8 Ways to Avoid the Afternoon Slump Before It Hits
Fighting the afternoon slump—a period of drowsiness that occurs midday—is never fun, especially if you have a jam-packed schedule that includes work obligations, family demands, and a dedicated cycling routine. But you don’t have to slog through your p.m. activities or cancel plans because you’re tired. You just need to understand what causes the afternoon slump, and how to avoid it so you stay energized throughout your entire day.
Common Causes of the Afternoon Slump
When it comes to sleep and wakefulness, there are two processes that help your body manage energy levels throughout the day, says Philip Gehrman, Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical psychology who specialises in behavioural sleep medicine. “The first is called the sleep drive [also known as sleep pressure], and the longer you are awake the stronger it becomes and the sleepier you feel,” Gehrman explains.
Sleep pressure becomes weaker when you get a full night of sleep, which is at least eight hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On the other hand, it gets stronger with sleep deprivation, which can make you feel even more tired midday, Gehrman adds.
The second process is known as your circadian rhythm, which is your 24-hour biological clock that manages your sleep and wake patterns throughout the day. “Our alertness signal increases over the course of the day to counteract the growing sleep drive, and then decreases at night so we can sleep. But in the mid-afternoon there is a dip in our alertness rhythm that produces a temporary increase in tiredness,” Gehrman explains. This is what many of us know as the afternoon slump.
In addition to our natural tendency to feel tired midday—typically between 1 and 4 p.m.—we can also exacerbate the afternoon slump with our nutrition choices and meal timing throughout the day, says Alex Winnicki, RD, certified specialist in sports dietetics and former professional cyclist.
More specifically, the midday slump may feel harder when you eat too much in one sitting, have a large amount of saturated fats, or large amounts of easily digestible carbs like sugary foods, white bread, or white rice. “[Nutrition] can exacerbate this dip to where we cognitively can’t perform or maybe we physically can’t perform to the level that we need,” Winnicki explains.
Also, waking up earlier than usual, overall sleep quality, or a strenuous morning workout can make your midday crash more difficult to overcome. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to avoid the afternoon slump.
8 Ways to Avoid the Afternoon Slump
1. Fuel Properly Throughout the Entire Day
Whether you’re short on time or not feeling hungry, don’t skip breakfast or skimp on the meal. Doing so can lead to a decrease in energy midday.
“Athletes that are skipping breakfast are likely to be underfueling, thus causing fatigue and lethargy, because they simply don’t have gas in the tank,” Winnicki says.
Another result of skipping the meal is overeating come lunchtime which can increase the potential for a “food coma,” Winnicki explains, or simply a dip in energy after you eat.
To avoid this, Winnicki suggests focusing on properly portioning and timing well-balanced meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner using the performance plate method designed by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC). The performance plate method is a fueling strategy that focuses on building your plate based on your training demands so there are different plates for easy, moderate, and hard training days.
Here’s what your plate should look like, depending on your training day, according to the USOPC.
Easy Training Day
- ½ fruits and vegetables
- ¼ whole grains
- ¼ lean protein
Moderate Training Day
- ⅓ fruits and vegetables
- ⅓ whole grains
- ⅓ lean protein
Hard Training Day
- ½ whole grains or energy-enhancing foods, like brown rice and beans
- ¼ fruits and vegetables
- ¼ lean protein
You can utilise the performance plate method to fuel your entire day, not just before or after a ride. For example, Winnick suggests if you have a morning ride on your schedule, then have a moderate plate for breakfast and lunch, followed by an easy plate for dinner and snacks in between meals if need be. Likewise, if you have an afternoon ride, opt for an easy plate for breakfast, then a moderate plate for lunch and dinner with snacks in between meals.
2. Take a Nap
If you’re an early-morning riser (meaning you get up between the hours of 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.) or a night owl (you go to bed after midnight), then consider scheduling a nap to help you avoid the afternoon slump.
“Sleep can be thought of as cumulative, with more being better. So, an afternoon nap adds to what could be an otherwise depleted sleep bank and can help you to feel more energized later in the day,” says Kim Geist, a Cycling level 2 coach, certified exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and former professional cyclist.
Research backs this: A systematic review and meta analysis published in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests an early afternoon nap can improve cognitive performance in adults.
3. Schedule and Adjust Your Plans as Needed
If you’re anticipating an afternoon slump, Winnicki recommends you strategically plan your activities throughout the day. For example, schedule cognitive tasks, like working on a presentation, for when you know you’ll be most alert, and social tasks, like a meeting, for when you expect to experience a dip in energy, he says.
Set your evening ride for a particular date, place, and time and invite your ride buddies, Geist suggests. This can help you stay motivated so you can fight the urge to skip it. Also, riding with friends will help you keep your energy levels high, she adds.
If you’re feeling groggy before an afternoon ride, Winnicki recommends adding high cadence drills or sprints to your warmup to kick up your energy before you get into more steady-state work.
4. Have a Snack
If you aim to ride later on in the day and fear that an afternoon slump will hinder your performance, Geist suggests enjoying a small snack or meal beforehand, like peanut butter and banana toast, hummus with mixed vegetables, or a yoghurt parfait.
“A well-rounded snack or small meal with a mix of carbohydrates and protein will provide lasting energy for a variety of intensity rides,” says Geist. Just make sure you schedule your snack at least two hours before your ride for digestion, she adds.
5. Walk While You Work
A great way to beat the afternoon slump is to move with intention, says Winnicki. “If you’re spending a lot of time on a task that is monotonous, or very demanding, it might be smart to implement a couple breaks,” says Winnicki.
Consider going for an afternoon ride, taking a stretch break, going for a walk, or even practicing a few exercises at your desk. Doing so can raise your alertness levels, which can help counteract your natural tendency to feel tired, says Gehrman.
6. Establish a Consistent Meal Time
Your body is constantly regulating different hormones throughout the day, some of which are related to your sleep-and-wake cycle, says Winnicki. For example, before bedtime, your melatonin levels increase to help you fall asleep. Following consistent meals and sleep schedules helps your body identify when certain hormones need to be regulated, which will help set your sleep-and-wake cycle and avoid the afternoon slump, he says.
Similarly, limiting large amounts of food, as well as spicy, fatty, sugary, and fried foods in the few hours leading to bedtime can improve sleep quality. When you sleep better at night, your energy levels are more stable the next day, so that helps you combat the afternoon slump as well, Winnicki explains.
Lastly, developing a routine will also help you avoid going long stretches of time without eating, which can lead to decreased energy levels by late afternoon, says Geist.
7. Have Some Caffeine
Sipping on coffee midday is another way to beat the afternoon slump. Caffeine works by blocking adenosine, a neurotransmitter, which makes you feel sleepy, says Winnicki.
However, everyone metabolises caffeine differently, so you may want to limit or avoid caffeine too late in the day as it can affect your sleep quality that night. Winnicki recommends avoiding caffeine after 1 p.m.—this way it’s less likely to disrupt your zzzs.
8. Get a Good Night’s Rest
“The less sleep someone is getting at night the worse the afternoon slump is. So getting good sleep at night is the first key,” says Gehrman. As we mentioned earlier, the longer you’re awake, the stronger your sleep drive becomes so aim for at least eight hours of sleep each night.