The early morning practice is a familiar part of the swimming experience. Here is why it does and doesn’t make sense for fast swimming.
As familiar to swimmers as the everlasting scent of chlorine is the early morning practice.
With bag thrown over our shoulder, hair splayed in every direction, and geared up in sweatpants we make our way to our local pool under the cover of darkness while the rest of the world sleeps.
Back and forth in the quiet din of the pool we hone our craft, improve our conditioning, all the while knowing that we will be returning to the pool again later that day.
Usually around the age that swimmers begin doing early mornings is when they are starting to eye whether or not they are going to swim in college, giving the swimmer and parents added pressure/incentive to scale up the sessions in order to see the improvements necessary to garner the attention of big name schools.
But are morning workouts truly that necessary? Doing more harm than good? Or do they represent a line that separates the good from the great?
For most coaches, early morning swim practices are simply the way it has always been done. For others it’s the only time they can get good pool space. And for others, mornings are used strictly for skill development.
And while early mornings continue to be a staple of the swimmer’s training regimen, there are coaches out there who are doing away with them completely.
Here is a breakdown of the reasons for and against having early morning practices for swimmers:
Reasons for Morning Workouts
In defense for early mornings, a swimmer will pick up…
Time management skills.
I’ll admit, kids nowadays have it much harder than I did when I was younger. With no iPad, cell phone or TV in my room to keep me up late at night (and the phone was in the living room) it was either catch up on some homework or go to bed.
With the “fall to sleep by X hour in order to get Y number of hours of sleep” deadline never far I was forced to be on point when I got home from PM practice.
This meant doing homework, eating dinner (often at the same time), emptying and drying out towels and swimsuits, and prepping food for the following day. I envied my friends who didn’t swim and their lackadaisical evenings.
Luckily for me I also had a spare each semester in high school which gave me an extra hour each day to get homework in during school hours (or take a power nap in a corner of the library).
When you are running on a tight schedule the benefit is that you not only learn to prioritize the important stuff, but you find you are able to get things done faster.
If you’ve never heard of Parkinson’s Law, it states that the things you do expands or contracts as to fill the time allotted to complete it. In other words, whether you have one hour or four hours, the task will fill up the void of time you give it.
Knowing that you have a finite amount of time each evening forces you to make do with the minutes and hours available to you.
Simulates swim meets with two sessions per day.
Getting up and being ready to swim fast in the morning is a nice bonus that is learned over the span of doing morning workouts.
Your body learns to be ready to race and to swim lights-out in the AM, something that can come in handy when you need to get up and swim like a boss during heats at a swim meet.
Sets you up for a big PM session.
Whether it is muscle memory, still being “warm” from the earlier session, or having a better feel for the water because of the recent swim, I’ve always found that the second session of the day I feel better in the water, and more ready to swim lights out fast.
When the morning workout consisted mainly of kick and drill work I had a greater feel for the water at night, and typically swam great after the “set-up” workout earlier that day.
(This effect holds true to this day, even though my “early” morning workout aren’t nearly as early they once were.)
Makes you mentally tougher.
Being able to perform when conditions aren’t great, when you haven’t had a great night of rest become more important as you progress through your career in the pool. One of the hallmarks of elite swimmers is their ability to swim fast no matter the circumstance.
This type of adaptability is earned through experience, and morning workouts provide this. It’s important to be able to race on low sleep (sleeping poorly as a result of pre-race jitters the night before competition is wildly common), when you are stressed out, and when the situation calls for anything but fast swimming.
These moments in training give you the confidence to know that you can represent when it comes to crunch time no matter what circumstances present themselves.
More pool space.
Our community pools are beehives of activity for the local population.
Between swimming lessons, aquacise/aquafit classes, open swim, the synchro, water polo and underwater hockey teams, and then, the competitive swimming team, afternoons are typically a complete gong-show at most local pools.
Early mornings provide the lane space for teams to stretch out a little bit and make use of equipment and space they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Power towers, stretch cords, and the starting blocks were things we couldn’t use with the crowded lanes and decks typical in the afternoons.
Gets your butt into bed early.
Sure, you might be getting to bed early because you simply can’t bear the thought of being groggy for another day, or you are so tired from the day that you are falling asleep in your textbooks, but morning workouts encourage earlier bedtimes.
Dave Salo, head coach at USC, a proponent of reduced sessions and overall yardage in favor of fewer, higher quality bouts of training, tends to use morning workouts for drill and kick work, and to encourage his university-aged athletes to maintain a reasonable bed-time.
