I knew this day would come eventually, and it now has
arrived: the beginning of my mind-blowing journey through polyphasic sleep. Microsoft
word puts a squiggly red line under polyphasic: I sense this will be a rather
Actually, I feel like this will be a pretty weird yet interesting phase of my life. Perhaps the next several days or even weeks will be harder than I can anticipate now, but somehow I think I will fare quite well. I really do.
Before I continue with the subjective side of things, perhaps I should provide some background.
What is Polyphasic Sleep?
It might help to tell you what it’s not. Monophasic sleep is the conventional type of sleep many of us have come to know and love. If you sleep, say, 6-10 hours at night, awaken to the sun rising, go about your beautiful day and then return to bed after the moon has shown its smiling face for another 6-10 hours, you are a monophasic sleeper. Particularly, you are a monophasic sleeper if you don’t take any naps during the day. In a 24-hour period there is only one phase in which you sleep.
If you do take a nap on a daily basis in addition to sleeping during the night, you are a biphasic sleeper. The longer phase of sleep is sometimes called core sleep, because most of the sleep you get is wracked up during this phase.
If you sleep 10 hours at night and then nap for an hour and a half in the afternoon, you aren’t doing biphasic sleep “right” in my view. To me biphasic sleep should add up to no more than about 7.5 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. Perhaps I’m being unfair because I’ve slept on a biphasic sleep schedule before. I’ll talk more about that later.
Anyway, polyphasic, then, means that you sleep at least three separate times in a 24-hour period. I think I can say that these phases of sleep all are spaced at least one hour apart from each other, and in that hour no attempt at sleep is made.
There are many ways one could go about polyphasic sleep. You could try a core sleep period with two naps, or two core sleep periods with one nap (can I say that?).
Or you could try six naps in 24 hours with no core sleep. This is known as the Uberman sleep schedule, and it is probably the most well-known yet hardest-to-sustain form of polyphasic sleep.
The general rule seems to be that the more phases of sleep you use, the less you need to sleep overall. This is likely because your body learns to fall asleep and maybe even reaches the more essential parts of sleep (e.g. REM sleep, maybe deep sleep) more quickly when it is forced to sleep for shorter periods of time.
I’m sure this begs the question of why polyphasic sleep doesn’t take the form of, say, 7 1-hour naps per day. That is certainly a good question, and the reason for this, I think, is that it doesn’t need to. I really don’t know how the general rule of sleep phases was figured out, but at least for those who can adapt to unconventional sleep schedules this is how things tend to play out. By the way, I haven’t heard of someone attempting 7 1-hour naps each day, so if you want to try something that is presently untried that might be within your ballfield, champ. :)
The general guidelines seem to be as follows: of a 24-hour period, sustainable monophasic sleep consumes about 6-10 hours. Biphasic sleep takes 4.5-7.5 hours (some people can do 3 hours). Uberman polyphasic sleep takes 2-3 hours: each nap is 20-30 minutes.
The three basic components of any sleep schedule are (1) frequency of sleep (2) distance, or time between phases of sleep (3) duration of sleep phases. (1) + (3) = total amount of sleep in a 24-hour period. I discuss this more in regards to the Uberman schedule under “Polyphasic Sleep and Ultramarathons.”
Why Polyphasic Sleep?
Why take on a polyphasic sleep schedule, you ask? Do I really have to do this? I had absolutely zero intentions to do polyphasic sleep anytime soon, but somehow the thought came to me this morning, “Let’s do polyphasic sleep!!!” So here I am telling you about how I plan to use the Uberman sleep schedule for the next 30 days.
Perhaps the most basic reason for doing this is that I want to. It feels right to do it. It seems like the perfect time: jobless and out of school, I have very few, if any, formal time commitments. I’m running, but I’m mostly laying low for now.
I feel similarly to how I did when I decided to run my first ultramarathon, which happened in August 2014. About a year before I said I wanted to run an ultra before I started college, but I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to, so I put the thought to bed for a few months.
