Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Munga 2018 - The Art of Power Napping.

Power nap techniques were touched on by Carlo in his guest posts but are worth revisiting to examine the pre-programming involved. Right up front I must explain that power naps are more art than science—there is no one-size-fits-all magic formula. 

Power naps are a critical component of successful endurance racing. To be honest, until recently, I've had more misses than hits in trying to figure out how to leverage maximum benefit. A big shout out goes to Tim James who apart from helping me figure out how to use power naps effectively has also been my inspiration for pushing my boundaries in endurance racing. Many of you have have spoken to me or contacted me about the useful advise I spew on these pages. A lot of what I have learnt has come from watching and chatting to Tim. He has been and continues to be an inspiration.

I finally figured out how to use power naps to my advantage after a frustrating night of stumbling down the trail on the Freedom Challenge a few years ago. I was struggling to stay awake and decided to have a 10 minute nap next to the road. Tim was riding with me and waited while I tried to shake off the sleep monsters. When I woke up he told me that I shouldn't have set a 10 minute alarm. He could hear from my breathing that I had only managed 1 minute of sleep. 30 minutes later the monsters swarmed again. I told Tim to push on the the interim support station a mere 5 km's up the road while I dropped to the ground to grab more zzzz's. By the time I got to the support station Tim had brewed tea and sorted out bedding for me. He was up a few hours later and made a point of bringing me tea before he left. Even though I caught up with him a few days later he went on to finish ahead of me. It was only after the race that I took time to process what he had said. 

I've learnt that if you fight off sleep monsters without yielding you can end up stumbling forward with an efficiency that'll make you cringe in review. I've also learnt that a 5 hour oversleep is exactly the advantage your competitors are hoping for. 

This year I got the technique right in the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa. I shaved a couple of days off my previous best time and managed to finish 2nd. 

Power nap pre-programming includes, when, where, and a handful of hows.

As I said earlier there is no one-size-fits-all approach to power naps. This becomes evident when people choose to ride together and face the challenge of trying to coordinate their nap times. Power naps like toilet time are best done solo. 


I have found the feeing of wanting to sleep comes on without warning. One minute I'm riding my bike and the next I am struggling to keep my eyes open. I fight it as long as I can. Not to get a few extra kilometres down the road but rather to get me closer to the point where I can no longer keep my eyes open. Once I start hallucinating I know it's probably a good time to get some shut eye. 


Power naps as a rule take place on the trail. I have however had some of my best power naps on a bed or curled up on a farmers couch. At a couple of support stations I have taken off my helmet and pulled a blanket over me without taking my shoes off. 

Out on the trail the where depends on your surroundings and time of day. Some of the places I've been to are so remote that you can simply lay down in the middle of a jeep track and go to sleep knowing that there is zero risk of being run over by a car or have people find you. Other times you need to be more circumspect. 

On the Munga you'll want to find a spot that will keep you out of sight from passers by. I don't want someone driving past to think they've stumbled across a dead guy. No one wants to wake up to a burly farmer doing chest compressions on you. For everyone's sake I look for a spot that shelters me and my bike from the wind and from view. I also turn my tail light off so as not to draw attention to my position. 


Once I have picked out a suitable spot the first thing I do is make sure I have my bike pointed in the direction I want to go when I resume cycling. Sounds silly but stories of waking up and going the wrong way abound. I've even found myself looking the wrong way after a nap because my bike position wasn't right. 

For the Munga I don't bother covering myself with a space blanket as it's warm enough that time of year. What I do bother about is the scorpions and spiders. I'm not sure they pose a real threat but the thought is enough for me to rather rest my head on the front wheel of my bike instead of the ground. It's not as comfortable as a pillow but that's fine because I'm not looking to get 8 hours sleep. If you need a proper sleep it's best done in a bed at a race village or water point.

How long

This is the crux of the matter and the thing that Tim helped me figure out. I used to ask myself the wrong questions. Those were, "How long do I need to sleep", and, "How long can I afford to sleep." I used to think 10 minutes would get me back on my bike and that 10 minutes was long enough to not affect my place in the race. I was asking the wrong questions. Now I ask one question to which I always know the answer - "How long is too long?"  As I said earlier if you need a solid sleep do it in a bed. A trail side nap is just that - a nap. Tim advocates not setting an alarm at all and trusting yourself to wake up. I can't do that so I set a 90 minute oversleep alarm with the understanding that I'm going to wake up before my alarm. 90 minutes is also the theoretical time if takes to work through a full 5 stage sleep cycle. With that understanding I go with the science even though I know that putting a firm number on sleep cycles is more of a guesstimate than hard data. 

As I said in the previous blog I use a countdown timer which is easier to use. I have it preset to 90 mins and simply press the start button before placing it out of reach. I want to avoid the risk of turning it off and falling asleep again. If I have to move to get to the phone I'm more likely to wake up properly.  

The next part is tricky. I fall asleep with the intention of waking up as soon as I can. Sometimes it's 5 minutes, other times it's 25 minutes and rarely it's a full 90 minutes before the alarm wakes me up. If the alarm wakes me up I am groggy and miserable and the effectiveness of the sleep is reduced. 

You know what it's like at home when you set your alarm for 6am and wake up naturally at 5:30am and feel wide awake. Instead of getting up you stare at the ceiling for 25 minutes and fall asleep just before the alarm goes off. When the alarm goes off you feel like death warmed up in spite of feeling great 30 minutes before. Waking up in the middle of a deep sleep cycle is horrible. 

While snoozing in the bush I open my eyes as soon as I become aware of being awake. It doesn't matter how long that period is. I get up immediately and get back on my bike. I've had a few instances where I've had only a 5 or 6 minute power nap and then gone on to ride another 100 kilometres without feeing tired. It sounds odd but it works. 

What I do now to cement the wake up habit is set my alarm for a time earlier than my usual waking time with a view to waking up ahead of the alarm. It's working. Sometimes I'm up an hour earlier than the alarm. To offset the potential loss of sleep I go to bed earlier. The added benefit is that I no longer have a regular sleep pattern which is fine. It's a habit worth breaking ahead of a crazy race. The important thing is that I'm getting enough sleep. 

Sorry for being long winded but it's a skill that's worth developing. As I said, it's what works for me. It's taken me over 10 years to figure out. I hope this information will shorten the time it takes you to find your solution. 

The next post is about chasing ghosts and the virtue of cowardice


Pieter said...

Thanks Mike, very interesting.

Ryan said...

Tough topic, thanks for the words of wisdom and the opportunity to reduce the 10 years of figuring it out! Regards Ryan

Unknown said...

Love this blog! Makes a whole lot of sense setting the alarm as a countdown....going to try it at the next Audax. Thanks Mike....the Munga Monster is calling.....all the best for your final prep. Cheers, another Mike