Did you know that elite athletes use napping to help them perform better? Napping isn’t just for little kids, it’s a powerful tool for anyone at any age.
Adding napping into your fencing routine, both during training and on competition days, can really up your game and improve your all around health as well as your performance. This goes for youth fencers all the way through veterans.
People are often judgemental about napping. Shouldn’t you be doing something more productive with your time? The thing is, napping is absolutely a productive activity. If you are sluggish or groggy during a fencing lesson with your coach, you’re going to get less out of it than if you’re alert and feeling strong. This is even exaggerated in competition. If you’re not able to perform to your optimum level because your body needs some rest, how is that helping anyone?
Using napping is about training smarter rather than harder.
Understanding your sleep rhythm
Our bodies are wired to sleep at certain times and to be awake at certain times. There’s a rhythm to it all, called our circadian rhythm. The older you get, the less sleep you need. Athletes do need more sleep than non-althletes, especially during training.
Lack of sleep is a problem that we’ve written about before because it’s a big deal for fencers. It’s significant because it affects not only fencing, but every aspect of life. Most people don’t get enough sleep, and it affects everything from mood to mental agility to long term health.
Fencing parents, this is especially true for youth and teen fencers. Kids need more sleep than adults on a regular day. Teenagers have shifting sleep needs, specifically they are wired to stay up later and sleep later than they were when they were younger. Napping can help a teenage fencer compensate for the disruption that an early school day has created in their sleeping cycle.
Often, fencing training comes in the afternoon, just after school, when there’s a natural lull in energy. We all know it because it’s a nearly universal human phenomenon. Somewhere between the hours of 1pm and 5pm, there’s a dip in energy that makes it hard to focus and get things done. People tend to be at their best either in the morning or in the evening, rarely in the middle of the afternoon.
What happens if you have a bout in the middle of that afternoon lull? Or if you have some important training during that time? It can be a battle to get through and maximize performance or training when this happens.
There are two ways to combat the afternoon lull – either try to get rid of it or lean into it. Getting rid of it usually involves a cup of coffee or a jolt of sugar to give a boost that will carry through the down portion. Some people are able to banish the afternoon lull by upping their physical activity, usually with an afternoon workout. That first method of controlling it with caffeine or sugar is obviously not healthy, and the second one isn’t necessarily feasible for everyone.
That leaves the option of leaning into the feelings of being weighted down and full of brain fog. Naps are an answer!
When taken during the afternoon lull, naps don’t disrupt nighttime sleep patterns, according to the Sleep Foundation. If you’re struggling to fall asleep at night or to stay asleep, then excessive naps can be a contributing factor. However, most napping will actually support a better night’s sleep because it’s giving your body what it needs to then power through the afternoon.
Did you know that we humans used to sleep in two chunks instead of one before the widespread use of nighttime electric lights? Not sure if getting up at 3am for couple of hours is the best course of action for anyone, but the point is that sleep patterns change. The ancient Greeks and Romans, and in fact all of the cultures in the Mediterranean, took naps in the afternoon during the hottest part of the day. This is where we get the concept of a siesta from.
The periods of time that you sleep should be tied to your own personal sleep rhythm. Though there are broad strokes of what works for most people, everyone is different. What is universal is that sleep well, including napping, can help every part of your life improve, including fencing.
The science behind napping for athletes
Fencers need rest to let their body and brain recover from the hard work that they’re doing.
Athletes benefit from napping in the following ways:
- quicker reaction times
- better mood
- improved motor memory
- lower fatigue
- improved alertness
There was an interesting study done during the pandemic that rated athletes as the best nappers. This isn’t surprising, but it is very interesting because of why.
Athletes were able to fall asleep faster than non-athletes. It’s not clear why this is, and it could be because they are more regulated overall thanks to increased physical activity, or it could be that they are better able to block things out because of their focus, or it might even be as simple as athletes are used to falling asleep in strange places due to traveling and so were more likely to fall asleep faster in the sleep study environment.
It’s worth noting that the athletes didn’t clock more sleep than their non-athletic counterparts, it’s just that they were able to fall asleep faster and get better quality sleep than the other people in the study. Given that we know that athletes do need more sleep when they’re training, this speaks to the chronic lack of sleep that people walk around with everywhere.
The American College of Sports Medicine went deeper into an understanding of what napping does for athletes. They found that a 30 minute nap improved cognitive performance and physical responsiveness over non-napping in karate athletes. They built on previous research that showed that napping was helpful for performance even when the individual gets a good night’s sleep.
Both of these studies together show that napping can be an effective recovery tool for athletes, and in our case fencers, who want to improve their performance without disrupting other parts of their lives. Everything points to napping being a beneficial way to bolster a fencer’s ability to train and compete.
Kinds of naps for fencers
Let’s talk about the different kinds of naps that fencers can incorporate into their routine both in training and in competition.
Sleep inertia, that groggy, disorented feeling that you get when you wake up from a long nap or from having been woken up in the middle of your sleep cycle, is the biggest drawback of napping. Sleep disruption is the other major drawback. However, both of these are mitigated with good napping strategies.
There are three kinds of naps that will work for fencers – the caffeine nap, the power nap, and the full cycle nap.
The newest kind of nap out there is called a “caffeine nap”, and it involves taking in caffeine either through a caffeinated beverage or through a packet of gel caffeine (runners often use these during races), then laying down for a super short nap. The idea is to combine the refreshing effects of the caffeine with the boost of a nap, with the caffeine kicking in right as you wake up.
This napping technique provides short-term benefits that last for about an hour. Sleep inertia isn’t a problem here because the nap is so short, but of course caffeine makes some people jittery and more anxious, so this isn’t for everyone.
