To Nap or Not To Nap?

August 31, 2010

Dancers fit a lot into their days: school, work, dance class, homework—and maybe even a social life! But trying to fit everything in can make it tough to get enough sleep. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, only 15 percent of teens get the recommended eight-and-a-half to nine-and-a-quarter hours of sleep on school nights. Trying to catch up on weekends can make matters worse—you might end up too rested to fall asleep at a reasonable hour on Sunday night, which will throw you off for the entire week. “Ideally, you should try to go to bed and wake up within the same hour every day,” says William Kohler, MD, medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute.

Enter the nap. As kids, we all used to nap. It helped nurture our bodies by restoring energy, increasing the blood supply to muscles and releasing important hormones for growth and development. As teens, you can get the same health benefits from afternoon siestas. 

What can a nap do for you?

A nap won’t make up for a full night of rest, but it can improve your mood, alertness and performance. When you sleep during the night, you experience two different types of sleep that occur in five stages. The light sleep that occurs in the first two stages (roughly the first 30 minutes) is what you’re looking for in a nap.

Liao Xiang, an 18-year-old dancer with Houston Ballet II, tries to nap for 10 to 20 minutes every day on a couch in the Houston Ballet studio during her lunch break. “It helps me feel more energetic and focused,” she says.

Everyone naps differently

There are three types of naps: planned, habitual and emergency. You take a planned nap before you get tired. This can come in handy on a day when you know you will be up later than your normal bedtime—possibly on a day when you have a late performance.

Habitual nappers take naps at the same time each day. It might be worth adding a habitual nap to your routine if your schedule regularly keeps you from getting to bed in time to meet your nightly sleep requirements.

Emergency naps are for when you’re suddenly very tired and feel as if you can’t continue what you’re doing.

How can I take the best nap possible?

If you’re looking for a midday boost, try taking a 10- to 20-minute power nap in the early afternoon. “A brief nap between 1 and 3 pm, after lunch or school, will be most beneficial [for a young dancer],” says Kohler. If you nap too late in the day, approximately seven or fewer hours before bedtime, you may not be able to fall asleep at night.

Kohler suggests setting aside roughly 30 minutes for your nap. Lie down and give your body the first 10 minutes to slow down and ease into that 10- to 20-minute nap. If you allow yourself to sleep longer than 30 minutes (or long enough to enter the third stage of a sleep cycle), you’ll risk being groggy and having trouble concentrating. If you accidentally end up napping long enough for this to happen, be sure to warm up your body again by jogging in place for a minute and stretching your neck, legs and feet before dancing.

Not sure where to nap? “A quiet, cool and dark environment is best,” Kohler says. “If you think you’ll fall asleep easily, nap in your bed. But if it’s going to be a struggle, nap somewhere else like a couch. Seeing your bed should always invoke a comforting feeling of sleep.”

Take a cue from Liao, who gets ready for her early afternoon power nap with a routine. “I set my phone alarm, and sometimes I listen to music. Usually I fall asleep in about three minutes,” she says.

When it comes to creating your own napping regimen, experiment with location and pre-sleep rituals to find what works for you. At first, it may be a challenge to find the time to nap and adjust to midday snoozing. But once you’re getting all the sleep you need, your body will be reenergized, your mind will be sharper and your leaps may just get a little bit higher!