5 Fun Facts About Swimmers and Sleep

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. You can join his weekly motivational newsletter for competitive swimmers, coaches and parents by clicking here.

Competitive swimmers understand how important it is to work hard in practice, crush it in the gym, and to eat well.

You spend an endless amount of time drilling your techniqueworking your core strength, and developing the conditioning and strength to become a faster swimmer.

And yet, for way too many of us, we pass on one of the easiest ways to supercharge our performance in and out of the water. Getting lots of sleep is the easiest and dare I say it—most enjoyable—thing you can do to become a faster swimmer.

Quality time between the sheets is the ultimate performance booster: it helps you to recover faster, improves your mood profile (we all get a little cranky when short-rested), and yes, will help you swim faster over the long run.

Here are some fun facts about swimmers and sleep:

1. We don’t get enough of it (duh).

Swimmers have a gong-show schedule. During high school it looked like I was going on holidays each morning as I shuffled out the door for morning practice. With an overflowing bag for my swim gear, a bag for school books, and a bag full of food for the day, it looked like I was getting ready to conquer Everest.

By the time I got home I was generally exhausted, but still had to push through and get homework done before doing it all over again the following day. The days were never long enough for everything I needed to do.

As a result, when I needed more time to catch up with friends, finish homework, or whatever, it meant that sleep was the first thing to go.

While sleep deprivation isn’t particularly unique to competitive swimmers, we are particularly bad at getting anywhere near 7-8 hours a night.

When researchers followed a group of elite Australian swimmers during preparation for the Beijing Olympics, they found that the athletes averaged only 7.1 hours of sleep on rest days, and a paltry 5.4 hours when there was a morning workout the next day.

2. The harder you train, the more sleep you need.

The amount of sleep our body requires scales with how hard you are exerting yourself while you are awake. The harder the training, the more sleep you need to recover and bounce back.

Some nights your body will need ten hours, others you will feel great after seven. Shooting for an exact number of hours of sleep per night isn’t realistic as your sleep demands will be different depending on how training is going. The amount of sleep your body requires after a 1,500m loosen up swim is going to be different than the recovery needed after doing 20x400s best average.

Knowing this, plan naps and earlier bed times during particularly aggressive phases of training (Hell Week, or your holiday training camp, for instance).

Olympic champion Nathan Adrian focuses on getting 10-12 hours of sleep when training at altitude at the Olympic Training Center. It’s 8-10 hours at night, with a solid nap between workouts to help recover from the daily thrashings in the water.

3. The more intense your workouts, the harder it will be to sleep.

The inability to get good sleep after a high-intensity thrashing at the pool is one of the odd experiences of being a high-performance swimmer.

It doesn’t make sense on the surface of it: You go to the pool, sprint your brains out for a couple hours to the point that you are crumpled up on the pool deck, and then when you get home you have a hard time falling asleep.

Those super intense workouts stress the body in a big way. As you limp out of the aquatic center there is a lot going on inside of you: cortisol (the stress hormone) and norepinephrine (adrenaline) are spiking. It takes a while for your body to return to normal, with norepinephrine taking up to 48 hours to level out after all-out exercise.

This is another great reason to make sure you tack on a generous amount of active recovery to the end of those speed and power workouts.

In my own experience I’ve found that getting to sleep after those brutal speed-and-power workouts is much easier if I allow time for a 15-20 minute warm-down.

4. More sleep makes you mentally tougher.

Think back to the last time you were running on low sleep. What was your mood like? Probably not awesome, right? Sleep deprivation makes us grumpy. No big surprise there.

Restless nights of sleep also makes training feel harder than it would when regularly rested. Study after study has shown that perceived effort—how hard you feel you are working—spikes from sleep deprivation.

Which means that we are less likely to push ourselves when groggy and tired.

The dryland and swim workouts are hard enough already, no need to make them feel more difficult than necessary. In this way, being properly rested makes you mentally tougher.

5. And yes, more sleep means faster swimming.

Being rested is a great feeling. We feel fresh, energized, and ready to rock and roll. This translates into faster swimming.

When a group of varsity swimmers were told to increase their nightly diet of sleep by an hour they experienced significant drops in times in the water in just six weeks.

The study, done with swimmers at Stanford, found that reaction time off the blocks improved, turn time improved, and most impressively of all, the swimmers shaved an average of half a second on their time to 15m.

That’s an absurd amount of improvement for something as simple as getting a little more shut-eye each night.

The Next Step

Knowing you need more sleep isn’t the issue swimmers face—it’s managing your time and making it a priority to get into bed earlier that is the challenge.

There are some simple things swimmers can do to get more sleep:

  • Turn off the smartphone at night. Laying in bed while scrolling through your social feeds will keep ya perked up. Power down the screen in bed and put the phone across the room to remove the urge to check it.
  • Plan out naps. If you can’t get more sleep at night work on getting a power nap somewhere in the middle of your day. A 30-minute nap is enough to help boost mental and physical performance after a 4-hour night of sleep.
  • Time management. At the end of the day this is the biggie—you need to prioritize sleep by wrangling the rest of your schedule. Stay on top of your schedule by working to get ahead of your schoolwork, planning and prepping meals, and creating a cut-off time each night for you to begin preparing for bed.

ABOUT OLIVIER POIRIER-LEROY

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the Pool Mental Training Book for SwimmersHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

It combines sport psychology research, worksheets, and anecdotes and examples of Olympians past and present to give swimmers everything they need to conquer the mental side of the sport.

Ready to take your mindset to the next level?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.

COACHES: Yuppers–we do team orders of “Conquer the Pool” which include a team discount as well as complimentary branding (your club logo on the cover of the book) at no additional charge.

