By Becky Wade Firth
Whether it’s a stolen snooze in the middle of a workday or a long-awaited weekend doze, a good nap is hard to beat. When done right, it can be a perfect daytime interlude that refreshes the napper for a strong second act. Napping also seems to be a hardwired human behavior, as babies, elderly individuals, sick people, and shift workers show.
A lesser-known community that thrives on naps is endurance athletes, who tend to train early (and sometimes twice a day) and who consistently log big miles and big efforts. More activity requires more rest, so it’s logical that many long-distance runners, swimmers, cyclists, triathletes, and other such athletes supplement their nighttime sleep when possible.
Don’t Sleep on Sleep
The importance of getting sufficient sleep is clear. Well-rested individuals (those who sleep the recommended 7 hours at night) tend to get sick less often, maintain healthier weight, be at lower risk for serious health issues, and have less stress than those who sleep less. For athletes, the benefits go on: sleep facilitates the repair of cells and tissues (a.k.a. recovery), gives the heart a chance to rest, and even acts as a performance enhancer.
Some people—like runners logging monster mileage—have a hard time hitting their nightly sleep quotas. That’s where napping comes into play. Research suggests that naps can reduce fatigue, increase alertness, improve mood, and heighten performance. A short daytime snooze may also mitigate some consequences of a poor night of sleep, provided it isn’t so long that it interferes with the next night.
It makes sense, then, that many endurance athletes are die-hard nappers. American marathon icon Deena Kastor reportedly took two-hour naps during the height of her career (which is more than most people can handle, but then again, so was her mileage). Ryan Hall, the American record holder in the half marathon, famously referred to naps as “business meetings.” And there aren’t too many distance runners out there who don’t cherish the long run-brunch-nap trifecta.
Six Rules of Power Napping
The good news is that naps are not indulgences reserved for babies, retirees, and pro athletes. There are ways for almost anyone to sneak in a nap here and there, and reap all the benefits of those midday Z’s. The secret lies in well-executed power naps: short but potent midday sleeps. Here are six rules to get you napping like a champ:
1. Schedule It. The ideal napping window is between lunch and mid-afternoon (3:00 p.m. is a good cutoff). If you can capitalize on that post-lunch energy dip and position your nap roughly midway between the time you wake up and the time you’ll go to sleep, even better. Once you find a time that works—even if it’s, say, just on Tuesdays and Thursdays—make a habit out of it, and protect it as you would a training run or workout.
2. Find or Build a Restful Nook. Environment is everything when it comes to inserting a snooze in the middle of a day. Similar to the rush of adrenaline you get when you approach the starting line of a race, when naptime rolls around, you want to signal to your brain and body that it’s time to rest. Your surroundings can help you do that. As with nighttime sleeping, try to find somewhere dark, quiet, cool, comfortable, and free of distractions, and lie down or recline as best as you can. Keep an eye mask, a pair of earplugs, a blanket and small pillow, and maybe even a small sound machine on hand, so you’re ready to rest when the opportunity presents itself.
3. Set a Timer. Overdoing a power nap can leave you feeling groggy and lethargic, which would obviously be counterintuitive to the mission. Your napping sweet spot is about 20 minutes—the time it takes most people to transition from wakefulness to stage one sleep (whole-body relaxation and the feeling of drifting off) to stage two sleep (a light sleep in which your breathing and heartbeat slow down). If you go too long, you’ll approach the third stage, a deeper sleep that’s harder to come out of. Allow yourself to wind down a bit, and set a timer to control the duration.
4. Consider a Coffee Nap. As oxymoronic as “coffee nap” sounds, research shows that combining caffeine with a nap can actually work. It takes caffeine roughly 20 minutes to kick in, which is coincidentally about how long your power nap should last. By drinking a cup of coffee (or your caffeinated beverage of choice) just before lying down, you should feel the effects of the caffeine kicking in right when you wake up. Not only will you be refreshed from the siesta and buzzed from the coffee, but sleep appears to enhance the effects of coffee, making the one-two punch even stronger. If you train in the afternoon or evening, coffee naps might be your new secret weapon.
5. Prioritize Naps on Big Training Days. If you don’t have the luxury of daily napping but can afford 2 to 3 siestas a week, shoot for big training days, when your recovery needs are soaring. Whether that means Sunday afternoons following a morning long run, or a lunchtime power hour on workout days during the week, you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck by building in extra rest on the days your body really craves it. And don’t worry about not having a daily habit; one 5-year study suggests that taking just 1-2 weekly naps is linked to 48% lower chances of heart attack, stroke, or heart failure, compared with non-nappers.
6. If Nothing Else, Just Chill. Simply put, napping isn’t right for everyone. If you’ve given it an honest shot (knowing it may take a handful of tries before you get in the hang of it) and still can’t fall asleep, or if the idea of dozing off during the day stresses you out or keeps you up at night, there are plenty of other ways to give your mind and body a midday breather. Take a walk, and get some sunshine and fresh air while you’re at it. Recline your chair, kick up your feet, and close your eyes until your timer goes off. Journal, doodle, or do something else low-stress and relaxing like a puzzle. Pause your work to listen to calming music. Meditate, using an app if you find it helpful. Whatever your style, remember that resting and resetting is the goal, and you don’t have to fall asleep to achieve that.
Napping can be a healthy part of any schedule—especially for endurance athletes, who often have a hard time keeping up with rest that their training demands. The key is being strategic about when and how you build them in. If you can’t count on a daily siesta, aim for 1 to 2 naps a week, ideally in the early afternoon, in a calm environment, with a timer set for 30 minutes or less. Similar to miles, all of those doses will stack up, putting you in a good position to take your performance to the next level.