Being properly rested has always been recognized as a fundamental part of our performance in the pool. Here is what you need to know about how much swimmers should sleep.
When it comes to being a better and faster swimmer there is no easier—and dare I say more enjoyable—way to do so than by sleeping more.
For parents and young swimmers getting enough sleep is a fundamental and ongoing concern. With the onslaught of training, school, homework, stress and social commitments typically the first thing that gets cut is sleep.
Paradoxically, the increasing time demands of training also bring with it increased sleep demands for optimal rest and recovery. In other words, it’s not just adding training time that clutters up your schedule, it’s adding the corresponding sleep needed for recovery as well.
Traditionally we have been told to aim for eight hours of sleep per night. The problem with this loose figure is that it is designed for those who are largely sedentary.
Not growing, high performance athletes.
In this article, part 1 in our sleep for swimmers series, we are going to cover some research into sleep deprivation for athletes and swimmers, take a look at the research at how much high performance swimmers actually get, and show you what happens when you actually get a full night of sleep.
What Happens When Swimmers Don’t Sleep Enough
Even though we try to band-aid sleep debt with stimulants like pre-workouts or coffee, its effects–beyond just being miserable and grouchy–are pretty hard to ignore.
Here are some fun facts about sleep deprivation for swimmers:
- The harder you train, the more you need sleep. Rest becomes more important the harder you are training in order to recover adequately between practices. Paradoxically, the harder you train the harder it will be to get the sleep you need as evidenced by this study that found elite athletes display worse sleep markers than non-athletes.
- Sleep deprivation affects athletes differently. Short, power-based events won’t suffer from a night or two of bad sleep as evidenced with weight-lifters in this study. Endurance or aerobic athletes will experience performance declines after one night of bad sleep though as evidenced here. In both cases, however, psycho-motor function and mood both go sour after one night of bad sleep.
- Your reaction times are much slower. One study found that after about 16-17 hours of sleep deprivation your reaction times are 300% slower. This is the same level as being legally drunk, in case you were wondering.
- Sleep deprivation makes training feel harder. In almost all of the studies covering sleep deprivation athletes reported an increased rate of perceived exertion. In other words, their usual training felt harder than usual because they were sleepy.
- Sleep deprivation leads to injury and illness. Study after study have shown that sleeping less than six hours per night opens the door to a weakened immune system and increased likelihood of injury because of reduced recovery and general fatigue.
- Sleep debt accumulates over the season too. Having a couple bad nights of sleep is no biggie, sleep debt over the course of your season leads to continual performance decline.
How Much Do Top Swimmers Sleep?
Comparisons are pointless in a manner of speaking.
The sleep demands should be specific to the individual and to the training they are doing.
How much sleep you need during those heavy bouts of swimming over the holidays will be different compared to the amount of sleep you will need while in the last days of a taper.
That being said, it is always interesting to see what other athletes are doing, and there is some research that shows even elite swimmers aren’t getting the sleep they need.
Three-time Olympian Nathan Adrian is a monster in the weight room, and is known for being very process-based and thoughtful when it comes to his goals and his training.
It’s no surprise than that during his heaviest training Adrian will sleep in the neighborhood of 10-12 hours:
At training camp I’ll sleep 10 to 12 hours a day because it’s eight-plus at night, and then a two-hour nap between practices, and then whatever I can scrounge up later,” he told ESPN during an interview for the body issue. “It’s amazing. But, it’s very necessary.”
This kind of sleep extension, researched by Cheri Mah at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, has been shown to dramatically improve performance in the water.
When swimmers were instructed to increase their sleep to 9-10 hours per night over a 6-week period, the results were staggering:
- Reaction time off of the blocks improved by 0.15 seconds.
- Turn times decreased by 0.10 seconds.
- And most impressively, 15m sprint times were over half a second faster.
While for many of us being able to sleep 10 hours a night is a daydream (ha!), the benefits of getting this kind of sleep can be profound on our swimming.
How Much Did Michael Phelps Sleep?
Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time, partnered up with Under Armour in the lead-up to the Rio Games to track his rest using a sleep monitoring system.
Over the 373 nights previous to the Olympics Phelps averaged 7 hours and 36 minutes of sleep each night.
Keenan Robinson, USA National High Performance Director and Phelps’ long time physical trainer (who I recently collaborated with on this article on fixing and preventing breaststroker’s knee) noted that being able to track his sleep—and get under the hood of how much Phelps’ was actually getting—helped plan their training better.
“What it helped us do is set up a weekly training schedule more appropriately,” Robinson told Fortune after the Olympics had wrapped up.
This meant being able to better navigate morning workouts, something even top swimmers in the world have a hard time getting enough sleep for.
In a study published in the European Journal of Sport Science a group of elite swimmers from the Australian Institute of Sport had their sleep monitored during a training camp in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
On the night before morning workouts the swimmers were averaging a paltry 5.4 hours of sleep, while on days where they didn’t have a morning workout the following day, or it was a designated rest day, the swimmers slept just over 7 hours per night.
Sleep is one of those things we simply need. For life, and for swimming. There’s no getting around it.
Sure, the sporting culture might tell you that you can sleep when you are dead, or that rest is for weaklings, or some other bravado bull that completely ignores that sleep, and even sleep extension, are proven performance enhancers.
How much sleep swimmers need will vary according to individual circumstance. Adrian being able to sleep up to 12 hours a day is made easier by the fact he is a professional athlete, while Phelps’ 7.5ish hours per night was simply an average.
But the research is clear–if you are serious about wanting to get the most of your training and want to see outsized results, sleeping 9-10 hours per night is your meal ticket. (And yes, I know–you are too busy to sleep this much. We all are.)
Later this week we will cover how swimmers can get deeper and longer sleep, as well as get into some of the symptoms of sleep deprivation so that you can stay ahead of sleep debt over the season.