That is the question — not to be answered via the noble pursuit of Google knowledge or sleep studies. Here we will be tackling this age-old question from the trenches of rehabilitation and performance.
To better understand why we nap, we first need to understand why we sleep. Sleep is an active process that helps with everything from how long and healthy we live, to how intelligent and attractive we are.
Napping is a somewhere-around-midday strategy to potentially top up on some of the aforementioned benefits and a whole lot more.
But whether or not you need to nap is highly debated. Science, as is often the case, will point you in either direction.
The Comfort of Our Own Beds
We all know what it’s like to travel and miss the comforts of home. Imagine being a professional athlete, always on the road and constantly being in new cities. Compared to the comfort of our own beds and mattresses, hotels can often have terribly uncomfortable beds (as I’m sure many of you have also experienced!). They are a paradoxical combination of too hard and too soft at the same time.
Case study: An NHL player with long standing sleep issues was living at a hotel. Missing the comforts of home, we tossed the hotel bed and replaced it with one from those new mattress companies. We added a chill pad into the mix and he was ready to go. He also loved his pregame nap of 2.5 hours and the fact that the hotel staff would majestically deliver a warm cappuccino upon waking.
The problem? He couldn’t get to sleep at night. He found himself tossing and turning, going on his phone, and counting sheep for an average of two hours a night. This was regardless of whether it was a game day or a day off.
Adenosine is a naturally occurring organic compound found widely throughout nature. It is one of the main building blocks to DNA and RNA which is essential for all life. In the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), adenosine modulates neurological activity through the activation of specific receptors.
Adenosine is also highly somnogenic, meaning that it’s really good at making us feel sleepy. When we wake up in the morning, we begin the day with low levels of adenosine that progressively increases throughout the day.
Much like slowly filling a cup, adenosine accumulates in our central nervous system over a period of 12–16 hours eventually resulting in that wonderfully unconscious, evolutionarily conserved feeling of the need for sleep known as “sleep pressure.”
This can be a double-edged sword. There’s plenty of research indicating the benefits of napping to both your brain and body. But keep in mind that when you take an afternoon nap you begin dumping that cup of adenosine that you have been slowly filling throughout the day. This lowering of adenosine may also end up lowering the amount of sleepiness you are feeling when you need it most: at bedtime.
Back to the Rink
We didn’t want to change this player’s routine too much during the last third of the season, so we addressed a host of changes during the offseason. He was napping for way too long. We cut his nap from 150 minutes to 75 minutes. We also moved it 30 minutes earlier in the day. This accomplished a few things:
+ Less dumping of adenosine during the shorter nap period.
+ More accumulation of sleep pressure in the evening.
+ Less grogginess upon waking from afternoon nap.
+ Overall better sleep hygiene and performance.
Since most of us are not professional athletes, and for the sake of keeping things relatively simple, here is a simple go-to guide on napping:
+ NO NAP: If you find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, there is no napping.
+ YES NAP: For those lucky enough (not me) to regularly fall asleep and stay asleep without too much of an issue.
+ SLEEP PRESSURE: For those of us with trouble falling/staying asleep, focus on building “sleep pressure” throughout the evening. Decrease lighting, cool temperatures, don’t eat late, and disconnect from your phone and other technologies.
+ NAP TIME: This can be highly variable from person to person, but in general we advocate for naps of 45 minutes or less. We also try to move napping to relatively early in the afternoon to be able to build that adenosine back up.
+ CAFFEINE: Caffeine can literally block the receptor in your brain that adenosine needs to attach to. This can make it difficult to build that much needed sleep pressure you need to help get you down at night. As a general starting point, we move all caffeine sources to an 8 hour window before bed, but feel free to adjust up or down as necessary.
Trial & Error
It’s tough to find a cookie-cutter strategy that works best for you. When I closed my clinic in July of 2020, we had 26 patients with “sleep” issues and 19 different suggested sleep routines. It’s fine to immerse yourself in the latest research and read the latest and greatest sleep books, but keep in mind that the “science” is a basic snapshot of a brief period in time. Becoming what we call a SLEEP CHAMP takes a good deal of self observation and trial and error. What works for you may not work for someone else. Begrudgingly, sometimes what works for you one week doesn’t work the next, which can make finding the best strategies for you frustrating at times.
During the offseason with our hockey player, we attempted to remove napping altogether, but this had negative effects on his energy levels, performance, and he basically didn’t feel like himself. We then spent a month focused on building up sleep pressure. Once this had been achieved and he was able to fall asleep within approximately 10 minutes of getting into bed, we shifted the focus to cutting down his nap time. Different strokes for different folks.
We humans are the only species that deliberately deprive ourselves of sleep, therefore we have no evolutionary mechanisms to combat the growing sleeplessness we see in society today. Your body can store calories for times of need, but your body can’t store sleep! Stay the course, keep to basic principles, and you’ll soon find what works best for you.