Teens, Sleep Deprivation and Morning Swim Practices – Revisited

tired student

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.

Basically, it referred to many studies that say teens need between 8.5 and 9+ hours of sleep each night. Other studies show that adolescent brains are still developing, with a side effect that teens are more alert at 10 pm than they are during the day. Combine that with getting up at 5:00 am or earlier many times a week for morning practice. Now, do that for 40+ weeks of the year and you get chronic sleep deprivation.

So what? Everybody is sleep deprived. What’s the harm? Well, new research has been done in the last year that shows sleep deprivation can be much more harmful than we thought.

We already knew that, among other things, not getting enough sleep was strongly correlated with lower school marks, reduces the body’s ability to recover for the next practice, and if chronic, can even lead to increased chances of overtraining.

Since then there has been a LOT of new research on chronic and even short-term sleep deprivation, to the point where the results are hitting mainstream news. Here are some of the highlights of sleep research in the last year:

  • CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta discussed sleep deprivation on students in his August 2014 show, and how it’s linked to problems with concentration, and higher incidents of obesity, depression and even car accidents
  • March, 2014 Forbe’s Magazine published the article “Lack of Sleep Kills Brain Cells” in which they discuss a study of mice showed that getting 4-5 hours of sleep a night for just 3 nights caused a significant loss of certain brain cells used for alertness (Journal of Neuroscience)
  • Sleep deprivation can impair the consolidation of certain types of memory (Neuroimage)
  • Sleep deprivation is linked to impairment of the immune system (University of Helsinki)
  • Even partial sleep deprivation is linked to weight regulation problems (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)

I can hear you out there. This is all theory. It’s not really affecting us or authorities would get involved.

They are. In late 2013 the US Education Secretary said that starting high school later and letting teens sleep more was a common sense way to improve student achievement. Even the Mayo Clinic advised moving school start times later to be in sync with the internal clocks of adolescents. The Start School Later movement has tracked start times, student performance and many other factors for many years. They’ve determined that moving school start times later by one hour increased math test scores by 2% points and reading test scores by 1% point.

To summarize, we are doing our swimmers a grave disservice by having too many morning practices, and by having those practices start too early. The impact of our enforced sleep deprivation may be extending into their school performance and their general health.

So what did our swim team do about this problem? Last year we decided to go with 2 morning practices a week for my seniors, starting at 6:00 am and not the more common 5:30 am. In order to provide a little more training, I also gave them two weekday morning and one weekend day session of 30-45 minutes of dryland training, to be done on their own at home. The thinking was that this allowed them to sleep in much later as the dryland is 45-60 minutes shorter than the swim workout, and they save the additional commute time to the pool.

How did that workout? Overall the group swam well. Lots of PBs throughout the whole year. But it’s impossible to definitely know since we didn’t have a control group. But I can tell you about one negative that I should have foreseen.

It appears for some swimmers it was too easy to not do the unsupervised dryland, or not to do it properly. This became painfully apparent when some swimmers still had problems with the exercises after supposedly doing them for many months. So this year, I’ve added a formal Saturday 10:30-11:30 am dryland session in place of one of the weekday home-based sessions. This will allow us to carry out a more structured and planned dryland program, and include some supervised strength-based movements to work on the central nervous system. Plus it will let them sleep in one more morning during the week without reducing the overall training schedule.

Am I being too soft on my swimmers? Quite possibly. Two 90-minute morning workouts a week is far less than many clubs out there. But in the face of so much evidence indicating real problems caused by sleep deprivation, I don’t see how I can, in good conscience, push any more on them.


11 thoughts on “Teens, Sleep Deprivation and Morning Swim Practices – Revisited

  1. How about just do away with morning practices all together? There’s no reason to have them at all if they are bad for young people’s health, even 2 times a week. Also, since there’s no evidence that morning practices improve performances, why have them? If there’s evidence contrary, please share it.

  2. There seems to be a machismo mentality in swimming like in football, where training has to be tough and/or painful otherwise it’s ineffective. Well, is there evidence that show tough and painful practices improve performance? Is it not true that the fastest swimmers also have the best techniques, most of the time? Early maturation also accounts for some being faster than others in age groupers.

  3. Allen, the big problem is that there is no compelling evidence because its almost impossible to get. Causation-based evidence is not really possible as it would involve far too much complexity and confounding variables.

    But we do have an incredible amount of correlation-based evidence. Virtually every elite swimmer today, and in the past 30-40 years did morning practices and two-a-days. That’s not really in doubt. But at the same time, an incredibly high number of kids who drop out of swimming also did morning practices and two-a-days.

    So all that we know is that virtually all top international swimmers do morning practices. I can tell you anecdotally that when we moved from 0 to 1 morning practice a week, I saw significant improvements in training and competition. Far more than I expected. I saw improvement last year when we moved to 2 mornings, but I can’t reasonably say that was a result of the second morning practice, or just improvements in general.

    You’re absolutely right that early maturation is partly responsible for early success. As well, some are just genetically predisposed to benefit from training. That will never change.

    My personal attitude for this year is to do the two morning practices a week, preach about getting enough sleep, and continue to monitor performance. And I have to keep telling myself that my job is to deliver the swimmers to the next level, with a continuing desire and passion for swimming, and in a state to reach their ultimate potential.

  4. It’s admirable that you are looking out for your swimmers and doing something different to benefit them. From my personal experiences, I see too many coaches just looking after their own interests and egos. Thank you for sharing your expertise. I hope more coaches and programs would reduce early morning practices to keep our young swimmers healthy and allow them to enjoy swimming more.

  5. Thanks for the article. Our team coach indeed has that similar mentality that practices without severe pain are worthless. We also have four regular morning practice per week and sometimes he throws in a fifth one if he feels we need more training. He coaches like a tyrant and does not let anyone else give their input, not even a swimmer on their own performances. Hope he reads this article and/or some of your articles about coaching; they would benefit him greatly.

    1. Jonathan, I really have to wonder if some coaches don’t like children. I’ve seen too many coaches like the one you describe, and I’d be afraid to leave my children with them. I hope you can have some influence over the long run.

  6. From my vantage point as a swimmer’s father living in competitive Northern VA (Loudoun Co.), the primary reason for early morning practice (our kids start @ 5AM!) is economic and not performance based. Northern VA is a swimming mecca and obtaining swim lanes is very difficult due to the lack of resources (we do not have nearly enough pools, i.e., supply-and-demand); therefore, to maximize pool utilization, the “older” kid (older as in 12) start practicing at 5AM if they’re on the A team. Coaches dangle the “A” team and promises of becoming elite as justification for the insane schedule. The truth is, we could avoid before school practice altogether if we simply had more pools and more lanes that allowed for more afternoon swimmers. “Before school practice” should be limited to college (when students can control their schedules) – I say this as a former competitive rower who is quite familiar with early morning practice.

    1. I feel for you. Regular 5 am practices for youth and teenagers is just nuts. We are similarly challenged for pool time, but we still only have one 6 am practice a week for our serious swimmers, and one more 6 am weight workout for our top group. And even with that, I’m monitoring to see how they’re doing, and have no hesitation to tell some to take the morning off if I feel they need it – which they often do.

      As you said, college is a better time to start throwing more hours at swimmers as their bodies can handle it, and the education load is often far lower. But as long as coaches think they need to train their kids insanely hard at young ages in order to keep their jobs, it will happen.

  7. I think sleep is far more important to young minds and bodies. My daughter was a national swimmer and never did one morning training session. Grandaughter now swimming has had to drop from elite squad as she is not allowed to train in it if she doesn’t do the mornings.

I love comments, especially when they disagree with my view.

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