There are two ways to improve in swimming: find ways to make yourself faster, and remove things that make you slower. Sleep deprivation is one thing that makes you slower. Adding sleep won’t make you faster than you are like a synthetic suit, but removing sleep deprivation can improve your training return on investment. (For additional discussion on sleep, see recent articles on Becoming a Morning Person, Jet Lag, and Diurnal Variation) Swimmers are generally high achievers outside the water in school and at work. Other than a select few professionals who can train full time twelve months per year, a full time training load must balance with other “life” factors. As disciplined and highly motivated folks, swimmers usually find a way to cram everything in, with sleep often sacrificed. In fact, a culture of sleep deprivation is actually a badge of honor in many circles, particularly in academic settings and in the workplace. Swimmers are not immune to this form of informal competition, and often thrive!
Despite the well established claims that exercise can improve sleep quality, as athletes we tend to go beyond moderation in exercise, particularly in sport where two hours of training can be a considered an easy day. Athletes have exhibited poorer markers of sleep quality than an age and sex matched non-athletic control group. Compared to non-athlete controls, Leeder (2012) found reduced sleep efficiency and increased sleep fragmentation among a group of athletes. Sleep fragmentation is as it sounds: a measure of continuity in sleep, with more fragmentation being less restful. Although the athlete results fell within recommended ranges for healthy sleep, one could argue the recommended daily value for athletes is higher given the increased physical demands. More study is required to test this hypothesis.
Though many sleep studies push subjects into extreme sleep deprivation or require peculiar sleep-wake cycles to assess circadian rhythms, the Stanford men’s basketball team was fortunate to enjoy a period of sleep extension all in the name of science! During this study, players spent five to seven weeks with the requirement of sleeping or remaining in bed at least ten hours each night. Sprint times, shooting accuracy, and subjective well being improved after sleep extension (Mah 2011). Some might claim that added sleep is a placebo, but who cares?! If added sleep makes you feel more confident in the pool, then it has served its purpose. Note that most studies measure subjective qualities like mood as part of their outcomes.
Many compensate for lack of sleep with caffeine. Caffeine has proven performance benefits and is a vast topic unto itself. However, not only does caffeine affect output, it can also affect perception. Cook (2012) compared two groups of athletes: one with “normal” sleep (eight hours or more) and one with “limited” sleep (six or less). Athletes were asked to voluntarily choose loads relative to their percentage maxes in bench press, squat, and bent rows. The limited sleep group voluntarily chose to lift less weight than the normal sleep group. However, when the limited sleep group was given caffeine, they voluntarily chose more weight. Perhaps these results indicate a self regulation mechanism by the body to self-regulate in needing more rest. Realistically, we can’t rewrite the training plan every times someone gets a bad night of sleep, but these results may represent a key link in the mind-body connection and the importance of monitoring athletes’ physical states (and not just force feeding a program at them).
Most readers been through heavy training periods during which we tune out the instant the head hits the pillow at night. Heavy training camps can impact sleep, but don’t assume that just because you are training hard and are tired that sleep will improve. Jurimae (2004) studied rowers in a six day training camp in which load increased 100% over baseline levels. Multiple measures of stress increased (including fatigue, injury, and cortisol levels), while measures of recovery decreased, which included sleep quality. Heavy in-season loads can be tied to injury, as Luke (2011) noted an increase in fatigue related injuries among youth athletes averaging less than or equal six hours of sleep the night before the injury occurred.
Sleep and performance can also be affected by pre-competition jitters. Erlacher (2011) studied thirty two athletes from various sports and polled their sleep habits during the night(s) before an important competition or game. Results indicated, “65.8% of the athletes experienced poor sleep in the night(s) before a sports event at least once in their lives and a similarly high percentage (62.3%) had this experience at least once during the previous 12 months. Athletes of individual sports reported more sleep difficulties than athletes of team sports. The main sleep problem was not being able to fall asleep. Internal factors such as nervousness and thoughts about the competition were rated highest for causing sleep problems. Most athletes stated that disturbed sleep had no influence on their athletic performance; however, athletes also reported effects such as a bad mood the following day, increased daytime sleepiness, and worse performance in the competition or game.” (see The Cause of Choking and How to Avoid it for mental relaxation tips)
Conclusion At a clinic I attended recently, a leading triathlon coach at a clinic gave the simple advice “protect sleep.” I’ll admit that I can be pretty bad myself in this area, but there’s no doubt adding sleep is the simplest performance enhancement tool that is highly underutilized. Whether you add 10,000 yards per week, spend two years remaking your stroke, or simply add an hour of sleep a night, if the end result is faster times, it means you’ve attained the goal. Sometimes we forget the simplest solution! In addition to the areas discussed above, know that the scientific links between sleep deprivation and unhealthy weight gain . If you’re dealing with any athletes struggling with weight, don’t overlook insufficient sleep as a culprit.
Finally, although sleep is crucial, don’t use this information as an excuse to sleep through morning practice. Find a way to get to bed earlier!
- Cook C, Beaven CM, Kilduff LP, Drawer S. Acute caffeine ingestion increases voluntarily chosen resistance training load following limitedsleep. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2012 Feb 15. [Epub ahead of print]
- Leeder J, Glaister M, Pizzoferro K, Dawson J, Pedlar C. Sleep duration and quality in elite athletes measured using wristwatch actigraphy. J Sports Sci. 2012;30(6):541-5. Epub 2012 Feb 14.
- Jürimäe J, Mäestu J, Purge P, Jürimäe T. Changes in stress and recovery after heavy training in rowers. J Sci Med Sport. 2004 Sep;7(3):335-9.
- Erlacher D, Ehrlenspiel F, Adegbesan OA, El-Din HG. Sleep habits in German athletes before important competitions or games. J Sports Sci. 2011 May;29(8):859-66.
- Luke A, Lazaro RM, Bergeron MF, Keyser L, Benjamin H, Brenner J, d’Hemecourt P, Grady M, Philpott J, Smith A. Sports-related injuries in youth athletes: is overscheduling a risk factor? Clin J Sport Med. 2011 Jul;21(4):307-14.
- Mah CD, Mah KE, Kezirian EJ, Dement WC. The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep. 2011 Jul 1;34(7):943-50.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.