A little over a month before the race I suddenly felt compelled, one night, to read about ultras and look for races near me. As soon as I found out there was an upcoming race in the local area I was sold. I knew it would be done. I made myself wait five days to be sure I wanted to do it, and then I registered. Perhaps that sounds impulsive, but I don’t know that irrational behavior will get you through 62.1 miles of trails… Well, or maybe that’s the only thing that will get you through.
So that’s comparable to how I’ve felt today. Of course, there was no forced waiting period this time, so that may or may not pose an issue. If this whole thing goes kaput by the next time you open up your monophasic eyes from a night of sleep, I suppose I can call this a failed experiment in trusting my feelings. Either I have read myself wrong or I have been lied to.
I do want to be sure I’m doing this for the right reasons. For me the “right reasons” for doing pretty much anything are roughly the following: (1) I want to do it; (2) I will be challenged by doing it; (3) I will learn something through doing it, even if I fail; and (4) I might be able to provide value to other people by doing it or because I have done it.
The wrong reasons would be to increase web traffic, make money, impress others, or gain attention by doing it. These things certainly may come about through polyphasic sleep as well as other experiments, but I don’t think they should be the primary reasons for trying them—at least, not for me. Having those as my primary reasons would be fear (ego-based) motivation, and I tend to fare better on love (service-based) motivation. Rather than move away from the things that threaten me I must move toward the things that inspire me and spark my curiosity. These movements might take a person to the destination, but certainly these are two incredibly different journeys.
To run a distance of 50 miles or more, you must want to do so. You cannot want it solely for the accolades that may be rewarded to you: you must want to run for running itself. You must be intrinsically, rather than extrinsically, motivated. I have heard this from ultrarunners and people who will never run an ultramarathon alike.
If you hire a coach who will supposedly train you up to, say, 85 miles a week (or more), and your training will end with a 100 mile race, and you absolutely do not want to do any of these things, you won’t. It doesn’t matter how many times he calls you or how fancy the equipment is he helps you pick out. If you don’t understand this at first it will become clear when you try going for a 30-mile training run and you fall to pieces.
In such situations it just isn’t enough to have someone hold you accountable. It’s one thing to have a person hold you accountable for realizing your desires, but if you have no desires then what are you being held to? Thin air, as far as I can tell.
While I’m making all this talk about ultramarathons, why don’t I talk about them some more?
Polyphasic Sleep and Ultramarathons
Polyphasic sleep seems like it would have interesting implications for ultramarathons. At first glance I assumed I wouldn’t be able to run for more than 4 hours at a time (about 24 miles) while on this sleep schedule, but after thinking and reading around it seems that need not be the case.
On an Uberman sleep schedule with 20 minute naps, there are 3 hours and 40 minutes of time awake in between the naps if they are equally spaced out (equidistant). However, I have read that the naps don’t have to be equidistant: what matters is frequency (6+ naps per day) and duration (naps last 15-30 minutes). It’s probably okay to stretch time between several (not all) naps to 5-6 hours, but much more than that may be too hard.
With 6 hours I could complete 50K (31.1 miles), which is technically an ultramarathon, so I’m not totally barred-off for the next month. But there is more to consider.
Assuming that missing a nap can quickly cause intense fatigue (which is the general Uberman wisdom), a polyphasic sleeper probably should not attempt races between the distances of 50K and 150 miles. Unless the terrain is absolutely grueling in a race over 100 miles people are highly unlikely to sleep during the event, and even on polyphasic schedules it is probably suboptimal to do so (I know 100 miles seems short to sleep, but it sounds like people do indeed sleep during the chilly Arrowhead 135).
But for the adapted polyphasic sleeper, I must wonder if this schedule could be helpful in a race over 100 miles. Now, the winners of the race still definitely will not sleep. I don’t think any sleep schedule will change that. But what about the runners who trail behind, like me? Let’s say that the day I actually complete a 100 mile race I will need 28 hours on my feet to cover the distance. Let’s also say that this time I will be polyphasic, meaning I’ll sleep 5-6 times during the race for a total of about 2 hours. Now my total time on the course is 30 hours. So at first glance, it seems that polyphasic sleep would slow me down.
