I swam twice a week for three weeks. Here’s what it means for my sleep

 I swam twice a week for three weeks.  Here's what it means for my sleep

The house I grew up in is directly across the street from my hometown swimming pool. Needless to say, most of her summers were spent in the water – starting with playing with friends and taking swimming lessons, then becoming a swim coach, lifeguard, and competitive swimmer.

It’s no surprise, then, that I enjoy being in and around water, whether it’s a pond, lake, or ocean — and it turns out that this enjoyment is backed by science, too. You may have heard of the “Blue Prescription” or Blue Mind Theory, popularized by marine biologist Wallace Nichols. These theories suggest that there are intrinsically beneficial connections between humans and water. Being around water or “blue space” has been shown to increase dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in the brain and reduce cortisol levels, which reduces heart rate and stress levels.

Initial thoughts and expectations

In this experiment, I wanted to investigate the effect of swimming and being around water on the quality of my sleep. Unfortunately, I don’t live near easily accessible natural bodies of water like a lake or ocean. However, I live near an indoor pool, which is where I decided to take up swimming.

I immersed myself deeply in this investigation, assuming, for several reasons, that I would sleep better on the days I swam. Not only does being around water have a natural calming and meditative effect, but swimming is also an excellent form of exercise and has many known benefits – including better sleep.

I spoke with licensed psychotherapist and sleep specialist Annie Miller, who explained that movement and exercise increase the body’s natural sleep drive, allowing us to feel sleepier and have better sleep quality overall, and swimming is no exception.

“Swimming is an activity that promotes deeper, more conscious breathing, which encourages relaxation. Deep breathing can positively impact sleep quality,” Annie said.

Swimming data

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Let’s be clear: I’m not a scientist, but I did my best to keep other variables the same. I limited my coffee consumption to two cups in the morning and maintained a similar diet each day, including what and when I ate. I wasn’t drinking, and I was taking the same sleeping gummies every night. I also didn’t do any other form of strenuous exercise on the days I didn’t swim.

I swam a fixed distance of one mile each swim day. The only difference was the speed at which I completed the mile, which ranged from 38 to 40 minutes. I tracked my workouts and sleep data using my Apple Watch and waited until the end of the trials to compare and contrast the information to avoid potentially influencing the results prematurely. However, I immediately noticed that my sleep quality seemed worse on the nights after swimming compared to the days I didn’t swim.

Swim versus sleep data

Swim vs sleep chart

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The end results of this experiment shocked me: On average, I slept less and woke up more on swim days than on non-swim days—the opposite of what I expected to find.

Sleeping on swimming days versus non-swim days

Ali Lopez/CNET

I also noticed an interesting pattern in my sleep when comparing my swim days to the days off immediately following my swim day, or what I will refer to as my “recovery day.” On swim days, my average sleep time was just under 7 hours, and my wake-up time was about an hour per night. On recovery days, my total sleep time was much higher – about 8.5 hours, with a much lower wake time of about 30 minutes.

Sleep on swim days versus recovery days

Ali Lopez/CNET

To be honest, I was confused. I read online to see if others had had a similar experience and found the possible cause. According to writer and competitive swimmer Olivier Poirier-Leroy, the more intense the exercise, the more difficult it is to sleep due to higher levels of cortisol and norepinephrine (adrenaline). In fact, it can take up to 48 hours for norepinephrine levels to return to normal after high-intensity exercise – which seems to be the case for me.

Ali Lopez/CNET

Constantly walking out of the swim center with wobbly noodle legs was probably a sign that I was pushing myself a little too hard. Although I didn’t get the results I was expecting (or hoping for), I did notice some other interesting changes during this experiment that are hard to measure but worth mentioning.

My stress floated away

My swim sessions were in the middle of my work day, around 1pm. Every time I left for the swim center, I felt lethargic and nervous about going when I had other tasks to complete. Some days, I would get tension headaches before swimming and generally didn’t look forward to working out.

During exercise, those negative feelings will gradually disappear. I started looking forward to getting into that meditative state where I could just focus on breathing and quieting my mind.

After each swim, I noticed a significant improvement in my mood. I was less stressed and didn’t experience that typical afternoon slump when I would normally opt for another cup of coffee to get me through the rest of the day. I felt physically tired but mentally energized and focused, ready to tackle the rest of the day’s to-do list.

Conclusion and final thoughts

I think being in and around water had positive calming effects, as the Blue Mind Theory suggests, but perhaps not enough to override the high cortisol levels I was experiencing from pushing myself so hard.

As my Finding Nemo role says, I will continue to swim using the insight gained from this experience until I find a happy medium that improves the quality of my sleep. I hope to conduct similar studies with less intense training or simply spending some time near water every day to explore these theories further.

If you’re like me and are looking for ways to get better rest, don’t sleep on our simpler tips and tricks, like limiting technology use, establishing a bedtime routine, journaling or meditating, and — take it from me — making sure you’re exercising at the right intensity level and at the right time. Appropriate for today.

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