We’ve all been there—passed out on the couch after a long ride, drool dripping from the corner of the mouth. Few things are more satisfying than a nap after a long, hard workout. It’s easy to assume simple fatigue is the sole reason we conk out, but there’s much more at play, says Dr. Amy Bender, Clinical Program Director of Athlete Services at the Center for Sleep & Human Performance.
“Naps are the body’s way to facilitate physical recovery after a long or hard workout,” says Bender. “During sleep, different hormones are released such as testosterone and growth hormone which helps repair and build muscles and other tissues in the body.”
But this repair process doesn’t kick in the instant you close your eyes. To maximize the healing benefits of a midday snooze, the nap needs to be at least 45 minutes in duration. This allows the body to get into the deeper stages of sleep, where these types of hormones are released.
That’s not to say shorter naps are a waste of time—far from it. If you’ve got a big evening planned after a day of training, a brief 20-minute nap can help restore mental alertness, meaning you won’t doze off during date night with your spouse.
But crafting the perfect nap takes more than simply falling asleep. Bender’s tips for building a better nap:
Put it on Your Calendar.
Bender says naps should be scheduled in the day, just like workouts. This allows the athlete to set aside a block of time that is proper in both timing and duration:
“We recommend 20-minute naps on important training and competition days, and a 90-minute nap on days off or recovery from a long or hard workout,” says Bender. Shorter naps keep an athlete from waking up feeling groggy, which can hinder performance, while 90-minute naps tap into the body’s restorative property.
In cases where a pre-race nap isn’t a possibility (hello, 6 a.m. swim starts!), Bender says daily naps during taper is key. “Making sure the athlete has banked as much sleep as possible going into the event by napping every day prior will help with performance during the event.”
Timing is Everything.
The optimal time for a nap is between the hours of 1 and 4 p.m., says Bender. This coincides with our natural circadian dip in alertness in the afternoon, but it also isn’t too close to bedtime—a too-late nap may interfere with the ability to fall asleep.
As far as timing in relation to the workout, it depends on what you want out of the nap: Is it to benefit the quality of the workout or to recover from the workout? If so, aim for a short nap of 20 min about an hour before the workout is best. If your goal is to recover from the workout, a longer nap of 45-90 minutes will be best.
Set the Stage.
A perfect napping environment is key for catching Zs. Chose a dark and quiet room—if that’s hard to find midday, wear ear plugs and eye shades to simulate a silent sanctuary.
Lie in a recumbent position, and allow yourself to unwind. Bender suggests breathing techniques such as the 4-7-8 (breathe in for 4 seconds, hold breath for 7, breathe out for 8) to facilitate relaxation. A progressive muscle relaxation technique can also be utilized, as can a meditation app—many have specific episodes dedicated to falling asleep.
Still can’t find your way to Dreamland? Don’t stress! You’re still gaining benefits from simply being still. “We always tell our athletes not to worry about not falling asleep occasionally, because there are benefits to lying there quietly and reducing stress and arousal from the day,” says Bender.
Try a “Nappuccino.”
Downing a cuppa joe before your nap sounds counterintuitive, but it actually enhances the napping experience. “As long as the timing of the caffeine does not interfere with nighttime sleep, we recommend a small amount of caffeine from a green or black tea prior to the shorter naps,” says Bender. “Caffeine typically takes 15 minutes to be metabolized so by the time the person wakes up, they should be alert and ready to go by benefiting from the nap and the caffeine.”
Wake Up Right.
Oversleeping can lead to grogginess and difficulty falling asleep at night, so utilize an alarm to wake up at the end of your recommended duration. Bender generally recommends setting the alarm for 10 minutes beyond the desired nap length. If you wake up naturally before that alarm, great—if not, avoid hitting the snooze button! Instead, hit the light switch or open a window, ASAP—light exposure signals to your brain that it’s time to wake up.
Don’t Skimp on Nightly Sleep.
Bender’s recommendations for naptime are all made with the assumption that an athlete is getting adequate sleep at night. Though naps are great, they’re not a full replacement for a solid night’s sleep.