But what if those naps restore me, so that my pace slows far less over time than it would without the sleep? I think this is a stretch, but what if my pace doesn’t slow at all? Uberman sleep entails both falling asleep and getting up immediately when the nap begins and ends, so I would lose time only to sleep in itself (i.e. not preparing for or recovering from sleep).
Even if that shaves 2 hours off my running time I’ll still be on the course for 28 hours, so the sleep wouldn’t provide much of a return. But I guess I cannot know how much one nap can restore me, even in the midst of a 100 mile race, until I become adapted to this sleep schedule. I’d certainly like to try it out, but there might be a lot of time and work between me starting this experiment and being able to run 100 miles on it. We’ll get there if and when we do, brotha.
People generally take 12-30 hours to complete 100 miles, depending on the course and on their ability. How about an event that’s much longer, like a 72-hour (3-day) race? I had no idea these existed until someone told me about 3 Days at the Fair at my last ultra a few months ago. Considering that Cliff Young won the Sydney to Melbourne 544 mile Ultramarathon by 10 hours by not sleeping a wink (well, or 1-2 hours per night: I’ve heard different things) while everyone else caught 6 hours of sleep each night, I’m not sure that polyphasic sleep would be helpful in a race even that long. But Young did run quite slow, and I have to wonder again whether just 2 hours’ worth of naps each day might help a fit ultrarunner go go go for 620 miles… Again, we can’t be sure until someone tries.
Young’s experience does make sense to me: I can relate to a mild extent. For my first ultra (100K) I slept for maybe 4.5 hours (monophasic), happily jumped out of bed at 3:30, started running at 6 AM, finished around 7 PM, and stayed awake with no problems until 1:30 AM—and I really didn’t want to sleep all that much. Then I woke up around 8 AM and drove home. I did consider taking a 30 minute nap about 42 miles into the race but the feeling didn’t last.
For my second ultra (attempted 100 miles, ran 62.5) I slept probably no more than 5 hours, woke up some time between 6 and 8 (no clue), started running at 10 AM, and I stopped around 7 AM. I slept for about 20 minutes. Around 3 PM I may have slept for another 30 minutes but I don’t remember. I think I then slept a very usual sleep (7-8 hours) that night. Over the course of those 21 hours of running I did not think of sleep at all, though I was in darkness for 13 hours and I could move only very slowly (my average pace was 3 mph). For perhaps one of the hardest days of my life I’d say that’s not too shabby.
I think when you’re excited about life and there’s a lot to be done you simply don’t need to sleep as much. I don’t know what scientific mechanism might explain this, but I sure as hell have experienced it. This is clear to me when I go to a nightclub (and go running after!) or spend a night with someone I like, whatever implications that term may have. I suppose now I’ll get to experience this “on” mode of life all the time, unless I’m exhausted and am struggling to stay awake. Even then, though, this can still be fun. J
Now, how about a race like the Self-Transcendence 3100, in which runners are subjected to 52-days (tops) of 60 miles (on average) everyday around a half-mile sidewalk in New York City? Probably .0001% of the humans who have ever existed on planet Earth have managed to stay awake for 52 straight days, so I would think that polyphasic sleep would definitely be optimal for this race as long as it provides at least the same amount of recovery as monophasic sleep. However, it seems that there is only an 18-hour window in which running is allowed: in this case I think biphasic would do best. This is unless, of course, the runners must run for 52 days no matter what and the day ends once they hit 60 miles, in which case I would go with monophasic sleep for sanity’s sake. I’ll have to check out those race rules.
Overall, I’m sure I’ll get a better idea of the possibilities once I’ve gone through this whackiness more extensively.
The Biphasic Past
As I mentioned earlier, about two years ago I did a biphasic sleep 30-day trial which extended into about 45 days. I only stopped because I started to have difficulty running, but two years of monophasic sleep clearly have not done much to help that. :P
Regrets aside, I very much enjoyed biphasic sleep. Sometimes when I’ve been upset in the last 2 years I’ve looked on this time as one of the happiest and most fun in my life. Something about this sleep schedule seemed to make life so much more lively. I just can’t put my finger on how (yes, I know livelier is the proper word here).
