Dr. Charles Czeisler, Director of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and “Sleep Coach” to the Boston Celtics, says that daytime power napping is an extremely important tool to help athletes improve performance and recover from sleep debt and has research to support his opinion. First, there is a study from John Moores University in London in which subjects who took a 30-minute power nap after lunch lowered their resting heart rate, reduced body temperature and improved alertness, short-term memory, accuracy and speed in a 20-meter sprint. There’s also a NASA study in which scientists found that 24-minute power naps significantly improved a pilot’s alertness and performance on trans-Atlantic flights. And there is research from Cornell University that shows that short power naps help you feel more energized because your brain is more active when you nap than when you don’t.
How long should you nap? The optimal power nap time is between 15 and 30 minutes. Shorter naps don’t work and longer naps will put you in deep sleep which will cause you to wake up groggy and can interfere with your sleep later that night.
When should you nap? The best time to power nap is between 1:00 and 3:00 pm when your energy level dips due to a rise in the hormone melatonin (hormone that helps regulate your sleep and wake cycles) at that time of day. Later afternoon naps can cause a shift in your biological clock, making it harder to fall asleep at night and get up the next morning.
Caffeine Power Naps. Research suggests that you can get maximum benefits by consuming caffeine (cup of coffee, tea or soft drink) about 2-3 minutes before you start your power nap. Why? Since it takes about 20-30 minutes for the body to fully absorb caffeine, it will kick in about the time you wake up from your nap. And, since caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that increases alertness, the combination of the kick you get from caffeine and the refreshed feeling produced by the nap can give you and extra boost of extra energy when you wake up.
Different Naps for Different Circumstances. There are two types of naps that are recommended for baseball and each is appropriate for different circumstances. “Replacement Naps” are longer, about 90 minutes, and are used when you need to repay a sleep debt. Use them on off days to repay sleep lost when traveling after a night game. “Power Naps” are shorter and used to improve alertness and performance. Keep them short, about 15 to 30 minutes. Set your alarm clock before power naps to ensure that you wake up feeling refreshed and energized as opposed to waking up in in a “zombie” state.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers and Professor in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.