Mark Williams (from England squash) and I we were recently chatting and expressing a shared cynicism about extreme New Year resolutions, specifically the idea of a ‘dry January’. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re looking to reduce your alcohol intake, your body may well thank you for it. The doubt stems from encountering far too many people who have abused their body over the festive period, entered into a few weeks of monastic living and ended up feeling frustrated and miserable. Oh and they’re absolutely craving a drink. I’m not sure any of that is a constructive component of (a) being the best (and getting better) version of yourself or (b) navigating one of the hardest months of the year.
In line with the above Mark asked me what my New Years’ resolution was. “Sleep more”, I told him. He seemed surprised and amused in equal measure. I explained that it’s the one area that I regularly give the least priority to and yet as any elite athlete will tell you, is the bedrock of wellbeing. Besides, I want to feel good in the depths of winter, not grouchy from self-inflicted deprivation.
Let’s begin. If you recognise any of the following in yourself, from my ‘tired list’, you may wish to continue reading.
Me tired equals: Irritable, Susceptible to mood swings, Poor at concentrating, Unsociable, Clumsy, Less disciplined; with my food choices, training, etc.
I imagine the above also makes me a worse partner, friend and dad. Whilst we’re at it I’m also more likely to injure myself when working out whilst tired (if I can be bothered to train in the first place) and suspect I’m more susceptible to picking up coughs and colds. None of these things are particularly appealing to me or anyone around me but the solution is achingly simple. It’s getting the right amount of quality sleep.
Of course, our primary source of sleep is at night and (hopefully) you don’t need me to tell you it’s important to listen to your body and get the amount of hours shut-eye that work for you. Similarly, make sure you’re creating the best possible environment for you to get a decent nights’ kip. I’ll be talking to some coaches and athletes about the importance of sleep and bedtime routines in the forthcoming months but for now just do yourself a favour and ask yourself what, in your control, can you do to get a better nights sleep. Then try it out.
What I’ve been exploring is something a little different: it’s those moments in the day that you feel your eyelids droop, your energy slide away and the inevitable slip into lethargy. Historically I’ve tackled this with caffeine, fresh air and snapping at anyone that asked me a question. Recently I’ve tried sleeping. Or napping to be precise. There is a significant body of research into napping (we’ve saved you the effort and collated some key research papers below if you really want to dive deeper), but in the spirit of ‘Performance Life’ I’ll share my personal experiences with you.
My naps last from between five minutes (seriously) if I’m weary but rushed and up to twenty minutes when I have the time, energy dip and schedule that requires a fresh, significant burst of enthusiasm.
We consider sleep, like breathing, as something we just do. Something that doesn’t require practice or will benefit from improved technique. Of course we’re wrong.
I accept that many people are resistant to ‘napping’. They wake groggy and feeling worse than before they tried to sleep. My suggestion, before you discount the potential benefits entirely, is to try thinking about it differently.
We consider sleep, like breathing, as something we just do. Something that doesn’t require practice or will benefit from improved technique. Of course we’re wrong on both counts. If it helps, think of napping as ‘sprint-sleeping’.
Allow me to explain.
To be a better sprinter requires a very different approach to a training and conditioning routine than running a marathon. In the same way that someone who solely trains for distance running is likely to struggle significantly in a 200 metres foot race, don’t expect that just because you can manage seven hours kip overnight that napping will come naturally. If you’re blessed with fast-twitch sleep fibres (no, they’re not a thing), be thankful. For everyone else it will require practice plus a degree of trial and error. Quality of sleep and breathing can be improved by applying a range of techniques and practices. Here’s what I’ve explored to get the best return on my few minutes of shut-eye. Apologies for occasionally stating the bleeding obvious:
#1 Set the Scene
You know what will give you the best chance of getting some sleep, so influence what you can to achieve that. It can be tough at work, but it’s rarely impossible. Get creative.
If you don’t have access to a bed or a sofa it can be a bit weird finding the right space. Often lying down is simply not an option. If that’s the case, fine – just do your damnedest to find somewhere you’re provided a degree of privacy and comfort. Of course, dependent on your character, you could just go for it. For a period of time whilst working with England cricket I would quite often be with Andy Flower when he excused himself for a ten minute power-nap. This happened in meeting rooms, hotels and once inside a coffee shop. He remains England’s most successful Head Coach.
#2 Be disciplined pt 1.
Set your allocated time slot and stick to it. In the main I’ll go for 10-15 minutes. The key is, if you do sleep, don’t go over your chosen time. When that alarm goes, get up.