My basic schedule was to sleep from 12 AM to 5 AM, and then again from 5-5:30 PM. It wasn’t unusual for me to vary from these times by about 30 minutes. Usually the amount I slept fell within 15-30 minutes of the planned 5.5 hours, though there were several days that I slept as many as 7 hours.
In my sleep logs I tried to keep track of the difference between how long I attempted to sleep and how long I actually slept. On some days these times were only 5-10 minutes apart, but there were several that I tried sleeping for 30-60 minutes but did not actually sleep. It’s easiest to say that this reflected poor discipline on those days, but from some of my notes it appears that staying up or eating later than usual might have influenced this outcome also.
If I remember correctly I usually felt a bit groggy for about 10 minutes after waking up from both naps and from core sleep, but throughout most of the day I felt at least fairly energized.
The adaptation period for biphasic sleep wasn’t too difficult, though it wasn’t without a bit of tiredness here and there. For the first four days I slept more each day than the last, and on day 2 I attempted sleep for almost 2 hours more than I actually slept, but once I hit day 5 it was all (mostly) smooth sailing.
I should mention that I had two of my wisdom teeth removed seven days into this experiment, so I used pain relievers and antibiotics for several weeks. Those also may have affected my sleep. The day of the surgery I slept for about 10 hours, but I immediately returned to sleeping 5.5 hours per day by the next day. I wrote, “Better than many active, pre-surgery days…” Indeed, I’ve had many healthy monophasic days in which I’ve slept for 10 hours—the same amount of time I did on a day I was administered anesthetics. Hm…
Maybe I was overenthusiastic about my sleep schedule, but I really had a sense that biphasic sleep made the time after surgery less painful. Even though my face hurt and I had a limited diet I remained genuinely upbeat and excited. Perhaps being awake for longer hours encouraged me to remain lively, since it meant actually being alive for more hours of the day.
Because part of my face was ripped out of me I think I can say that I did not eat more than usual during this experiment. At this time I was on a vegetarian, slightly less healthy version of the diet I’m on now, but it was still absent of processed foods and food additives (e.g. added sugar). I’d like to think this helped me be successful with this experiment.
I had no perception of having more difficulty recovering after exercise, which mostly consisted of running and a bit of light weight-lifting. I did wonder, in fact, if sleeping more efficiently actually helped me to recover better. Of course, I did not run for the about 10 days due to the surgery, but I don’t recall any pains, injuries, or struggles with running during this time.
The hardest part of the day for me was usually between 11 PM and 12 AM. I would normally try to read but there were more than a few days where I gave up and dozed off by 11:30. When the time came for bed I was definitely ready.
There were some nights where I pushed my nap as far late as 9 PM, though naps later than 8 PM usually resulted in me napping longer than desired. Naps earlier than about 4 PM usually made it too hard to stay up until midnight. Naps have to be timed just right so that you aren’t too tired to wake up from them (napped too late) nor too tired to last until and wake up from your core sleep phase on time (napped too early).
My naps during this experiment were quite enjoyable. On the first day I wrote, “It was white all around, and I was a black silhouette. I felt like I was floating. I knew I was on a bed, but at the same time I could not believe it. Very interesting experience—it felt wonderful.” This basic experience was not unusual for me: I took a nap on a hammock when I was biphasic, and that definitely felt like floating. That was probably the best nap of my life.
Many times I did not feel like I fell asleep 100% during naps, but I wasn’t exactly awake either. I could think a little bit, but not for the most part. It was like I could observe myself sleeping: I just watched myself staring into darkness. It may sound eerie, but really it was peaceful.
Where my naps had a “fluffy” feeling to them, my nighttime dreams felt vivid. They were definitely far easier to remember than usual: I can still recall at least one now. They were more fun, too. J
Before the core sleep I would usually try to meditate for about 5-20 minutes until I dozed off. Sometimes I used a recording but I think I preferred not to. I wonder now if this might have been a bad move, since I encouraged laying down without sleeping (thus making it more acceptable for myself to linger in bed). I’ll avoid that this time around.
