Naps were a way of life for me in college. Whether it was a 3-hour “nap” between an early morning class and lunch, or nodding off unintentionally while studying in the library, sleep was naturally interspersed into my daily schedule.
My wife, on the other hand, was very anti-nap in those days. But she was a regular at the coffee shop down the street from the practice building, making multiple stops either there or at the coffee machine in the lounge.
Getting caffeine into your system is admittedly a lot easier (and tastier) than napping.
But in recent years, a number of athletes have spoken out about the importance of sleep, with Lebron James, for instance – who became the NBA’s all-time scoring leader at age 38 – reportedly sleeping an average of 12 hour per day. And naps are such an integral part of an NBA player’s routine, that the league office knows not to call players at 3pm, as that’s when players are likely to be napping.
Both can certainly help to perk us up and get us through the day, but is one better than the other? Especially when it comes to maximizing learning and making the most of your practice time?
Wakefulness vs. learning and performance
Most studies on the effects of caffeine or sleep tend to focus on attention or wakefulness. This can yield helpful information when it comes to safety in the workplace or when driving, but it doesn’t shed much light on more cognitively demanding processes, like learning your part to a new piece before rehearsal in the morning.
So, a group of researchers at UC San Diego (Mednick et al., 2008) ran 61 participants through a series of cognitive tasks emphasizing verbal memory, motor skills, and perceptual learning to see how caffeine and naps compare when it comes to learning and performance.
Participants came to the lab in the morning, and were trained on three different tasks:
- a verbal task (involving the memorization of lists of words)
- a motor task (involving tapping fingers on a keyboard in a particular sequence for speed and accuracy)
- and a perceptual task (involving picking out two targets against a background designed to make this a little tricky)
Lunch, nap or caffeine, and a test
At noon, they were given lunch.
And at 1pm, they were randomly assigned to either a “nap” group or “drug” group (i.e. caffeine or placebo).
The nappers then took a nap (90-minutes max), while the drug group spent that time listening to a book on tape.
At 3pm, nappers were awake, and half the drug folks were given a 200mg caffeine pill (roughly the amount of caffeine in an 8 oz “short” size coffee at Starbucks), while the other half received a placebo.
And then at 4pm, everyone was tested on all three tasks.
So how’d they do?
Caffeine vs. nap
When it came to wakefulness, caffeine was the winner, as the caffeine group reported feeling more alert right before their tests than either the nap or placebo groups.
However, when it came to performance, increased alertness did not translate into better scores.
For instance, the nappers outperformed their caffeinated counterparts on the verbal memory task.
And when it came to the motor learning task, it’s almost like caffeine impaired the caffeine group’s learning. Because while the non-caffeinated participants (even the placebo group) improved their performance pretty significantly from the morning session to the afternoon session, the caffeine group’s performance stayed pretty much the same and didn’t improve much at all from morning to afternoon. Like so:
So what are we to make of all of this?
The limits of caffeine
Well, at the end of the day, it seems that caffeine can be an effective way of staying alert and awake – but it might be less effective for enhancing the learning and performance of more complex cognitively-demanding tasks.
So while you may love your 4pm Venti Blonde Roast pick-me-up, with its 475 mg of caffeine, if you have a lot of studying or practicing to do, a short nap may translate to better learning and performance.
How long a nap is best?
Well, it depends on what you need, and how much time you have. But the research suggests that something is better than nothing, and assuming you’re pressed for time, 10-20 minutes is probably your best bet.
For more fun reading (and videos) on sleep and naps, check out this collection of links, which also includes the 5 nap lengths you can choose from (at the end of the article):
And if you have difficulty getting to sleep or getting back to sleep, check out this trippy sleep hack that has been “life-changing” to some:
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Mednick, S. C., Cai, D. J., Kanady, J., & Drummond, S. P. (2008). Comparing the benefits of caffeine, naps and placebo on verbal, motor and perceptual memory. Behavioural Brain Research, 193(1), 79–86. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2008.04.028