Power nap: when being lazy and sleeping a bit can actually benefit your sports performance

  • A proper power nap should last between 20 and 30 minutes, before our body enters the phase of deep sleep, and it must be timed to allow for a subsequent awakening page
  • Power napping and sports performance do have a positive correlation, as it has been scientifically proven that a power nap before a sports training session improves cognitive performance, as well as subjective alertness and fatigue
  • Moreover, a power nap in PSD conditions helps to restore physical and mental freshness, getting close to the levels of performance one would get with a full night sleep, and boosts morale for the rest of the day

Always nap when you can. It’s cheap medicine Lord Byron

When we feel tired halfway through the day, there are basically two things we can really do. The first one, kind of a no-brainer, is to find a method to stay awake using some sort of stimulant, like caffeine, tea or power music that makes our eardrums boom. The other option is to lean on our tiredness, and take a quick and refreshing power nap.

There is something amazing about this word: power nap. This short snooze takes us back to a time when we used to sleep more frequently in the day for shorter periods of time, a primordial circadian routine – which still naturally occurs in babies, whose removal from our lives still affects us all.

If the children can sleep often, why can't we?
This is hardly surprising, given that, according to the US National Sleep Foundation, more than 85% of mammalian species are polyphasic sleepers, i.e. they sleep often throughout the day.

Furthermore, with the increase of our daily schedule’s complexity, it is becoming harder and harder even to engage in a full night of sleep, a pattern that is consistently leading us towards Partial Sleep Deprivation (or PSD in short). This self-inflicted unhealthy behaviour is particularly felt in sports, where physical and cognitive performances are of the essence.

Therefore, the power nap seems to be the cure-it-all for our sleep problems. However, what does power nap mean and when is the most effective time of the day to do it?

How to power nap

A power nap is commonly regarded as a short sleep that terminates before the deep sleep phase. The recommended length of a power nap is between 20 and 30 minutes, while the best time of the day to power nap is around lunchbreak, right in the middle of the day.

In fact, napping at a later time would mean a lack of efficiency in our nocturnal sleep, since our body is not prepared to take another sleep session so soon, whereas an earlier power nap would not be efficient in terms of energy recovery.

Sleeping in the workplace should not be a corporate scourge, but accepted and encouraged
Another key point is the timing between napping and working or napping and doing sports activity. A 2007 experiment by Waterhouse et al. demonstrated that a 30 minutes nap had to be followed by a subsequent waking up phase, whereas immediate activity after a power nap would result in a sub maximal performance, given that the body is still in a state of sleep inertia.

The benefits of power napping in sports

Having said that, what are the actual benefits of a power nap, especially in the sports environment? A study published by the American College of Sports Medicine highlighted the potential physical and cognitive benefits activated by a power nap.
The benefits of a nap on the sport are many and surprising
The experiment followed a group of Karate athletes, who alternatively undertook various combinations of sleeping regimens:

  • Regular sleep with and without power nap
  • Partial sleep deprivation with and without power nap

Every athlete did the same amount of daily physical exercise and ate following the same diet. In addition, napping time was regulated, with 30 a minutes snooze from 1.00 to 1.30 PM, followed by a waking phase of 30 minutes.

Sport, if combined with a lot of rest, boosts good humour
Once the experiment was over, athletes taking a power nap in the middle of the day could notice the following benefits:

Improves cognitive performance

Athletes who did a power nap saw their reaction times statistically improved in every cognitive test they performed. Moreover, the results showed that night sleep deprivation, compared to regular night sleep, decreased the levels of cognitive performance, leading to the conclusion that sports performance at a cognitive level is improved with a power nap and that lack of sleep is a direct cause of its detriment.

Improves alertness and fatigue thresholds

There is more refreshment and stimulation in a nap, even of the briefest, than in all the alcohol ever distilled Ovid

Similar results have also been observed with respect to subjective alertness and fatigue. Power napping athletes heightened their level of subjective alertness and decreased their levels of fatigue, thus being warier as they practised physical activity and feeling less fatigued. Likewise, lack of sleep had an opposite effect to this side of sports performance, making the athlete more distracted and tired.

Restores physical performance from PSD levels

PSD (partial sleep deprivation): reduction of the total sleep duration for more or less long periods of time
Another very interesting result coming from this experiment was that the loss of sports performance recorded under PSD conditions, were partially restored when taking a power nap. This case applies to cognitive performance, subjective alertness and fatigue, whilst there is no specific increase or decrease in actual physical performance.
Sleeping before a race helps you feel less fatigued and more lucid
That said, taking a nap and then waiting a short amount of time during the awakening phase nullifies the effect of sleep inertia, meaning that, performance-wise, a power nap before sports has no downside effects.

Boosts morale

Lastly, and arguably more important for your mind, taking a power nap, even for as little as 20 to 30 minutes, can have an incredible impact on morale. A quick snooze can be a pleasant mini-holiday, something that refreshes and rejuvenates your mind. There is a scientific explanation for it: being stressed, anxious or irritable blocks our production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates our mood, sleep and appetite.
A nap to combat anxiety
Therefore, by taking a quick drowse, we kick-start the production of serotonin, thereby rebooting our mood, however bad it was at the beginning of our sleep.

Besides, let’s be honest, don’t you think you would way more efficient in any kind of sports training with a rested mind and smile on your face?

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