Here’s how to score some midday shut-eye to reap the rewards of extra sleep, without the zombie-like side effects.
Naps are a lot like sprints: They’re short, yes. But they can also leave you feeling energized, refreshed, and on top of the world—or 10 times more exhausted than when you started, depending on how you do it.
When done right, there are performance benefits to napping: “Sleep affects your speed, power, mood, and perception of pain, all of which are incredibly important during a run,” says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., author of The Sleep Solution. “For optimal recovery, you should be sleeping at least an extra hour when you’re training for a marathon, compared to your off-season.” (The National Sleep Foundation suggests sleeping seven to nine hours a night as a baseline.)
Problem is, researchers say athletes often have low-quality sleep—yes, even though they’re probably tired as hell. A Journal of Sports Sciences study shows that one in four professional hockey players had trouble sleeping, and one in six used sleeping pills. A small Journal of Sports Sciences study shows that intense training compromised sleep quality in cyclists.
Of course, there could be a few reasons for this, like evening workouts, crazy training schedules, and general stress. “Some people put so much pressure on themselves to sleep well at night that it backfires, and they lie in bed stressed,” Winter says. “I suspect many athletes need more sleep than they’re able to get at night.”
But napping can backfire, too, leaving you feeling groggy in the afternoon, alert at night, and frustrated with your energy levels. The trick is figuring out how long a nap should be, and then how to nap well. Keep these expert tips in mind before scoring some midday shut-eye to reap the rewards of extra sleep, without the zombie-like side effects.
Limit your nap to 30 minutes.
“It takes about 30 minutes to move into a deep sleep,” Winter says, and once you enter that deep-sleep mode, you might feel groggy when you wake up. “Keep it 30 minutes or less to freshen up.”
Nap earlier in the day if you can.
“Think of your nap as adding to last night’s sleep versus subtracting from the upcoming night’s sleep,” Winter says. That means napping earlier in the day, around 12:30 or 1 p.m., is much better than in the late-afternoon, when it could mean trouble falling asleep later. “Schedule your nap like you would anything else—your workout, your meals—so your body gets used to it.”
Don’t stress if you can’t fall asleep.
Winter says he sees patients who take sleeping pills at night, yet they never need them for naps. Why? Because there’s less pressure on napping than there is to fall asleep at night. “Naps feel like ‘bonus’ sleep, and sleep comes in a hurry when you’re not trying,” he says.
If you’re still struggling to fall asleep, consider approaching your nap as a period of restinstead of a period of sleep. “Move away from thinking that falling asleep is the goal, and if you don’t sleep, you failed and wasted 30 minutes of your time,” Winter says. You didn’t fail. You rested. “And it’s hard to fail at resting.”