Napping and Sports Performance


"Sleep is the time when the body recovers from the stresses loaded upon it, and the repair of muscle and connective tissue begins. Naps are an excellent tool for athletes in training and on game day as well." - Dan McCarthy, High Performance Consultant at USA Swimming

Who doesn't love naps? But are they beneficial, and what are the recommendations. Before we go into details about naps, we have to discuss sleep as a whole.

Sleep is essential for athletes, both for preparing for and recovering from training and competition. Sleep extension and napping can be effective means of enhancing performance in athletes. Although the function of sleep is not fully understood, it is commonly affirmed that it serves to recover from the previous wake period and prepare for functioning in the subsequent wake period. An individual’s recent sleep history, therefore, has a marked impact on their daytime functioning and, thus, their performance. Restricting sleep to less than 6 hours per night for four or more consecutive nights has been shown to impair cognitive performance and mood, disturb glucose metabolism, and immune function. This type of evidence has led to the recommendation that adults should obtain 8 hours of sleep per night to prevent neurobehavioral deficits. HOWEVER, these studies were not made on elite athletes and did not consider the optimal sleep to recover from training and to maximize sports performance. A study on collegiate basketball players indicated that 10 hours of sleep improved their shoot accuracy and sprinting speed. The correct amount of sleep necessary for a full recovery and optimal performance is crucial for any athlete, but it is highly individual. Most studies conducted on sleep and sports performance suggest that many elite athletes’ performance benefits from sleeping more. And sleep extension through napping can be a great tool to increase the total sleep time and improve sports performance.

Naps can be the best thing ever, but waking up from a nap can sometimes be miserable; that is because of sleep inertia. The transition from sleep to waking is marked by sleep inertia. This distinct state is measurably different from wakefulness and is the feeling of grogginess after waking up because you’re still in a sleep state. Sleep inertia displays performance impairments and sleepiness. It usually lasts from around five to 30 minutes, but it can last for as long as two to four hours. During this time, you may feel like your concentration is impaired, and you don’t feel as alert. Therefore it is crucial not to sleep to close upon practice or competition since sleep inertia reduces performance.


Several studies on sleep extension through napping seem to show that napping actually aids in performance. A study in 2019 showed that a nap opportunity during the daytime was beneficial for physical performance and perceived exertion with the group that slept 45 min demonstrated the most effective for improving performance and reducing fatigue. The present study implies that athletes might benefit from a nap opportunity of 25, 35, or 45 min before practice or before a competition. However, a different study revealed that nap opportunities longer than 30 min increases the risk of sleep inertia. Therefore the recommended nap time is 20-30 minutes. A third study looked at specific measures related to basketball performance( such as decision making, reaction time, accuracy) indicated that optimal sleep with the help of sleep extension is likely beneficial in reaching peak athletic performance.

Summary:

  • The main practical takeaway from the studies is that athletes may benefit from a nap during the daytime before practice or competition.

  • Some points must be considered when allocating time for naps to occur in the training schedule:

  • Naps should occur early in the afternoon (~13:30-16:00) for future sleep to not be affected.

  • Naps should not be long (~20-30 min), so night sleep is not affected, as well as to avoid sleep inertia.

  • If napping is to be included in an athlete’s routine, practitioners need to ensure that athletes have the facilities to allow for this.


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