Increased frequency of training.
The more frequently you swim, the quicker you’ll tolerate the stress that comes from training.
By getting in the pool more often—even if they are for sessions with less volume and intensity—your body will adapt and be able to train harder.
Swimming being the technical endeavor that it is requires a steady diet of work, and the addition of those morning sessions can help ingrain a better technique and feel for the water.
The Case Against Morning Workouts
When the swimmer’s schedule gets away from them it encourages a situation where sleep is going to be sacrificed.
Simply look at what a swimmer’s typical day looks like when they swim a double and it’s not hard to see how sleep will eventually come to bear the burden of an overbooked schedule.
From a wake-up call in the neighborhood of 5am, followed by a full day of school, another session in the pool, and then the always delightful nighttime shift of homework, most young athletes carry a punishing schedule.
The main three reasons morning workouts end up having the opposite of their intended effect, in order of importance:
Lack of sleep.
It’s a cruel irony that at an age where swimmers are starting to hit physical maturity is when both their training load and homework load all hit their peak.
At the same time that swimmers are eyeing the possibility of swimming beyond high school, they are also being hit with hilarious levels of study time both in class and outside of it, and the sleeping habits that result from this 1-2 punch aren’t always pretty, as sleep is the first thing to be cut when you are in the midst of exams and heavy bouts of training.
Although we have been fed the line that physical activity improves sleep patterns, high level athletes train on the extreme level of things, and whether as a result of this tend to actually sleep (although still within what is considered “healthy”) with less efficiency and with less continuity than non-athletes.
While short term sleep deficits don’t impact actual physical performance in swimmers, the rate of perceived effort goes through the roof (this means that it feels harder than it should to perform); depression, stress and tension go up, and psychomotor function was impaired after only one bad night of sleep.
On the other side of things, where swimmers actually get more sleep than what is considered typical or baseline (8 hours), performance increased big time.
Sleep extension—where swimmers in a Stanford study where instructed to sleep for 9-10 hours over a 5-6 week period—was shown to have a positive impact on performance, with swimmers increasing their 15m sprint times by an average of half a second, reaction times, and even helped improve flip turn speed.
With the increase in training frequency means that the window for recovery between workouts is shortened.
A punishing morning workout doesn’t always set up the swimmer for a good evening session (although with some proper programming this can be avoided), and can often have the effect of resulting in a poor workout in the PM.
This effect is amplified when sleep deprivation occurs the night before. The athlete goes from crappy morning workout to a zombie-like state over the course of the school day to another crappy practice at night.
At which point the athlete needs the following day to recover from a bad night of sleep and two weak practices.
See also: How to Recover After a Hard Swim Workout
Those early morning workouts can end up leaving an athlete in a perpetual state of exhaustion, where they are never able to give those complete efforts at practice and take longer than necessary to recover from hard work.
Outside of the recovery and sleep implications (which are more than enough as it is), morning workouts are a significant investment of time.
Between the back and forth commutes, the pre-workout mobility and flexibility work, and then the warm-ups, warm-downs and other non-main set work, we are racking up some serious hours over the course of the week.
When you consider that the main set, the money maker of the swim workout, is usually only about half of the workout (and sometimes less), with the rest of the practice consisting of warm-up and warm-down it’s entirely conceivable that you could just bundle the main set from the morning into a 2.5 hour workout at night-time and forego the morning practice altogether.
So what is the right answer?
There is no blanket yes or no answer.
(I know–you were hoping for a personalized answer. As with just about everything, it boils down to your particular situation.)
A good coach will recognize that the application of morning workouts isn’t one size fits all, and that there will be times over the course of the season when a morning workout just doesn’t make sense. Like when the swimmers are especially tired or beat-up, or after a long meet.
At the end of the day, the decision with whether or not to go to mornings is something that is individualized to each athlete.
Adding early morning sessions might make sense for a swimmer who is able to start classes later in the day, or who has a workload at school that allows them to get a full bout of sleep each night.
And often times easing off of the mornings for a week or two can be just what a swimmer needs to come up for air with their studies, and even bust through a plateau that they have been redlining on for an extended period of time or shake them out of a rut.
Striking a balance between workouts, academics and recovery is tough.
But for as long as the enterprising swimmer wants to seek an edge by training a little bit more than the next swimmer morning workouts will always exist.
It’s using morning workouts tactically and to their fullest advantage that is what matters, and not just because “it’s the way it’s always been done.”