I’m one of those “dawn patrol” athletes who goes out to ride or hike very early in the morning, and now that I’m in my mid-50s I find an afternoon nap to make the rest of my day and evening far more productive. I always tell athletes at cycling camps to take advantage of the opportunity of being away from home and work to establish a pattern of taking a short afternoon or post-workout nap. And when I have trouble getting to sleep at night due to travel or stress, I use RĒKÜVR from GQ-6, which has melatonin and mixture of amino acids to help calm your mind and reduce sleep latency (time to get to sleep).
To make a nap even better, try a Caffeine Nap. Sounds like an oxymoron, but because the alertness from caffeine takes about 30 minutes to kick in, you can have an espresso or a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea, then lay down for 20 minutes. When you wake up you benefit from the combined alertness from the nap and the caffeine!
Brooks, Amber, and Leon Lack. “A Brief Afternoon Nap Following Nocturnal Sleep Restriction: Which Nap Duration Is Most Recuperative?” Sleep, vol. 29, no. 6, 2006, pp. 831–840., doi:10.1093/sleep/29.6.831.
Goldschmied, Jennifer R., et al. “Napping to Modulate Frustration and Impulsivity: A Pilot Study.” Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 86, 2015, pp. 164–167., doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.06.013.
Halson, Shona L. “Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep.” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z.) 44.Suppl 1 (2014): 13–23. PMC. Web. 2 Mar. 2018.
Mah, Cheri D., et al. “The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players.” Sleep, vol. 34, no. 7, 2011, pp. 943–950., doi:10.5665/sleep.1132.
Nishida, Masaki, and Matthew P. Walker. “Daytime Naps, Motor Memory Consolidation and Regionally Specific Sleep Spindles.” PLoS ONE, vol. 2, no. 4, 2007, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000341.
Postolache, Teodor T., and Dan A. Oren. “Circadian Phase Shifting, Alerting, and Antidepressant Effects of Bright Light Treatment.” Clinics in Sports Medicine, vol. 24, no. 2, 2005, pp. 381–413., doi:10.1016/j.csm.2004.12.005.
Rosekind, Mark R., et al. “Alertness Management: Strategic Naps in Operational Settings.”Journal of Sleep Research, vol. 4, 1995, pp. 62–66., doi:10.1111/j.1365-2869.1995.tb00229.x.
Waterhouse, J., et al. “The Role of a Short Post-Lunch Nap in Improving Cognitive, Motor, and Sprint Performance in Participants with Partial Sleep Deprivation.” Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 25, no. 14, 2007, pp. 1557–1566., doi:10.1080/02640410701244983.
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Great read, thank you.
Several years ago I read “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker. It changed my perception and habits related to sleep and I highly recommend it.
At first, when I saw that the watch indicates 4:20, I was prepared for a different type of article, but the nap information was good too (!)
I can’t believe how few people know about the powers of sleep. I have had a personal motto for years about napping. “If in doubt, get horizontal.” I have physical and neuro sleep apnea, so naps are particularly important to me. Daily meditation is also huge for me.
Chris, great read!
Worked great this afternoon. When I was working full time I’d get the afternoon sleepy feeling, put my head down for about 5 min and usually fell asleep…..then woke up feeling a new sense of energy. It works. Thanks for the reminder!
Isn’t the gold standard 26min (NASA Study)?
Drink some caffeine before hand, set an alarm and I pop right up when it’s over. Every time. I wish my office had nap rooms… I’d get so much more done if they did 😀
Agree with Fred. The best analysis and consequences of sleep deprivation both neurologically and physiologically is Matthew Walkers book. Careful with naps: they are not substitutes for regular eight hours of sleep.
Chris, great advice. I assume you set an alarm, right? Do you set it for 20 minutes or do you allow 5 or 10 min to fall asleep?
There is so much truth here – if you really want to delve into the benefits of sleep and why getting 8 hours a night is so critical to your health, your brain and longevity please read “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker – phenomenal book on the topic.
now tell me a good way to wake up after 20 minutes. 🙂 (the caffeine thing doesn’t work for me).
Ha! What a great bit of advice Chris. Since I retired at 60, I have had the luxury of not only indulging all the activities I enjoy when I want, but have learned the pleasure and reward of an afternoon power nap. Generally, I’ll fall asleep quickly and find myself awake again in about 20 to 30 minutes….failing my own system waking me, my Apple Watch will wake me with with a haptic reminder that it is “time to stand”…. Like you, I’ve always been an up and out on my bike or whatever by 5 A.M. kind of guy – the nap helps me be alert and productive well into the evening. While a “need” to nap brought on by drowsiness throughout the day may signal a health issue, “choosing” to nap can be as restorative as a full night’s sleep.