Sleep Apnea, Michael Phelps & Swimming Records

This may just be coincidence, but on an online forum for sleep apnea sufferers, a member commented that he could hold his breath the longest while swimming when he was in the military. Shortly thereafter, two others replied with similar experiences when they were children. As we know, sleep apnea is not something that develops all of a sudden at a certain age when you reach a certain age. If you have sleep apnea, you’ve had some degree of it since you were an infant. So if you have episodic breath holding spells while sleeping when young, it makes sense that your capacity to utilize oxygen is enhanced, similar to what occurs when elite athletes train in higher altitudes to acclimate to lower oxygen levels.

This brings us to Michael Phelps. He seems to always surge ahead when he’s swimming underwater just after the turns. Next time, look at his narrow jaws and malocclusion. Could he have a sleep-breathing problem? Look at his mother.

Is there anyone reading this post who has sleep apnea with a similar story?

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19 thoughts on “Sleep Apnea, Michael Phelps & Swimming Records

  1. I read your comments on the website. I also have a tongue that is too large for my mouth. I am tired all the time and wake up through out the night. I went for a sleep study and wasn’t offically diagnosed with sleep apnea but they gave me a mask to wear. I could never fall asleep with the mask on. Is there anything else I could try??? Do you have suggestions somewhere on your website?

  2. Your problem is much more common than you think. I was seeing the same type of patients day after day in my practice. This is why I felt compelled to write my book.

    You were fortunate enough to undergo a sleep study, but it sounds like you came out in the gray area—this is what’s called upper airway resistance syndrome. I have more detailed articles on obstructive sleep apnea and upper airway resistance syndrome under the articles menu option. There are a number of issues to consider, but before you go any further, I suggest you read more about these topics first.

  3. My wife is convinced that I suffer from sleep apnea, though I’ve never been tested. In addition to snoring and regularly waking several times a night, more than one dentist has commented on the irregularity of bone structures in my mouth. I am also a highly-ranked amateur cyclist.
    Strangely enough, I’ve always assumed that my athletic success resulted from a mix of inherited big heart and lungs as well as ADHD-focus on preferred activities (ADHD runs in my family – no pun intended). Perhaps not…

  4. I often see people who don’t sleep well (usually due to a sleep-breathing problem) usually compensate by excelling in other activities or sports. These highly intense activities are what keeps them feeling alive (and awake). I see the same phenomenon in creative and artistic types as well. Almost every creative type I’ve met or interacted with have various degrees of sleep difficulties. The common theme here seems to be overcoming adversity to achieve greatness.

    Tom F, it sounds like you may have obstructive sleep apnea. You should probably get that checked out.

  5. My daughter has had a few sleep studies since age 10, she is now 16. With each study, the conclusions were different. First I was told she had narcolepsy (mild form) to borderline narcoleptic. The recent studies show that she has no form of narcolepsy but has sleep apnea. She’s had her tonsils removed as well as shaving a part of her adenoids. After all this, her condition has not improved. I have yet to find a doctor who is concerned about treating her properly other than giving her medication from Ritalin to Provigil. The most recent doctor I took her to is a neurologist who slightly hinted that she may be depressed and gave her medication to help with her depression? She’s only 16 and I do not feel comfortable medicating her, especially given the fact that she has NOT been diagnosed with depression. We also tried the CPAP machine. It seems somewhat effective when used during her sleep studies (using the CPAP machine at the sleep study center). However, when the CPAP machine is used at home, it is not effective when used at home. Do you have any suggestions? Please help.

  6. Ms. Blackwell, it sounds like you and your daughter are in a difficult situation. Before you look at other options, how compliant is your daughter in using the CPAP machine? Does her machine have a data card the monitors usage? I would try to optimize her CPAP use and effectiveness before giving up. is a forum site that the American Sleep Apnea Association runs and is a great site for peer support for various CPAP issues.

    Also, can she breathe well through her nose? Nasal congestion can prevent proper CPAP usage.