By the way, I was 17 years old when I did this experiment, so I must disagree with the idea that teenagers cannot be successful on reduced-sleep experiments. Maybe if I tried biphasic sleep again 10 years from now I would sleep less than I did the first time, but whatever the case I was successful at reducing my time asleep and sticking to this schedule.
Overall, I think biphasic sleep can be an enjoyable experiment for anyone who wants to try unconventional sleep patterns—especially as a first experiment of this kind. It doesn’t have to mess with your schedule very much at all (I did it for several weeks while in high school and running on the cross country team) and it isn’t very painful, so if you have a decent amount of desire and discipline you should be just fine.
I do wish I had a viola to keep me company during this experiment—the adaptation period, in particular. I played for about 10 years and I last played a year ago. I’m not talented by any measure, but I can play without too much conscious effort. Still, it’s engaging in that I produce sound and move some part of my body aside from my hands (my whole arm! Can you believe it?). It sounds to me like the perfect activity when I’m tired. Maybe I’ll see what I can manage on the piano or even the guitar if I’m really hurting. And I mean really. J
I should probably invert the screen on my laptop so that what is currently black becomes white, and what is currently white becomes black (e.g. text will turn white, page backgrounds will turn black). I’ve heard this is popular among programmers to keep from frying their eyeballs during their 20-hour workdays, so I ought to give it a try.
I also think this would be far easier if I had a watch, since, unlike my phone, I can wear a watch. But the phone and other clocks in my reality shall do just fine.
Will I be permanently altered by this physiologically and psychologically? Will I burn out my eyeballs by staring at screens too long and not resting them enough? Am I doing this experiment to divert myself from other tasks (though I’d think it would do the opposite)? Will my life end if I miss a nap (probably not)? Can my family members sleep knowing I’ll be awake all night? Will my body get injured from me assuming certain positions for too long? How long will it take to switch back to monophasic? Will I really be able to? Will I kill my laptop with overuse? Will I have to constantly do battle with demons and evil ghosties? Will I see strange things all the time? What if it takes me the whole 30 days to really adapt? Will this make me super-sensitive? Will opportunistic diseases take me over? Can I do this?
Time, thought, and effort shall tell.
Healthy vegan diet. It has been thought that because herbivores must spend more time eating they sleep less. Plant foods and non-processed foods can probably be digested more quickly than animal foods and processed foods, so I won’t feel too heavy. I’ve cut out many foods that make me feel badly, and if there are any left I cannot tell you what they are at this point.
Regular exercise. This might not be practical in the first few days but even on a polyphasic schedule exercise should help me to sleep more soundly and keep my immune system running smoothly.
Biphasic-sleep experience. I wouldn’t call this my first rodeo, though it might as well be a logarithmic level-up from the last level.
Early rising experience. I’m not always spectacular at this (see below) but it’s not that weird for me to spring out of bed between 5 and 7 AM.
I sleep on the floor. I usually fall asleep more quickly on the floor than in a bed. So far, this seems to have made it more urgent that I sit up immediately when I wake up.
Work and other activities I enjoy and want to try. I immensely enjoy writing, and that can be pretty time-consuming if I let it be. There are plenty of other things I can and probably will do, also, such as painting, programming, reading, and socializing and exercising when these things are viable.
Curiosity. What will I learn about myself through doing this? What creepiness might exist in this reality that I’ve never encountered before? Can I really do this? What is life like when you’re awake 22 hours a day? How might I change through doing this? The questions have deep implications.
Some degree of self-discipline. I’ve trudged through many a long run, dietary overhaul, and lengthy article and school project. How different could this be?
Connecting the experiment to work. I’m hoping that I will be able to provide value to others by doing this, such as through writing this article. Even if I’m wrong about this the premise and effort will keep me going.
Talking about the experiment publicly. Same as the last point. In addition, this will help me to feel more accountable for following through.
I like a good challenge. Even when I hate it, I love a good challenge. At the least I feel honored that I get to try this (even though it is a choice).
Accustomed to weirdness. I’ve seen a lot of craziness already both with eyes open and eyes closed, but if something’s going to hang out with me I can find a way to deal with it.
Summer (almost). There are only 8 hours of darkness here now (9 PM to 5 AM) so the nights shouldn’t feel too long.
