Sleeping Smart To Benefit Your Swimming

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By Kaylie Williams, Swimming World College Intern.

Every swimmer knows that sleep is one of the best forms of recovery – but between homework, training, classes and the occasional social commitment, sleep often takes a backseat.

What Happens When You Neglect Sleep?


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Along with food and water, sleep is the next essential factor that humans need to survive. Whether it sounds fictitious or not, you can actually accumulate sleep debt from not getting adequate sleep every night. According to the American Sleep Association, sleep debt – also known as sleep deficit – “describes the cumulative effect of a person not having sufficient sleep.” There are two types of sleep debt: total and partial sleep deprivation. Total sleep deprivation is exactly what it sounds like; the person has been awake for a minimum of 24 hours. Partial sleep deprivation occurs when a person has had limited sleep for several days or weeks.

Many people do not take sleep debt seriously; however, it’s a lot like credit card debt – easy to accumulate and hard to pay off. For example, if you are supposed to sleep for eight hours and you sleep for about seven hours on average, you are automatically accruing seven hours of sleep debt per week. This kind of sleep deprivation is not only detrimental to your health and performance during the day, but also is plain dangerous.

A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information revealed that “after 17 to 19 hours without sleep…performance on some tests was equivalent or worse than that at a BAC of 0.05 percent.” In other words, being moderately sleep deprived has similar effects on your functioning as being legally intoxicated. The study also states that response speeds “were up to 50 percent slower for some tests,” meaning that extreme fatigue affects motor function, response speed and overall accuracy.

So How Does This Affect Swimming?

Sleep deprivation directly affects a swimmer’s performance, and yes, those morning practices probably have a lot to do with the amount of sleep debt you have to pay off. It has already been proven that a person’s reaction times will be much slower than a well-rested person; therefore, it makes sense to claim that a sleep-deprived swimmer will react and perform much slower in comparison to a well-rested swimmer. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a well rested swimmer will, on average, swim “a 15-meter sprint 0.51 seconds faster, react 0.15 seconds quicker off the blocks, improve turn time by 0.10 seconds and increase kick strokes by 5.0 kicks.”

Additionally, coming to practice sleepy will instantly make the workout seem much harder than it is. This feeling is called perceived exhaustion and can be detrimental to a swimmer’s success in the pool, because it makes them feel lazy and more tired than they are. If a swimmer is extremely fatigued at practice, it can lead to injury and illness. Without proper rest, the muscles never get a chance to recover and the immune system becomes weak and vulnerable to illness.

What About Morning Practices?


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In contrast to what your coach may be telling you, that six o’clock morning practice might not be as beneficial as they think. Sure, morning practices can be really great for working on technique in an empty pool or for stretching out after a really intense practice from the night before, but getting up at six o’clock in the morning after a long night of homework and studying (hello, fellow college students) actually limits the effectiveness of training.

Another study performed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information has proven that if a person is sleeping for less than six hours before a morning practice, the training is relatively ineffective and directly impacts a person’s psychological and physiological function. In that case, if you are a swimmer who has double days or early morning practices, it is super important to get more than six hours of sleep in order to really reap the benefits of training.

How Much Sleep is Adequate?


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In 2015, the National Sleep Foundation issued a statement explaining the appropriate amount of sleep duration for many different ages. As you might already know, the baseline for most age groups is around eight hours per night. Sleeping for eight hours allows your body necessary time to reset and recover from the day before. Of course these amounts differ from person to person, because everybody is different and is doing different workouts – but the harder you swim, the more sleep you will need to recover. An aerobic swimmer who is sleep-deprived will feel the effects more than a sprint-based swimmer who is also sleep-deprived, because their muscles need to endure a longer workout for a longer period of time, using energy the body most likely doesn’t have stored.

The National Sleep Foundation states that for teenagers, the recommended amount of sleep is eight to ten hours per night. Interestingly, the recommended amount of sleep is less for 18 to 25-year-olds and adults over 25, falling between seven to nine hours per night. Considering all of this information, for athletes (swimmers specifically), the perfect amount of sleep is anywhere from nine to ten hours of sleep in order to really get the best out of your workout. Yes, that’s right.

Now you’re thinking, “Who has time to sleep for that long?” But the truth is, if you neglect those Z’s and rack up sleep debt, it will just grow and haunt you for the rest of the season, eventually becoming detrimental to your success in the pool.

All research was conducted by the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.


    • avatar
      Brendan Duffy -Sleep Coach

      Great job ! Very thorough explanation of what happens when you neglect sleep and how morning practices may actually be detrimental!!

      Brendan Duffy -Sleep Educator CCSH
      Athlete Sleep Coach

  1. avatar

    Would love insight on most beneficial/effective nap duration.

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