Getting the perfect nap, part I

Contributing Columnist

Naps are back in the news. Air traffic controllers, pilots, truck drivers and your average citizen are falling asleep in droves — with sometimes fatal results. For a chronically sleep deprived population, can naps restore and rebuild?

Yes. Naps can return function to many sleepy people. But rest’s capacity to rebuild and regenerate the body has limitations. There are issues to consider before trying out your perfect nap. What’s the purpose of your nap? Undergraduates, professional athletes and shift workers have different requirements from naps.

Shift workers

Shift work is one place where naps are remarkably useful. Humans are built to sleep at night; shift workers work at night. Something has to give.

Shift workers on night shift will often take a nap of a half-hour to an hour in the evening before starting their shift. Many will then try to get brief naps during the night whenever they can.

In some cases, shift workers can take long naps at night. This can be helpful when there are others around to perform any necessary and emergency efforts. However, longer naps get people into sleep inertia, which can make them non-functional for a while (see below). The result is many times shift workers get catnaps of 10 to 20 minutes.

Oddly, “too much” sleep at night will sometimes interfere with shift workers’ ability to sleep the morning following night shift.


For ultra-marathons and cross-nation races, who stays awake longest generally has the best shot at winning.

For events like international single-person yacht races, the winners have been shown to be fantastic catnappers. Particularly during nights, they will sleep in 15 to 20 minute increments, get “up” and check their position, wind speed and direction, make course corrections and then return to sleep.

Generally the winners of these races of two to four weeks are averaging four hours of sleep per 24 hours. How much of their brain is actually awake has not been actively studied, but recent animal work argues that not all of their brain will wake up as they do their course corrections — some groups of neurons probably remain in slumber.

Average Joe

Americans may perform relatively well sleeping seven hours or more each night, but many are getting six hours or less. For this group, short naps of 10 to 20 minutes, particularly in the mid-late afternoon, can prove very helpful.

To make sure naps do not go too long, try kitchen timers. With practice, many people can lie down for 15 minutes and sleep most of that time. The benefit is far greater alertness and considerably more productivity the rest of the workday. The NASA study done by Mark Rosekind and company showing that pilots who napped 26 minutes (they were allowed 40) had an improvement in performance measures of 34 percent and an increase in alertness of 52 percent is just one of many demonstrating improved performance with short naps.

Weekend naps

Many people try to nap over the weekend, having very short sleep nights during the working week. The standard “sleeping in” routine of going to bed late Friday and Saturday night and sleeping far longer on Saturday and Sunday mornings unfortunately tends to desynchronize body clocks.

Monday morning is the peak time of death in the United States, with heart attack rates increasing as much as five-fold. So sleeping in on weekends probably creates more health problems than taking weekend afternoon naps.

Moreover, short naps will not cause sleep inertia. Making up for lack of sleep over the workweek makes weekend naps (which for many workers will not be the traditional Saturday-Sunday weekend) one of those relatively protected areas where long naps can help. Many students, particular in East Asia, take very long naps of two to three or more hours over the weekend.

Part II will look at sleep inertia, body clocks and nap conditions. Stay rested.

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