Science of Performance: Are Morning Workouts Worth the Sleep Deprivation? Part I

By G. John Mullen of Swimming Science and Center of Optimal Restoration , Creator of Swimmer's Shoulder System, Swimming Science Research Review, Swimming World correspondent

SANTA CLARA, California, February 4. SINCE moving to California from Ohio, I've noticed numerous differences between teenagers in the midwest and California.

Californians wear less shoes, and less frequently.
Californians are more frequently late to appointments.
Californians (at least in the Bay Area) have to swim in much harsher conditions (outdoor swimming when it is 30 degrees).
Californians don't get their driver's license the moment they turn 16.
Californians are tanner (had to throw this one in there).

Now, these correlations with geographic location are influenced by many variables, and I'll be the first to admit this may be a generational difference, nonetheless these differences do exist.

Of these differences, two of them are the most bothersome: the tardiness to appointments and the lack of urgency for obtaining their driver's license. I'll never forget all the morning workouts I performed growing up, and my mother pushed me to get my driver's license the moment I turned 16. This push from my mom was trying to restore her 'normal' sleep schedule and, without surprise, waking up at 4:30 a.m. to drive her son to practice was not her 'normal' sleep schedule.

In swimming, morning workouts are extremely common and deemed a necessity in this sport, as motor control and conditioning are believed to be improved by highly frequent workouts and repetitions. Unfortunately, there are also negative consequences with morning practice, most specifically sleep deprivation.

Despite common belief, health and sport are two separate categories. For example, many feel athletes have extremely healthy bodies, when in fact their bodies are constantly pushed to the limit resulting in many musculoskeletal injuries. Moreover, the necessity to be frequently 'amped' for a competition or practice can result in a sympathetic nervous system overload, and potential damage to their endothelial walls due to excess inflammation and damage.

These differences make it necessary to say any elite National training program for swimming (or for any other sport) is not the epitome of health. This makes it essential to reduce the negative results of intense training without sacrificing the demands necessary in the sport for elite success.

One modifiable variable is the volume of sleep. Sleep is a simplistically complex topic. First, it is simple as everyone can sleep, but complex as no one truly knows why we actually sleep or what initiates sleepiness. Now before I discuss why we sleep, it is key to discuss the different phases of sleep and the role of each specific phase.

Rapid eye movement (REM): This phase of sleep produces the highest brain activity and those being awakened during this phase of sleep experience improved initial motor function compared to those awakened during different stages of sleep (Horner 1997). More importantly, REM sleep may help brain regeneration and diminishing emotional expression during the day.

Non-rapid eye movement (NREM): NREM appears to aid in restoration of the nervous system and energy conservation.

Overall, it seems sleep helps repair the brain and body. Unfortunately, the research may not be specific on the roles of sleep, but several pieces suggest the necessity of sleep. Simply, the potential of accumulating sleep debt suggests an essential role. Sleep debt is defined as the effect that occurs mentally and physically by not getting enough sleep.

Moreover, sleep deprivation in flies can actually cause death more quickly than food deprivation (Rechtschaffen 1998). Unfortunately, this death cannot be isolated to lack of sleep alone (potentially from the sleep prevention stimulus), but is still worrisome.

Another note, human performance becomes impaired during sleep deprivation (Binks 1998). This begs the question, is sleep deprivation worth it for the extra 6,000 yards a day?

This is just the intro to this series which will undoubtedly question the tradeoff between sleep deprivation for increased swimming volume. Unfortunately, this series will not provide all the answers, but give you the tools to assess the risks and benefits of sleep deprivation secondary to morning workouts.

G. John Mullen is the owner of the Center of Optimal Restoration and creator of Swimming Science. He received his doctorate in Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California. G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimmer Magazine, and the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal.

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