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by Elaine K Howley

September 5, 2023

Training is important, but so is quality rest

For many Masters swimmers, routine is everything. You go to your workout three, four, five, or more days a week or more like clockwork. You work hard during your training sessions, whether they’re in the pool or open water, and you rinse and repeat.

All that training is great for keeping you in good swimming shape, and great for your mental health and your social life. But if it’s coming at the expense of enough rest and good sleep, then you may want to reconsider how you’re balancing your ratio of workouts to rest days.

That’s because sleep is critical to performance, and most of us simply aren’t getting enough of it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that some 70 million American adults are chronically sleep deprived. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society both recommend that adults aged 18 to 60 years get at least 7 hours of sleep each night. But the CDC reports that 35% of folks are not meeting that minimum requirement.

Athletes Need Even More Shut-Eye

Athletes need even more sleep because of the stress that training and racing put on the body. It’s a good kind of stress, to be sure, but the whole way training works is by incrementally stressing the body and then allowing it to rebuild itself stronger and faster. That happens when you’re sleeping.

It’s during sleep that the body takes out the molecular garbage, so to speak, and removes waste products from cells and repairs damage incurred in the muscles. It’s also during sleep that your immune system repairs itself and comes back stronger, ready to fight any pathogens that might threaten your health.

It’s also during sleep when your brain has a chance to process what you did at workout earlier in the day. Memories are formed and maintained during sleep, which means that if you learned a new stroke, worked on your flip turns, or tinkered with another fine point of technique, those corrections can take a firmer hold in your memory while you’re sleeping.

Good quality sleep is also integral to mental health, which can significantly impact your ability to perform on race day.

So how much sleep should you try to get? Well, that can be an individual answer to some extent, but according to one very small study among Stanford University swimmers, 10 hours per night offered noticeable improvements.

The five elite swimmers in the study extended their nightly sleep period to 10 hours for six to seven weeks and saw some significant changes. Specifically, the athletes swam a 15-meter sprint 0.51 seconds faster (7%) on average and reacted 0.15 seconds (17%) quicker off the blocks. Turn times were improved by 0.10 seconds (9%). This is all in addition to reductions in daytime sleepiness and a boost in mood the participants reported. 

While getting off the blocks and having faster turns aren’t concerns for most open water swimmers, the results nevertheless underscore the power of sleep in supporting greater athletic performance. Additional research has also shown that sleep is a crucial factor in performance, specifically in sports that require speed, tactical strategy, and technical skill, which are all components of open water racing. That’s according to a 2018 review published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, which also found that the longer the sleep extensions were sustained, the bigger the payoff.

Tips for Getting Better Sleep

Modern life is not always conducive to getting the kind of sleep you need to perform your best every day, but there are a few changes you can make to your lifestyle that can help make it a little easier to get better quality sleep.

  • Ready your room. A cool, dark, quiet place is more helpful for good sleep than a bright, warm, or noisy location. Consider adding room-darkening shades or wearing an eye mask if light infiltrates your room, and turn down the thermostat a degree or two to keep it cool.
  • Get consistent. Your circadian rhythm thrives on consistency, so be sure to set a regular bedtime and wake-time and stick to it. Even when an extra episode of that binge-worthy show is a mere click away, it’s best to shut it off and keep your bedtime, especially if you have an early morning training session planned.
  • Avoid substances. Alcohol, caffeine, and other stimulants can wreck your sleep cycle, so be sure to avoid caffeine from the afternoon onward and skip the nightly glass of wine to improve your sleep.
  • Put away the screens. Blue-light emitting screens, such as cell phones, computers, and televisions can also interrupt your circadian rhythm by disrupting your body’s ability to release melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. Put all screens away an hour or two before bedtime to limit this interference.
  • Institute a wind-down routine. Again, the body loves consistency, and you can help signal yours that it’s time to sleep by instituting a nightly bedtime routine. Whether it’s reading for 20 minutes before heading up to bed or taking a warm bath to relax you, get into a regular habit that your body can learn to recognize as time to get sleepy.

The more of these sleep hygiene tips you can adopt, and the more of them that you can make routine habits, the better you’ll sleep. And that’s highly likely to help you perform your best during your next open water race or pool training session.

Looking for more great information about swimming? Check out our Swimming 101 guide featuring swimming pool and stroke basics, how to start swim training as an adult, and more.


  • Open Water


  • Health