#3 Focus on your breathing
Once you’re comfortable and warm (not hot) try to slow your breathing to a pleasant, steady pace and count the in-and-out breaths. One for in, two for out, three in, four out and so until you get to ten and then reset to one.
#4 Focus on something else
Try listening to something. I struggle to sleep in the daytime when random noises disrupt my attempts at relaxation. I’ve solved this by wearing comfortable headphones and listening to narrated stories on Audible. I just let the story carry me away. You may prefer music or podcasts but whatever you choose I’d recommend something that provides a relatively constant pace and noise level.
#5 Be disciplined pt 2.
If you fail to sleep for the first few times, stick with it. You’re practicing a new skill. Set an alarm you can trust and don’t get up until it goes off. You’re making a contract with yourself to allocate this time to you, for you. If this is unusual in itself it can take a few sessions to realise that the world doesn’t stop turning just because you’re not running around it like crazy.
#6 Need a boost?
If you really struggle with feeling groggy on waking up try the caffeine trick. Just before your nap drink some coffee or tea. It takes approximately 20 minutes for the caffeine to enter your system so the principle is that you should get a little additional boost at the end of your nap (see the footnotes for underpinning research).
#7 It’s a goal: know your progress
You probably think nothing to tracking to your steps, capturing your run times or recording your gym sessions. Otherwise, how do you get the pleasure of marking your improvements? If you know that better quality sleep will give you more energy, a better sense of wellbeing and help you perform to a better standard at pretty much anything you’re trying to do, then why not treat it like your other forms of training? For a helping hand on goal setting check out our ‘One Week to Peak’ audio series with Dr. Dave Alred MBE.
Rest assured, I can be all the versions of the ‘bad me’ in my tired list, even when I’m not tired. But I’m less likely to show those traits when I’m feeling good. And it’s almost impossible for the ‘awake’ me to be all of those at once. Also, I believe the benefit that a short nap brings to me, those and around me and my ability to perform whatever task I’m set far outweighs those early, awkward attempts at daytime napping. We’ll find out what elite athletes do in due course.
In the meantime, try a nap, you know you want to.
For those that want some scientific evidence in relation to the benefits of sleep, specifically napping (more on that in a minute), Conor from the team has compiled a useful set of references below.
Benefits of napping in healthy adults: impact of nap length, time of day, age, and experience with napping
This article takes a broad look at the benefits of napping and the many differing factors that can affect these benefits. The article looks to numerous studies that have taken place (See table 1 for studies) and finds that napping can have benefits for a huge number of reasons e.g. improved reaction times, vigilance, accuracy and decreased fatigue amongst others. This review paper also investigates factors that can affect the benefits of napping such as duration and temporal placement of the nap. In conclusion the article finds that the existing literature shows that certain variables, such as the timing and duration of a nap, age, and experience with napping are important moderators of the benefits of naps.
Napping Reverses the Salivary Interleukin-6 and Urinary Norepinephrine Changes Induced by Sleep Restriction
This study looks to investigate the effect of naps after a sleep-deprived night. They look to neuroendocrine and immune biomarkers to test the effectiveness of a nap to restore the body’s immune system back to normal. The research showed that norepinephrine & Interleukin-6 values were normalised after taking a nap, which suggests that napping after becoming sleep deprived can have stress-releasing and immune restoring effects on the body.
Suppression of sleepiness in drivers: Combination of caffeine with a short nap
This study aimed to test the benefits of both napping and caffeine on driver alertness. The study took place in a driving simulator and tested the driver’s alertness during a long monotonous drive. The results were that subjective and electroencephalographic measures of sleepiness all reflected a mid-afternoon peak’. This peak was significantly reduced by caffeine and eliminated by the combined treatment, which reduced incidents to 9% of placebo levels versus 34% of placebo levels for caffeine alone.
Naps, cognition and performance
This review aims to find the effects of napping on cognitive functions and performance. It takes a look at a number of areas including the hypothesis that a split-sleep schedule provides more recovery than a single consolidated sleep period, the advantages and disadvantages of napping in the work environment and the purported benefits of napping for the learning of new material. The review finds that there are numerous benefits to napping including memory recall and better decision-making. However the review also points out that there is much more research on napping that needs to take place due to the varying factors e.g. age, habitual VS non-habitual that can effect the benefits and have not yet been studied.
This is part of a series
This article is from the Performance Life channel.