    Another option is to see a dentist that specializes in these kind of problems. Most people with sleep-breathing problems have relatively small jaws with dental crowding and tongue collapse. These dentists can made devices that pull the lower jaw forward, which pulls the tongue forward, opening up the airway. Check with the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine to find a dentist in your area. There are also certain dentists/orthodontists that widen jaws using orthodontic techniques. She may be too old for it, but probably worth checking out. Search for functional orthopedic dentistry in Google.

  7. i have had sleep apnea evid..all my life also..
    did not find out unitl recently.

    have always had to exercise/ jog/walk always
    deal with it..(i feel i did this intuitively) since young as i did not know i had the problem
    but was the only way i could think straight as well as feel limber rather than tight.
    growing up people always thought i was so in shape) however..i had not choice…while most girls were being prissy etc..i was trying just to feel well.

    i also did get into the arts and creative things as well as ballet etc.
    i also have always been able to hold my breath under water.

    i found the comments above interesting..
    i recently had orthognathic surgery which improved the airway. some, however
    am having problems with the tongue feeling too big for the mouth/dental arch.
    so having some problems again.

    i am hoping this will get better. am trying to figure out with the md/ what possibly can be done.. it is very the point that it is pushing on my teeth and palate at night…and truly very diffficult to deal with. there is concern re: relapse as well as the tension on the joints.

    i feel the orthognathic surgery is a good option…however, is not always straightforward..however i feel for most people it is very successful and the right thing to do..

    people who are born with a small mouth etc…class 11 maloclussion as i did
    and then have also there bicuspids removed..i feel somehow it does effect us.

    i think there is so much we/and the medical profession still need to learn.

  8. Rebecca,

    It’s interesting that you note that you’re a creative type. I frequently see people with sleep-breathing issues having creative tendencies, sometimes very talented, in fact.

    What type of orthognathic surgery did you have? Was your upper jaw pushed back or your lower jaw pulled forward, or neither?

  9. I have tried acupuncture which seemed to help but could not cure completely, presumably the muscles of my large tongue loosens again after some weeks.

    However, I noticed about a year ago, after swimming for more than 30 minutes (in fact instead of using a snorkel, I used nothing but submerge and lift my head repeatedly to watch the fishes and sea life), I slept really well that night and therefore nowadays I try to swim everyday for at least 20 minutes. Again, like the acupuncture treatment, it does not cure 100%, but at least it’s free and I sleep better. The added benefit is of course it forces me to do exercise everyday whenever it’s possible. I guess the constant forced breathing during swimming helps to strengthen the tongue muscles.

    Hope this helps and some of you will try this wonderful exrecise of swimming.

  10. I only have sleep apnea when I take a nap with in 1-2 hours after swimming laps (Usually 10-20). I’ve never been sure of why that is. I take naps after all of my workouts whenever I can. Free weights, run, bike, swim, whatever. But the only time I can’t actually fall asleep, because I wake up gasping for a breath every 5-10 minutes, is after swimming. Can anyone explain this?

  11. My son, 8.5 yrs has been diagnosed with mod sleep apnea. After reading the risk factors associated with this condition, he has none. His Dad does snore and I believe he has an diagnosed case of sleep apnea. My son is of a thin build. He swims competitively yr round 3-4 nights/week. Could this type of activity be contributing to his sleep apnea and what type of treatmensts are available for children of this age to decrease the risk of long term effects of sleep apnea? Or does swimming have a positive affect on a person with sleep apnea? I have appointments scheduled but does anyone have any information to share?

  12. Sorry I know this was posted back in 2008 and now I’m responding to this post in 2015.

    But I believe what you say in this post is very true!

    I have had sleep apnea my whole life and my lungs were very developed at a very young age. When I was in 3rd grade I was able to swim underwater while holding breath the entire length of olympic size swimming pool. I excelled as a long distance runner as a child and anytime I have a chest X-ray taken they usually would have to take 2 x-rays because my lungs are bigger and longer then most peoples lungs.

  13. Just a theory, but I think exercise, especially swimming, could lead to sleep apnea. I started swimming competitively in high school, and it was around that time that I started developing severe sleep apnea. With swimming, the swimmer must inhale oxygen and subsequently exhale through the mouth in short bursts. The swimmer’s breathing technique carried over to the rest of my life, and I would only breathe through my mouth. When breathing with a slightly open mouth, it is natural for the tongue to fall to the bottom of the mouth with the tongue pressed against the bottom inner gums and teeth. Because of my incorrect tongue positioning in conjunction with my mouth breathing, when I would sleep my tongue would roll into the back of my throat, essentially cutting my supply of air. I altered my tongue positioning by keeping it against the top of the mouth, with the tip tongue slightly touching the back of the upper teeth. I also now keep my lips lightly sealed, which greatly helps with tongue positioning and forces me to breathe through my nostrils. It is just a theory, but I believe my breathing habits during swimming changed my non-exercising breathing habits, where I was mouth breathing with an incorrect resting tongue position. Now I am working on keeping my tongue against the roof of my mouth so that I will be forced to breathe through my nose, and hopefully I will be able to do this when sleeping.

  14. I’ve wondered if my training as a swimmer is a partial cause of my sleep apnea. I’m summary, i joined a swim team at age 8. my snoring and apnea problems started when I was about 12, the same year I started a growth spurt and became on of the fastest in the nation. My problems continued to worsen over the years. Now 35 I finally went to get myself checked out and as it turns out I stop breathing on average of 49 times per night for over 10 seconds per event. Often I would wake up from dreams of drowning or otherwise suffocation circumstances, gasping for air. I have a cpap now since 2 weeks ago. It seems to be working well. But I’ve noticed when I turn it off in the morning I have to consciously keep my nasal airway open by NOT pushing my tongue up on the soft pallet in my mouth. I never noticed that until recently because I didn’t have a working solution to compare to. In any case, it hit me that all those years training in the pool I would do the exact same thing between each and every breath – push my tongue up on the roof of my mouth to prevent water entering through my nose – and now I suspect my training from age 8 to 25 and intermittently after that – may be the result of my tongue to roof of mouth habit. Even during the day when awake I am constantly applying pressure with my tongue, if not closing the airway entirely, closing it enough to narrow the airway resulting in a noticeably louder breathing. This is not just me having a big tongue; I am actively pushing it upward unless I am actively focusing on not doing it. So I’m wondering if my sleeping problems are partly or possibly all just a bad habit!?

  15. Is there any correlation between a longer frenulum (and if it’s cut, the narrow palate (and it’s shape as a child grows) and sleep apnea?

  16. Wow, I thought there was something in common with my holding my breath and sleep apnea. I have always held my under water for as long as I possible. When I would wake up holding my breath not gasping for air. I was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea-34. I now sleep with a cpap machine and do notice a difference when waking, works well.

  17. Jeff — I think you hit the nail on the head. I’ve been swimming 3-5 times a week for the past 11 years, the first 6 of those fairly competitively. During this time, sleep quality has degraded, which I initially attributed to aging, not breathing problems. Eventually I self / girlfriend diagnosed with some breathing disruption at night, which again has not gotten better.

    Until, that is, I broke my shoulder skiing! As a result, for the past 9 weeks I have not been able to swim, and my sleep has been progressively improving. The last two nights I’ve even woken up, normally, on my back — rested with a (mostly) clear head.

    It seems that some habits learned to keep water out of our throat and nose (tongue positioned or pressed to the back of the throat, as you say) are deleterious to normal breathing and sleeping. But I love swimming! Not sure what to do about this. Will try a nose clip… or maybe just another sport. I’ll let yall know.

    PS. With respect to the original topic, I also love mountaineering. Sleep apnea has given me a slight advantage against altitude sickness, I estimate.

  18. Yes I’m a long time swimmer
    I’ve been doing the delayed breathing for as long as I remember
    Now I’m older and they want to hook me up to a breathing machine at night
    I’ll try it out

  19. I have very bad sleep apnea.. I’m on ResMed air curve 10.. when ever go swimming for more than an hour my sleep apnea event drop from 15 to 3