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How to Take the Perfect Weekend Nap

What science says about optimizing this important mid-afternoon recovery tool.


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Illustration of man napping with wall clock behind him

Simon Abranowicz

In 2011, then-deputy NBA commissioner Adam Silver told the New York Times that “everyone in the league office knows not to call players at 3 p.m.” This is not because 3 p.m. is when NBA players gather for a massive, secret game of knockout, although they should make that happen. It’s because 3 p.m. is known throughout the league as naptime.

Yes, naptime. NBA players—and most professional athletes who play at night, for that matter—cherish their pregame naps. And these are not necessarily quick snoozes, either; the pros measure their naps in hours, not minutes.

Thanks to the unfortunate conditions imposed by late-stage capitalism, daily naps are not an option for most people during the workweek, unless you’re employed by a Silicon Valley tech behemoth that offers to funnel you into cloisters of pods for a recharging period meant to achieve maximum productivity. But the weekends are a different matter. You can pass out after a trip to the gym, or during a mid-Netflix binge, or before a night out on the town—whenever you want, however you want. The question that remains is this: Of these many options, what constitutes the best version of the weekend nap?

There isn’t a universal answer, but there are some useful parameters to consider for nap optimization purposes. For one, pro athletes are onto something with the mid-afternoon nap schedule, which is linked to our circadian physiology. The late afternoon is when the body experiences a natural dip in body temperature as well as energy levels—a process independent of what time you wake up on a Saturday.

On the weekends, you can pay a little more attention to your homeostatic drive—the internal urge to pass the hell out—which increases every waking hour and is amplified by physical activity and social interactions. “It’s completely separate from the cues you’re getting in your environment with light and temperature,” says David Samson, Ph.D., a sleep anthropologist at the University of Toronto. This is why your homeostatic drive is all out of whack after traveling internationally. But even at home, it’s possible you might get sleepy and want to take a nap in, say, the early evening. If you feel said nap coming on, it’s okay to embrace it.

The appropriate napping length, meanwhile, also varies from person to person, but again, science can help. Samson has extensively studied the sleep habits of the Hadza, an indigenous group of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania for whom napping is a regular part of the day. From their snooze schedules, we can formulate a few hypotheses about our ancestors’ versions of daytime and nighttime dozing, which were unaffected by things like the Industrial Revolution, blackout curtains, and air conditioning.

Samson cautions that as a field of scientific inquiry, nap research is still unsettled. But from what he and others have been able to glean, the Hadza are napping, on average, for about one hour a day. “In the West, the average nap is half an hour, in the studies I’ve seen,” Samson says. “The Hadza are clocking in at 55 minutes, so almost double the length.” (He notes that they’d wake up to the sun even after “partying” until one or two in the morning. Sound familiar?)

Even on the weekends, 55 minutes might not be achievable for everyone. That’s fine! Over the course of as little as 10 or 15 minutes of shut-eye, Samson says, you’re achieving the equivalent of a solid meditation session: “It’s enough time to slow the processing down to where you’re getting a brief break.” No two people’s perfect nap length will be the same, length, either, and even your own might vary from weekend to weekend. “It depends on what your goals are, and if you’re trying to be purposeful with your napping,” Samson says.

All else equal, a nap starting around 3 p.m. and lasting around an hour might give you the best shot at rallying for a big night. But ultimately, the point of a nap is to enjoy the rest and relaxation it provides, so take it in whatever form it comes.

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This post originally appeared on GQ and was published July 19, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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