7 winning strategies Navy SEALs use to overcome sleep deprivation

Navy SEALs are trained in how to battle through extreme sleep deprivation.

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Navy SEALs are trained in how to battle through extreme sleep deprivation.
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US Navy

  • Set a sleep routine that relaxes you in the hours before bed – and follow it.
  • When you’re stressed or overwhelmed, write out a plan that helps you focus on how you’ll face the challenges tomorrow.
  • Recognize when you’re really tired. Nap. Ask others for help.

Growing evidence suggests that poor sleep habits harm our health, our relationships, and even our jobs. So if you’re having trouble sleeping, then it’s time to get back to the basics – military style.

Special operators, who are sent on the US military’s most dangerous assignments, must sleep when they can and often face extreme sleep deprivation to complete their missions. Whether you’re a new parent, have a stressful job, or are dealing with a difficult situation, there’s a lot you can learn from these elite operators.

To get a sense of how to sleep like a champ in the worst situations, we pored over sleep techniques for special operators and interviewed a former Navy SEAL who trains pro athletes, firefighters, and police tactical teams on how they maximize their performance.

“There’s not a harder job out there than being a mom or dad, working or stay at home,” said Adam La Reau, who spent 12 years as a Navy SEAL and is a cofounder of O2X Human Performance, a company that trains and advises groups from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Boston Fire Department. “There’s definitely a sleep debt that could occur over time.”

Adam La Reau spent 12 years in the Navy SEALs, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. He cofounded O2x in 2013 with fellow SEALs.

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Adam La Reau spent 12 years in the Navy SEALs, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. He cofounded O2x in 2013 with fellow SEALs.
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Courtesy Adam La Reau

Small tweaks to your routine – what La Reau called “1% changes” in a March 19 phone interview – will make a huge difference to your sleep.

These are the basics of sleep boot camp. Know these before you nod off.


Have a presleep game plan.

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An airman catches some zzz’s on a C-17 Globemaster flight.
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Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan/US Air Force

“It’s like a warm-up routine you do for a work out,” La Reau said. He then ticked off a list of do-nots: eat within two hours before bed, stare at bright lights, or start playing “Fortnite.”

During this time, La Reau suggests activities that will calm your nerves, maybe reading, meditation, listening to music, or dimming the lights.

Definitely: turn off your electronics.

TV watchers, e-tablet readers, “Fortnight” gamers – “They’re getting crushed with light,” La Reau, whose O2X team includes a half-dozen sleep scientists. “And that’s just going to disrupt their circadian rhythm, it’s going to trick your body into thinking it’s day and your body should be up.”

Read more: A secret military technique could help you fall asleep in just 2 minutes


Put together a list or a reminder of what you need to do the next day.

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La Reau recommends writing a daily list to help you mentally prepare for the next day.
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Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt/US Navy

We all have a lot going on, especially new parents. La Reau says you need to tackle that head-on.

In the hours before bed, put together a list or reminder of what you need to do the next day.

“Every time I go home, I have a list of what I need to do the next day … I feel like I’m prepared when I wake up in the morning,” La Reau said. “I know exactly what I’m going to do, and I sleep better at night for it.”

Read more: A former Army sniper shares a trick for staying focused


Exercise is important, but do it well before bedtime.

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Aerobic exercise boosts the amount of rejuvenating deep sleep you receive, according to researchers at the John Hopkins Center for Sleep.
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Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt/US Navy

Obviously. These are Navy SEALs.


Sleep when you can.

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The Navy SEALs’ Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training is notoriously exhausting.
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Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt/US Navy

One military sleep manual advises special operators to use the lulls in combat to nap. “Uninterrupted sleep for as little as 10 minutes may partially recover alertness,” the Naval Health Research Center report said.

A nap can boost your energy but don’t zonk out too close to your bedtime, La Reau said.

“Naps are really helpful, and any sleep is better than no sleep at all,” La Reau said. “When the baby takes a nap, that could be a good time for you to take a nap.”

Just think of it as a lull in combat.


Get a high-quality mattress, black-out shades, and a white-noise machine.

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Set yourself up for nighttime right.
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Scott T. Sturkol/US Army

“The bedroom should be a sanctuary for sleeping and relaxation and recovery, it’s not to be used as an accessory or a work station,” La Reau said.

He suggests black-out shades, a white-noise machine, and a quality mattress.

“Sleeping on a high-quality mattress is the best investment you’ll ever make,” he said.


Put away that phone. Seriously.

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Light from devices such as your phone can delay the release of the hormone melatonin, which regulates when you’re tired.
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Photo illustration by Senior Airman Destinee Sweeney/US Air Force

It’s not just because of that blue light, either. It’s about stress. You want to use the two hours before bed to relax and unwind – not get yourself worried.

“If you’re going to check your email and you realize you have 10 emails – that doesn’t help you be very settled at night,” La Reau said.


Sleep can be a team sport.

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Recognize when you’re exhausted and ask others to help you.
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Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt/US Navy

An exhausted parent needs to recognize it and call in reinforcements: friends, family, or their partner.

“I think there’s opportunities to have those open and honest conversations,” La Reau said. “Be like, ‘You know, I’ve got a huge meeting tomorrow, I’m on a long period of travel, I’ve got a lot going on,’ or someone’s just completely exhausted.”

“‘Let me take care of all issues that come up with the kids tonight.'”