Want more details? Click here for a free estimate on a team order of CTP.

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Thirteenthwind
3 years ago

Fun fact: the human body isn’t meant to run on fewer than 8 hrs of sleep. 10 cosecutive days of 7 hrs or fewer leads to a brain that functions on the same level as one that has been awake 24 hrs straight.

Fun fact: sleep and memory function are linked. Deep sleep transfers information gained during waking hours to long term storage. This information transfer includes “muscle memory” – but this particular function happens at the end of a sleep cycle, generally in that 2 hour window athletes skip by waking up for morning practice. That slows the body’s ability to process gains made the day before, and knocks out “cramming” & all-nighters as effective study techniques.

HSWIMMER
Reply to  Thirteenthwind
3 years ago

This isnt not true, the lastest recommendations on sleep recommended adults get between 6-9 hours nightly https://sleepfoundation.org/excessivesleepiness/content/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need-0

Thirteenthwind
Reply to  HSWIMMER
3 years ago

So, here’s the thing about that “how much sleep do we really need” article… The definition of “really need” is skewed. A human being CAN survive on fewer hours of sleep per night than is needed for optimal function. (ie, years of sleeping for 5-6 hours won’t lead to death the way a week or two of 1 hour / day will.) However, for athletes in particular, I’d argue that really need” IS defined as what the human body needs for OPTIMAL function, not just staying alive.

It’s like a comparison between existing on bread and water vs nutrient rich and varied proteins, veggies, grains etc. You CAN live on bread and water, but you’re not going to be… Read more »

dmswim
Reply to  HSWIMMER
2 years ago

Not sure if you read your own link, but it says 7-9.

Meeeeeee
Reply to  Thirteenthwind
3 years ago

Actually a sleep cycle is 90 minutes. So you would want to wake at the end of a cycle to feel most refreshed. So either 6, 7.5, or 9 hours would be ideal

DRESSEL IS GOD
3 years ago

The problem with anyone who still happens to be in high school is that sometimes they just can’t do some of this. 15 minute warm down, my parents would smack me. They already don’t like waiting 2 minutes for me to dry off at swim meets (FORGET cheering for a teammate, you’re gone right after your last event and if possible you’ll get scratched if your parents feel like you have a long meet). Even though I swim only on rec and a high school team it’s extremely hard to even swim in the first place. This is forgetting academics AND off time even though there’s no such thing as off time anymore

Swammer
Reply to  DRESSEL IS GOD
3 years ago

Sorry your parents feel this way. Honesty I used to be like that too. I have been a swim parent for over 10 years now with a kid swimming in college. As I got older and wiser I realized that extra time cheering for a friend or counting for a teammate is the whole point. The school work gets done. It’s not worth obsessing over the extra time.

Togger
Reply to  DRESSEL IS GOD
3 years ago

Whilst it’s a shame your parents feel that way, it’s also part of the coach’s responsibility.

I coach some junior kids at my local club, nothing serious at all, but on their weekly hour and a half session I make sure warm up and warm down are each 15 mins.

Time management is something you learn as you grow. Put yourself in the mental headspace of stuff being possible (I think the current Stanford girls are a superb example, balancing very intense academics with world class swimming) and not having dead time.

I don’t really like the man, but personally I find Elon Musk’s 6 minute units technique helpful, worth a Google.

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  DRESSEL IS GOD
11 months ago

I hear there are good parents in the IU transfer portal. You might want to look for a trade-in.

DistanceSwimmer
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
11 months ago

Hahaha iconic

Mikeh
3 years ago

I have heard that Pete Sampras used to sleep 12 hours per day during tournaments.

Alan
1 year ago

Been coaching my daughter over 5 years now in swimming, (since 9) and there is definitely a pattern. If she sleeps over 10 hours pre- Gala then her times either stay same or slower. If she has 7 hours then invariably a PB obviously taking into consideration this will not be each week as not possible to PB every weekend but over targeted time frames.
Noted the same in training sessions 7 hours good session longer sleep still OK but off pace and struggles with lactate threshold sets. We are all different so need to find what works bespoke to each of us.

Enjoy your updates very much as signed up to your news letters great source of information.… Read more »

Khachaturian
11 months ago

Bruh I sleep for 10 hours sometimes and I still feel like I don’t get enough.

DistanceSwimmer
Reply to  Khachaturian
11 months ago

Well sometimes you can oversleep, or wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle as talked about in the comment above. I’ve always found that being as close to 9 hours as possible is best for me.

swimfan210_
11 months ago

Great article! We often sleep on the importance of getting enough sleep (pun intended.)

Jack
10 months ago

I’m a health freak also a swimming instructor and I knew the importance of sleep. Not only swimming any kind of workout needs diet and sleep these are the keys!

But swimming is as we say is the mother of all exercises, so if you’re working hard you should give some rest to your body as well.

I was reading an article about hybrid mattresses which are used to be the best for any athlete. In that article:

Larry Hogan Says: That if you’re not given your body what it needs then your body isn’t giving what you needs!

Sleep is the most important factor you should consider to achieve your goals!

Cheers!

3KW
7 months ago

Thanks for bringing up the sleep issues with swimming.It would be helpful if this article added a section about recommended sleep by age. We have coaches asking younger and younger kids to sleep less and less and practice MORE. And, of course there are insane parents willing to do whatever it takes to sacrifice their kids well being so they have something to brag about on FACEBOOK. This sport needs some help in figuring out how to allow a young swimmer to experience the totality of their youth while also enjoying the benefits of the sport of swimming. Swimming at the expense of everything else just creates sad swimmers who burn out.

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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