The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults age 18-64. Unfortunately, most of us don’t get this much sleep. This is also true for athletes. For example, elite athletes in a recent study only obtained an average of 6.8 hours of sleep per night. In another study of elite athletes, their total time in bed was 8.6 hours, but their sleep quality was poor with a total time asleep of only 6.9 hours. With travel to events or, simply, pre-race jitters, many athletes experience serious disruptions to their already-inadequate sleep schedules. These disruptions can affect athletic performance. The good news, however, is that there is a small study which has shown that sleep-deprived athletes perform better after short naps.
This study involved 10 healthy males with mean age 23.3 years who either napped or sat quietly from 1 PM to 1:30 PM after a night of shortened sleep (they slept from 11 PM to 3 AM). Thirty minutes after the nap or quiet sitting, a number of parameters were measured, including alertness, short-term memory, intra-aural temperature, heart rate, choice reaction time, grip strength, and times for 2 meter and 20 meter sprints. The participants who took afternoon naps had lowered heart rate, lowered intra-aural temperature, and improvements in alertness, sleepiness, short-term memory, and accuracy at the choice reaction time test. Mean reaction times and grip strength were unaffected. Interestingly, sprint times were also significantly improved, with mean time for 2 meter sprints falling from 1.060 seconds to 1.019 seconds and mean time for 20 meter sprints falling from 3.971 seconds to 3.878 seconds. Please note, again, that these numerous improvements were after only a 30 minute nap.
The practical implications of these findings vary with an athlete’s individual situation. For example, a triathlete with a 7 AM race-start is hardly going to have an opportunity for a nap. However, a triathlete in a large multi-wave event (like the Transamerica Chicago Triathlon or USAT Nationals) can go back to his or her hotel room after setting up transition and take a short nap. Athletes in events played later in the day, which includes most professional team sports, can also practically include naps in their schedules. These scheduled naps can be relatively brief, since this study demonstrated that naps of only 30 minutes can lead to enhancements in performance.
So, have a nice nap and come back and race or train better!
Published March 15, 2015
Lastella M, Roach GD, Halson SL, et al. Sleep/wake behaviours of elite athletes from individual and team sports. Eur J Sport Sci. 2015 Mar;15(2):94-100
Leeder J, Glaister M, Pizzoferro K, et al. Sleep duration and quality in elite athletes measures using wristwatch actigraphy. J Sports Sci. 2012;30(6):541-545.
Waterhouse J, Atkinson G, Edwards B, et al. The role of a short post-lunch nap in improving cognitive, motor, and sprint performance in participants with partial sleep deprivation. J Sports Sci. 2007 Dec;25(14):1557-1566.