Most people are much more concerned with how they eat and train than how they sleep.
And this makes sense—sleep is banal and passive, whereas new training and diet techniques are flashy and fun.
That said, getting more high-quality sleep will have a more positive impact on your recovery, athletic performance, and ability to gain muscle and lose fat than just about any supplement, special diet, or training “hack.”
This is easier said than done, though, which is why napping has always been a popular workaround.
But is a daily siesta as beneficial as getting more shuteye at night?
That’s what you’ll learn in this article.
You’ll learn the research-backed benefits of taking naps on performance and how to use naps to get fitter faster.
How Sleep Improves Your Health and Fitness
Whether or not you realize it, sleep has a profound impact on your mental and physical health.
For instance, research shows that inadequate sleep increases your risk of all-cause mortality, along with a number of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.
Not sleeping enough can wreak havoc on your fitness goals, too.
Studies show that insufficient sleep can slow down weight loss, increase muscle loss, impair performance, and reduce testosterone levels.
Basically the polar opposite of what you want if your goal is to get fit.
In contrast, getting adequate sleep brings a variety of benefits. It improves immune function, mood, learning ability, problem-solving, and longevity and reduces inflammation and hunger.
What’s more, sleeping the recommended 7-to-9 hours each night can improve your workout recovery, help you gain muscle and strength, boost your endurance, and even increase fat loss while cutting.
(Sleeping 10 or more hours probably boosts athletic performance, too.)
Of course, sometimes life interferes with your ideal sleep schedule, which is where napping can come in handy.
The Benefits of Napping
If you aren’t able to get enough sleep each night, taking naps during the day can lessen the negative effects in several ways.
Naps and Physical Performance
Perhaps the most significant benefit of taking naps is that they improve your physical performance.
Specifically, research shows that napping the day after a bad night’s sleep boosts your strength, power, speed, and endurance, and can also help you perform better in sports that require you to sprint, jump, or throw punches and kicks.
For example, in one study conducted by scientists at Liverpool John Moores University, researchers had participants perform the bench press, leg press, and grip strength tests in three different situations:
- After a good night’s sleep of 7.5 hours
- After a poor night’s sleep of 3 hours
- After a poor night’s sleep of 3 hours but with a 1-hour nap 3 hours prior to testing
They found that participants were strongest when well-rested and weakest when sleep-deprived. No surprises there.
When the participants were allowed to nap before testing, though, their bench press and grip strength performance was as good as when they’d had a full night’s sleep. In other words, napping counteracted the dip in performance they experienced when they were sleep-deprived.
Interestingly, sleep deprivation had minimal impact on leg press performance, suggesting that poor sleep primarily impairs performance on more technical, compound exercises. This would also support the idea that additional sleep will most improve performance in highly technical sports, like basketball, martial arts, golf, and so forth.
Keep in mind, though, that getting a full night’s sleep is a bigger boon to performance than taking a nap will ever be. Your number one priority the night before a big game or rep-max test is to get your head down for 7-to-9 hours of uninterrupted slumber.
When that isn’t feasible, though, taking a nap may minimize the deleterious effects of sleep deprivation and help you perform at your best.
Naps and Recovery
When you don’t sleep enough, your body ratchets up its production of stress hormones like cortisol.
These chemicals have several negative implications for your health, including hindering your ability to recover from exercise and build muscle effectively.
Research shows that napping can help reduce biochemical markers of muscle damage and oxidative stress, though, which clears the way for more efficient recovery.
What’s more, napping improves subjective measures of recovery, such as how sore you feel after a hard workout. This is important because the fresher you feel, the more likely you are to hit your workouts with the intensity you need to progress.
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Naps and Perceived Exertion
Rating of perceived exertion (RPE) is a scale that helps you measure how hard you’re exerting yourself during exercise.
Tracking RPE helps you ensure your workouts are challenging enough to spur progress but not so exhausting that they become counterproductive and unenjoyable.
Studies show that people who exercise after napping score their workouts lower on the RPE scale (they feel like their workouts are easier) and recover from their workouts quicker once they’re finished exercising.
Thus, napping may allow you to do more volume (sets and reps) at a higher intensity without feeling frazzled, which should translate into greater muscle and strength gains over time.
Naps and Cognitive Performance
Research shows that you’re less alert, attentive, and vigilant when you’re sleep-deprived.
(That’s likely why getting insufficient sleep is associated with an increased risk of car accidents, workplace injuries, and medical mishaps.)
Fortunately, studies also show that naps help you shake the cobwebs after a lousy night’s sleep and make you more focused, mentally sharp, and better able to tackle challenging intellectual tasks.
And while none of this has a direct impact on how you perform physically, it can make sticking to your health and fitness regimen easier.
For instance, although mental fatigue doesn’t make you physically weaker per se, it can reduce your motivation to push yourself in the gym, undermining the quality of your workouts and your long-term muscle and strength gains. Since napping helps temper torpor, taking a nap should make your training more productive by enabling you to train harder.
What’s more, napping helps to reduce your stress levels.
Chronic stress is associated with various adverse physical and behavioral outcomes, such as increased hunger and overeating, which can make it difficult to stick to your diet.
Conversely, when you’re less stressed, you’re more likely to eat healthfully, be physically active, and make decisions that positively affect your well-being.
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How to Use Naps to Get Fitter Faster
If you want to use napping to improve your performance, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Don’t nap for too long: Research suggests that 90 minutes is the optimal nap duration since it allows you to complete an entire sleep cycle, which stops you from feeling drowsy when you wake up.
If you can’t sleep for a full 90 minutes, though, several studies show that napping for 25-to-45 minutes can help, too.
The reason you don’t want to sleep longer than this is that long naps increase your chance of falling into a deep sleep, which may make it harder to fall asleep at night. Thus, the best thing to do is test 90-minute naps for yourself and cut back the nap time if you find it interferes with your subsequent sleep.
- Don’t nap after 3 p.m.: Time your naps between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., during what’s known as the “post-lunch dip.” At this time, you’re naturally more sleepy and therefore more likely to sleep during your nap time.
Avoid napping later than this, though, since sleeping too late in the day can make it more difficult to fall asleep at night.
- Don’t nap right before a workout or demanding task: It’s common to feel groggy when you wake from a nap (a phenomenon known as “sleep inertia” in the scientific literature).
This lingering languor can interfere with both physical and mental performance, so wait at least 30 minutes after you wake before trying to tackle an important task.
- Practice good sleep hygiene: Sleep hygiene refers to your pre-bedtime habits and rituals that help you unwind, feel tired, and enjoy long and restful sleep. If you want to maximize your chances of falling asleep, use some of these proven sleep hygiene techniques:
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and other stimulants four-to-six hours before bed.
- Stop using electronics at least 30 minutes before sleeping.
- Make your room cool, dark, and quiet.
- Don’t eat or drink too much before trying to sleep.
- Find ways to reduce stress levels before attempting to nap, such as taking a hot bath, reading a book, or listening to calming music.
- Schedule your naps at the same time every day.
- Reserve your bedroom for sleep and sex only.
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