The secret of sleep power napping

A 30 minute sleep power nap works for pilots and footballers – and you too, says sleep coach Nick Littlehales.

A 30 minute sleep power nap works for pilots and footballers - and you too, says sleep coach Nick Littlehales.

A study by the University of Düsseldorf has shown that even very short naps enhance memory processing, while a Nasa study, looking at their effects on pilots on long flights, reported: “Naps can maintain or improve subsequent performance, physiological and subjective alertness, and mood.”

One of the authors of that report, Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US, has said that “a 26 minute nap improves performance in pilots by 34% and alertness by 54%”.

Naps are of critical importance to pilots flying long-haul – they fit one in while the co-pilot takes over, later reaping the benefits of improved alertness. They are a significant performance enhancer for athletes, too, and they can have the same benefits for anyone. A 30-minute nap is the most practical.

If you want to try it yourself, have a coffee beforehand – espresso is a good, quick fix – so that it takes effect towards the end of your nap, or controlled recovery period (CRP). Don’t sip your coffee too slowly, as you might find it’s already taking effect as you begin your CRP, and be aware of the amount of caffeine you have already consumed.

When Nick Littlehales was working with Manchester United in the late 90s, the club introduced double training sessions pre season for the first time, and he suggested creating an environment for the players in which they could relax and have a CRP between sessions to improve their recovery.

Both Alex Ferguson and head physiotherapist Rob Swire supported the idea so they allocated a suitable room for up to 12 players at a time, put in some single sleeper loungers and coached the players on how to use the room.

It was all very basic – no whale noises or essential oils – but it did the job.

It was a key step towards where we are today with sleep recovery, and the players took full advantage with an open mind to day-time sleeping.

The truth is that we can nap anywhere.

The best way is to find a spot where you can make yourself comfortable at some point during the afternoon period – an unused office or meeting room, a quiet corner in the communal kitchen, the sofa in the staff room or even in the park or on a bench, when the weather permits.

Then close your eyes and just let go.

Easier said than done, you might think. Some people will be able to do this and fall asleep promptly. Others, those who steadfastly claim they simply “can’t nap”, won’t be able to fall asleep. But this is one of the revelatory aspects: it doesn’t matter.

What’s important is that you use this period to close your eyes and disconnect from the world for a short while.

Falling asleep is great, but so is catching that place on the verge of sleep, when you’re not quite awake but not quite asleep either. It’s tapping into that point of the day when you’re not really thinking about anything at all, when your mind is a blank.

After a nap, take five minutes to become aware of your surroundings and hydrate. Daylight lamps on your desk or getting out into natural daylight will reduce any inertia quickly, so that you will enjoy all the benefits of a CRP, just like those pilots who took the 26 minute Nasa naps.

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