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Even if you’ve had a good night’s sleep, there’s something about that post-lunch period in the afternoon that can be rough to get through, whether you’re in rehearsal, a class, or perhaps just trying to practice.

So while I’m not a coffee drinker myself, I’ve been intrigued by the rumblings in various corners of the internet (and even my classroom) about this thing known as a “coffee nap.” 

Which, aside from being the best oxymoron ever, sounds pretty darn intriguing, no?

But first off, what the heck is a coffee nap?

And more importantly, is that really a thing? Like, is there any evidence to suggest that a nap (which is awesome) and coffee (which my wife tells me is awesome) are even better together than on their own?

What’s a coffee nap?

In case this is the first you’re hearing about it, a coffee nap is where you guzzle down a cup of coffee, and then follow that up with a short 15 to 20-min nap.

The rationale being, because it takes about 30 minutes for the caffeine to kick in, combining coffee with a nap means you’ll wake up from your nap, not only refreshed, but with an additional boost from the hit of caffeine too.

But does it really work this way?

A driving study

Well, a 1997 study (Horne & Reyner) looked at the difference between a coffee nap and caffeine alone on measures of alertness and driving performance among 12 slightly sleep-deprived graduate students.

After a night of just 5 hours of sleep, the participants came to the lab, and around 2pm, began a “dull, and tedious” drive on a driving simulator for 30 minutes. 

Then, they got a 30-min break (though they had to stay behind the wheel), before finishing up with a 2-hr drive.

During the break, one group of participants (coffee nap) got to take a coffee nap. Specifically, 200ml of coffee with 150mg of caffeine (equivalent of ~2 cups of coffee), followed by a nap of up to 15min.

A second group (caffeine) received 200ml of coffee, with 200mg of caffeine (equivalent of ~3 cups of coffee).

While a third group (placebo) received 200ml of decaf.

Stay in your lane!

The 2-hr drive on the simulator was designed to be “dull, and monotonous.” And the only thing they had to do was stay in their lane. If they ever drifted out of their lane, they were flagged for an ”incident.” 

And about once every hour, a slow-moving car appeared unexpectedly, to facilitate a potential accident, which they were to avoid.

What worked best?

Though all three groups performed about the same during the first 30-min of driving, the coffee nap group had significantly fewer incidents during the 2-hour post-break driving segment, and also reported being more alert than either the caffeine and placebo groups.

Of course, if your mid-afternoon practice session feels boring and dull, like driving on an empty road, this probably points to a bigger issue about your practice, that a coffee nap isn’t going to fix!

But yes, it does seem that a coffee nap is more effective than caffeine alone. But what about just a nap? Or other stuff like splashing water on your face? Or exposure to light?

A computer-based task

A 2003 Japanese study (Hayashi, Masuda, & Hori), took a look at how various nap and nap combinations might affect performance on a memory-intensive computer task.

They recruited 10 university students, and had them go through 5 different scenarios over the course of a couple weeks. 

On each of these days, the participants started out with 15 minutes on the computer task, right after lunch. 

Then, they either drank 100ml of coffee with 200mg of caffeine (the equivalent of ~3 cups of coffee), or 100ml of decaf, depending on what condition they were in that day. 

And then they either napped or rested quietly with a newspaper (again, depending on what condition they were in), before engaging in the same computer task for an hour.

What were the 5 conditions exactly? Well, there was a no-nap condition, a nap condition, a coffee nap condition, a nap+face washing condition (i.e. they splashed water on their faces right after waking up from the nap), and a nap+bright light condition (i.e. where they were blasted by an array of bright lights for 1-min after waking up from their nap).

And which condition was most effective?

What worked best?

Well, as you can probably imagine, the no-nap condition was the worst. Without a nap, participants made more errors, and took longer to provide the correct answer. Plus, they were more sleepy.

And though there were slight differences between each of the other four nap conditions, they all led to better performance than not napping. Although, once again, the coffee nap was the most effective of the various conditions, leading to better performance than a nap alone, or following a nap with light or face washing.

Hmm…but would happen if you took a coffee nap, and after waking up, washed your face with cold water, and went outside for a blast of sunlight?

Ha. The researchers do surmise that this might lead to an even greater effect – but can’t say for sure since it’s not something they specifically looked at.

Caveats

So not being a coffee or caffeine person, and caffeine being a drug after all, I can’t say that I feel comfortable endorsing or recommending coffee naps…

For one, the research seems to be geared most practically towards staying awake for safety reasons, or getting by during a crazy time as opposed to thriving in a viable, sustainable long-term way.

Plus, given the potential negative effects of caffeine on the day of an audition or performance, I worry about the consequences of this sort of thing becoming too much of a habit.

But, if you were wondering about coffee naps’ effectiveness relative to coffee or naps alone, the bit of research out there does seem to suggest that coffee naps are better than either alone.

What does caffeine actually do anyway?

I didn’t know this, but apparently caffeine doesn’t actually give you energy per se, but instead, keeps you from getting sleepy. Which is a different thing.

It’s actually kind of interesting how caffeine works in the brain. Which you can learn a bit more about here (you’ll also learn how much caffeine it’d take to kill you):

Your Brain on Coffee

There’s an app!

This exploration of caffeine all came about when I read about a military-developed algorithm (?!) for determining the optimal dosage and timing of caffeine for maximum alertness with the least amount of caffeine.

It’s a free online web app – and is fun to play around with…but unfortunately it’s not very intuitive or user-friendly and took me a little while to figure out how to use. Nevertheless, if you know you’re going to have to pull an all-nighter, yet have to stay alert the following day, you can plug in your sleep info, when you need to be at peak alertness, and the tool will tell you exactly when you ought to be taking your coffee breaks:

2B-Alert

A coffee ice cream hack

I may not enjoy coffee in its regular liquid form, but I do like the occasional bowl of coffee ice cream. And if you’re lucky enough to have access to a cafeteria with a vanilla soft-serve ice cream machine, here’s an awesome cafeteria hack a friend showed me back in college1:

Step 1: Get yourself a good-sized bowl, and fill it up with some vanilla soft-serve. Make sure there’s some room in the bowl (you’ll see why in a second).

Step 2: Find a single-serve package of Sanka (powdered instant decaf coffee) that’s probably lying around somewhere in the cafeteria (and yes, I know that there’s still a bit of caffeine in decaf, but I think that much is probably ok).

Step 3: Sprinkle the package over the ice cream, and stir until mixed. You’re welcome. =)


References

Hayashi, M., Masuda, A., & Hori, T. (2003). The alerting effects of caffeine, bright light and face washing after a short daytime nap. Clinical Neurophysiology, 114(12), 2268-2278.

Reyner, L. A., & Horne, J. A. (1997). Suppression of sleepiness in drivers: Combination of caffeine with a short nap. Psychophysiology, 34(6), 721-725.

Footnotes

  1. Credit and gratitude to Jenny Anschel for my still-all-time-favorite cafeteria hack!