Teenaged (18). My age group is known for acting out of passion and egotism, lacking discipline, and sleeping in lots.
Recent history of sleeping in and lingering in bed. Hopefully my more distant past has a stronger influence for once.
Potential ultramarathon-desires brewing inside me. But surely I can hold off for 30 days, yes?
Small house. It’s tough to find a place where I’m unlikely to be heard. Playing the viola through the wee hours of the night probably wouldn’t be such a good idea anyway.
Lack of familial support. They won’t try to stop me per se, but they’ll probably get annoyed when I go off to take a nap in the middle of a party and then tell me to get a job.
Lack of experience with lucid dreaming and psychic phenomena. I’ve taken 5 naps (it’s 3:30 AM on day 2) and I can already tell this is an important point. Interpret this however you’d like: you don’t have to believe in a spirit world. That doesn’t kill the possibility of me feeling strange and having dreams that are both more vivid and way creepier than usual. In my last nap (3-3:20 AM) I had the sense that even though this may be a dream I still must consciously choose to protect myself. Perhaps it was a lucid dream, though I’m not really sure I was asleep.
Ghosties in my room? I’ve never seen anything strange but I’ve heard breathing during the night on and off for the last year, and the last few weeks have been “on.” Sometimes it feels like someone is breathing down my neck or right next to me—and it’s not me. This might make it hard for me to fall asleep quickly. This point is related to the last one.
The Fine Print
There are many small details that can be considered and played with—details which may not get quite as much attention on a longer phase of sleep. These include the position I sleep in, whether I sleep next to another person, the temperature of the room, the lighting in the room (or lack thereof), what I eat and when, when I exercise, and so on.
I also have to be more careful about the details of my naps (at least, at first): for example, if my hair is placed in a way that it’s going to make my neck itch, that could throw off my whole nap. It sounds silly, but, well, my 20 minutes of sleep are on the line. So until I gain that ability I can’t just flop down on the floor like a hot mess and pass out, but, well, that’s okay.
Thinking about the implications of polyphasic sleep has led me to ask a number of silly questions.
When will I brush my teeth?
When do I change my underwear?
Is it legal to fall asleep in public?
So I only get to spend 2 hours each day bra-less?
I’m sure there will be more to come.
Guidelines for the Experiment
The basic initial plan is to take 6 20 minute naps at the hours of 1 PM, 5 PM, 9 PM, 1 AM, 5 AM, and 9 AM. This means I will have 3 hours and 40 minutes between each nap. I expect these times to adjust throughout the experiment: perhaps later on my schedule will look more like 12 PM, 6 PM, 9 PM, 1 AM, 5 AM, 9 AM.
In addition, I will allow myself extra (but not longer) naps during the adaptation period, as I did at 3 AM on what is technically day 2. I might throw one in at 7 AM too, and another at some point during the day (maybe 3 PM). There must be at least 90 minutes between each nap. I don’t think the extra naps will screw up what will become the essence of my new bodily rhythm, but if I end up on an 8-nap schedule (2 hours 40 minutes of sleep) then so be it. At first I will not allow myself to go more than 6 hours between naps, though I doubt I’ll want to.
Also, I shall abstain from caffeine and also from laying down without sleeping. I can only lay down if I am going to take a nap.
I might require myself to write privately (journal) for at least 5 minutes everyday as a “brain dump” so my mind doesn’t feel as much of a need to ramble on and on while I’m trying to sleep. But we’ll see about that one.
That’s really all that need be said for now. I’ll likely post updates at least a few times, though I’d like to cover each day within those. I might even start writing one as soon as I’m done with this article. Time is certainly on my side now. :P
So, remember this: if you’re awake at 3 AM (Eastern Standard Time, that is) and you think you’re the only one, you aren’t. And if you are, you won’t be within another 20 minutes. :)
It’s time to be alive… All the time!
This is the source where I've gotten most of my information on polyphasic sleep (there was another website called Polyphasic Society, but it has disappeared).
Polyphasic Sleep by Steve Pavlina as well as his sleep logs (all the relevant links are on that page)
Polyphasic Sleep Series: