Teens, Sleep Deprivation and Morning Swim Practices

I know that a lot of coaches will disagree with my message in this blog. And if they don’t, they should. I’ll explain why at the end.
Almost every serious swim team holds many morning practices a week for their older swimmers. Usually at least 4, sometimes 5 or even 6. And they start as early as 5:30 am. This means that swimmers are getting up between 4:30 and 5:00 am in order to get there.  It’s all part of swimming, right? Getting used to early mornings, sleep deprivation, falling asleep in classes?
The problem is that study after study shows that teens need more sleep than adults (see here, and here). In fact the studies show that they need between 8 1/2 and 9 1/4 hours a night. If we work backwards from this, they would have to go to bed the night before at roughly 8 pm.  And yet they will only get home from afternoon practice at 6 pm at the earliest, and they still have to eat and do homework. Forget about leisure time. Now imagine that this happens almost every weekday night for the whole school year.
Here’s the next problem. Studies also show that adolescents are more alert at 10 pm than they are during the day. It’s just the way their developing brains work (see here). So it’s almost impossible for an adolescent to even be able to go to sleep at 8 pm, assuming they were done all of their homework.
So what? So they’re a little tired during the day. We all are. They’ll get used to it, right?
No. Other studies on sleep and school marks have shown a consistent pattern. Moving school start times ahead one hour results in lower marks in everything from math to English. Moving them back one hour results in higher marks. (See here and here).
Sleep deprivation also affects swim performance as sleep helps to aid muscle tissue repairs, improving recovery before the next practice.  A pattern of too little sleep means that the body just can’t repair itself fully for the next practice. Chronic sleep deficit can and does result in overtraining (see here).
What a nice combination this turns out to be. Too many early morning practices, leading to sleep deprivation, causing lower school marks and the possibility of over training. And this is absolutely the norm in almost every serious swim team out there. While I’m sure not every swimmer is affected exactly like this, the information would indicate that many are.
What is our team doing about this?
More or less we’re shooting for moderation, with some uncommon twists thrown in there.
We have 2 morning practices a week for our Seniors. Wednesdays and Fridays. They start at 6 am, not 5:30 am. This gives us 90 minutes, which is more than enough to get in some good training.
Now I realize that two mornings may not be as much training as swimmers need to reach their potential. So we also have 2 morning dryland sessions a week, to be done by the swimmer at their house. The dryland is designed to take 30-45 minutes, which means they only have to get up 30-45 minutes earlier than normal. It is heavily geared towards core, but also includes some cord work to develop arm strength.
We also have a third dryland session to be done by the swimmer some time on the weekend, preferably Sunday.
So why should most coaches disagree with me?
Because they put their swimmers through many early morning practices, and apparently don’t believe that it causes sleep deprivation, lower school marks, or a chance of overtraining. They wouldn’t put their swimmers through this if they thought I was right.
I’d love to start a discussion with the coaches out there about this.__________________________________________________
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4 comments

  1. Comments are working now

  2. Lol to Mike Thompson's comment. I fully agree with this and reading the evidence you provide it only makes sense that sleep is essential.However, if studies are proving this then why do swim teams still insist on these morning practices? These teams also require a 80% or more attendance rate which cannot be achieved if they decide to get more sleep and not attend all the mornings. How do swimmers deal with this predicament? More sleep seems the preferred way… but many swim teams have produced excellent (national and even international swimmers) with all these AM practices. Not to mention swimmers who also perform in the top sector of their classes.Thoughts on this?

  3. Good questions, Caillin. I'm hoping that more knowledgeable coaches than I can shed some light on this.I can make some guesses, though. And since this is my soapbox, I might as well.An obvious possibility is that some coaches just are not aware of the problems that sleep deprivation brings. But since that won't be true of good coaches, this possibility really skirts the real issue of why these coaches continue this practice. As you point out, many top national and international swimmers do many morning practices a week during their teen years. It is entirely possible that these swimmers are more capable of handling sleep deprivation better than others. This would imply that swimmers on those teams who cannot handle sleep deprivation must end up quitting, or chronically underperforming. In fact, I think we might be able to extend this concept to training stresses in general, and over training in particular. Many top level teams appear to still rack up massive annual distances in training. I know of one age group team who did 70 km in a single week. It is possible that the swimmers who make it to the top on these types of teams are more capable of handling the physical stresses of these distances and lack of sleep than other swimmers. And the ones who can't handle it will probably quit, or underperform.If any of this is true, it means that the most important attribute that a swimmer in one of these clubs must have is an ability to handle increased stresses. This is more important than their effort, drive, technique, mental discipline, or even their persistence and reliability throughout the year. Without the ability to handle sleep deprivation or overtraining stresses, these swimmers will fall out of the system.A natural question follows. How many potentially world-class swimmers have left the sport due to an inability to handle the stresses, and due to an inability of their coach to control the stresses?

  4. […] Very early last year I wrote a blog post about the above topic. Specifically, that research at the time showed some pretty bad effects on kids, and especially teens, of not getting enough sleep. You can read that blog post here. […]

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