For older fencers who are in competition, this could be a good option, especially if there’s jetlag involved. This definitely isn’t the nap for a regular afternoon of training due to the caffeine. It’s also obviously not an option for younger fencers, as eight year olds and caffeine are not a good idea!
Either way, keep in mind that the effects are short. If you know that you’re going to get a lull in your mental agility and focus in the afternoon and you’re getting ready for the DE rounds in a two-flighted competition, then you could explore this kind of nap.
Power naps are famous for a reason, and it’s because they’re effective.
A power nap lasts 20-30 minutes, long enough to get lots of good benefits, but short enough to prevent the effects of sleep inertia. The effects of a power nap are relatively short lived, an hour or two at most, but these naps can be employed multiple times in a day.
For fencers, the power nap can be a hugely powerful tool, and one that can be used regularly during both training and at competition. On training days, you can create a regular schedule of naps to boost your performance. Listen to your body on this one and place your naps when you feel sluggish or tired. If you can power nap right before a training session, you’ll get a boost that will carry you through and maximize your fencing.
This is definitely something to add to your roster of ways to improve your fencing.
Full cycle nap
Short naps aren’t the only way to go to boost your performance through sleep. A long nap, meaning one that goes at least an hour, will have long lasting effects that can power a fencer through when they need it.
The trick with a long nap is to time it well for what else you have going on. I found that taking a long nap when you’re crossing time zones is almost always a positive thing, especially if you can time it in such a way that it helps you come in line with the time zone that you’re in for competition.
A long nap will increase the sleep inertia that you experience. It’s important to allow time for you to recover from those groggy feelings before you have to participate in a fencing bout at competition. If you can time your nap to last for 90 minutes, you’ll complete a full sleep cycle and the sleep inertia effects will be diminished.
If you’re out traveling for a competition and are feeling foggy and sluggish, going back to the hotel for a long nap will change the trajectory of your physical and mental performance. It’s smart not to minimize the positive effects that this kind of nap will have on your ability to be refreshed, alert, and physically agile during a competition.
When there’s time for a full cycle nap on competition day, take advantage of it.
Setting the stage for good napping
It’s all well and good to understand the different kinds of naps, but where should you even take these naps – on the floor of the convention hall?
If you’ve been to a big fencing tournament, you’ll know that each club sets up a spot for their fencers to gather, connect, and keep their gear. This is a good spot for napping. Find a comfy spot along the wall and lean on your fencing bag. If you feel like you need it, have a small travel pillow packed in your gear bag for just this reason. Cover yourself with a jacket and try to get some rest.
Often, the venues where large fencing competitions are held have lounges or other spaces with comfortable furniture. There are commonly carpeted areas in venues that are great for quick naps. If being on the floor of the convention center is too noisy or distracting for you, go off and find a spot that works for you away from the action.
Both power naps and caffeine naps can be done pretty much anywhere. In your car, in a comfy chair in the club, outside in the sunshine. It doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you. A full cycle nap will require something more substantial and is difficult to do in a venue. For that, head back to your hotel and curl up in your actual bed if you have time.
Don’t be afraid to get yourself a sleep mask and earplugs if those help. There’s no shame in putting yourself first and getting good nap going. If someone laughs at you, you can laugh back at the bags under their eyes!
One note on napping – always set an alarm. If you’re at a competition with your teammates and your coach and you’re power napping ahead of a bout, ask someone to wake you up at a certain time, just in case you don’t hear your alarm. The worst thing is for you to wake up and realize you missed your bout!
What if I can’t fall asleep?
Not everyone can fall asleep quickly, and that’s ok. This can be especially true in a tense situation like a fencing competition, where your brain might be going even faster than usual. With practice, napping will become easier.
When you set your alarm, account for the time that it takes you to fall asleep in the time that you set your alarm for. For example, if you know it takes you about 10 minutes to fall asleep and you want to take a 25 minute power nap, then set your alarm for 35 minutes from when you get comfortable.
Guided sleep meditations can really help you get to sleep. You can find these on any online radio app like Pandora or Spotify, and you can also find them for free on YouTube. Find one that you like, then use that same one over and over again. Eventually, with repetitive use, the beginning part of the sleep meditation will become a cue for your body to switch gears and start moving towards sleep. Put some ear buds in and try to let go. White noise or classical music are also solid options here.
If you can’t fall asleep at all when you lay down and try to nap, then don’t stress about it. Disconnecting and resting your brain and your body will have a rejuvenating effect, even if you don’t fall all the way to.
Napping for athletes works
Using a good nap strategy is a widespread sleep strategy for pro athletes. Many top NBA players, like Kevin Durant, Steve Nash, Stephy Curry, and Paul George nap every game day for up to three hours before they hit the court. Tennis star Andy Murray uses naps to help him on down days. Pro sports teams like the Red Sox actually have nap rooms incorporated into their practice facilities.
Napping is not a lazy person’s venture.
Top professional athletes actually hire sleep coaches to help them learn how to manage their rest and optimize their performance. Funnily enough, Red Bull (the hyper caffeinated energy drink) sponsors sleep studies for the pro athletes that it sponsors. Olympic committees all over the work use sleep strategies as part of their means to support improved performance in athletes, because good sleep is seen as such an integral part of the athletic package.
You can of course always talk to your fencing coach about what their advice is on napping and how they think you could or should integrate it into you training schedule. Getting the right amount of rest will only improve your mood and acuity during those training sessions with them!
More important than what anyone thinks about your napping habit is that you take care of your own health and wellbeing. Burnout among athletes is a real, and pushing yourself hard without proper self care through a competitive fencing season is a sure way to make you feel stretched too thin.