If you’ve heard the phrase “we get more done before 10am than most people do all day”, then you may have been spending time with a marine. Military personnel are notorious for sleeping little and accomplishing much! Early wake up calls and extremely long shifts often mean there isn’t much time for anything else. They work hard, play hard, and sleep hard—albeit most likely less hours than the average person sleeps.
While the military has historically taken a hard and fast ‘less is more’ stance on sleep, the system is beginning to change just a bit in recent years. As science continues to reveal the relationship between adequate sleep and optimal mental and physical performance, the military seems to be flexing a bit to adapt. Even so, at least 39% of the Navy and 42% of the Marine Corps say that they are frequently in a situation where they don’t get enough sleep in order to do their jobs well.
How Much Sleep Do Soldiers Get?
When they aren’t on active combat duty or in basic training, members of the military are usually allowed to have a mostly adequate number of hours of sleep per night. While they aren’t likely to get the eight hours of sleep that a normal civilian would be accustomed to, 6-7 hours may be enough to get by. Some soldiers admit to getting much less, however.
The fact that at least 24% of active duty US Army, Navy and Air Force suffer from insomnia can’t be helping anything. Plus, more than 60% may also have another sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. It’s not a pretty picture for sleeping the military.
Sleeping in Combat
For all of the military branches, in the past a “four-hour rule” has been popular when it comes to sleep. Many people believed that needing more than four hours per night of sleep meant you weren’t strong or capable. Troops who were working in areas that were operational and fast-paced were expected to function on just four hours of sleep per night. Today, more members of the military are recognizing that this type of sleep deprivation could possible result in poor performance and weakening of cognitive abilities. This should mean that more time is being allotted for sleeping at night for soldiers.
But sometimes, in combat situations, the problem of sleep deprivation can’t be helped. When soldiers are up all night in combat, fatigued and sleep deprived, they may be more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
So even when soldiers can’t get the full amount of sleep they need, they may rely on several tricks to get rest when they can. Napping, micro-sleeping, and teamwork all function together to help soldiers get the sleep they need even when conditions are not exactly ideal.
How to Sleep Like a Soldier
Here are some of the tips and tricks that military personnel use to keep themselves functioning on less sleep:
Nap. Just a twenty minute snooze in the afternoon can help increase brain function and physical performance. Get as comfortable as possible, but be in a place where you can wake up easily. In certain combat situations, ‘micro-sleep’ is needed. For instance, when sleep deprived soldiers are called to ‘take a knee’, they can get a two or three minute nap in between physical activities. It’s not great but it’s something.
Stay Fit. In order to keep in peak physical performance, soldiers need to work out to be fast and strong in combat. When you’re physically fit, you’re more likely to deal with a rough night without sleep. Plus, physical training and exertion is a great way to fight off insomnia.
Keep a Set Schedule. People who go to bed at the same time every night are more likely to fall asleep faster. Soldiers normally stick to a rigid schedule and become creatures of habit. Under normal circumstances in training, lights out is at 9pm sharp and the morning call comes early at 5am. That’s technically eight hours for sleep, but nighttime drills and other special events can interrupt this.
Teamwork. A buddy system is an effective tool soldiers use to keep up morale and stay awake. Sleep deprivation can make people grumpy and short-tempered, so strong teamwork is critical under these conditions. And if one guy needs a nap, he knows that his buddy is nearby to watch out for him and wake him if needed. When soldiers are cross-trained, one can pick up the slack where others might be struggling from fatigue.
Instinct Mastery. When your brain is furry and clouded, you need to able to do your job as if it is second nature. There’s no time to think about what steps you need to take to reload your weapon. You just have to do it automatically. Soldiers master these types of skills so that they become second nature and can be performed even when their brains and bodies are not function at full capacity.
Sleep Deprivation Training. Part of the goal of basic training required by all branches of the military is intentionally experience fatigue. This exposes soldiers to sleep deprivation and teaches them to function as if in combat. Learning how the brain and body will function when sleep deprived in the safe space of training means the soldier is less likely to panic when in an actual combat situation.
Make Your Bed. This probably sounds unnecessary but it helps a lot. Soldiers thrive on order and just making the bed with crisp, hospital corners can allow for satisfying sleep when they fall into bed at night from exhaustion.
When returning from military duty, many soldiers find that re-establishing into the sleep routine of a civilian can be very challenging. Not only soldiers struggle with a strange new schedule, but nightmares and insomnia can double the trouble of living their new life in the regular world. Although many people might want to take tips from soldier sleep schedules, it’s also probably true that many soldiers would rather be at home sleeping in their own comfy beds!