If you work long hours, perhaps throughout the night on the night shift, or 12-24 hour shift work, getting sleep or a workout can be a debate that occurs in your head each day. Here is a common question that is received from deployed military, police, and firefighters quite regularly:
Stew, I am on deployment and typically will get a good night’s sleep about two days a week. Two other days, I may get 5-6 hours of sleep, but 2-3 days a week, I can only manage 2-4 hours of sleep due to our operation schedule. Does it make sense to train during the low sleep days or sleep and recover? Any suggestions for the weekly cycle of training? Jacob
Jacob – You phrased your question very well. Most people do not mention the level of sleep received each night of the week when asking similar questions, but rather state it as their shift work hours instead. You are on the right track with that mentality. Regardless of the amount of sleep you receive, you should build solid sleeping rituals to make all the sleep you get good enough or even restorative. Consider the following recovery options on your days of minimal sleep, moderate sleep, and perfect sleep.
On days that you are able to get a great night’s sleep, make the workout after that night a little tougher than normal. Perhaps the higher intensity interval training or longer workouts are best done these days. Especially, if you can go back to back days of good night’s sleep, the harder workouts you prefer will work well for you as you are able to fully recover. I would avoid tough workouts prior to sleeping – make these be stretching, breathing, and mobility type cardio workouts if working out prior to bed to help with metabolizing some of the stress of the day – then that can help you fall asleep faster and sleep deeper. (Importance of sleep)
On days where you work long shift hours and know you will only receive a moderate level of sleep (5-6 hours), make sure you get in your workout BEFORE that shift, then you can go into your sleeping rituals shortly after your long day. This will allow you to take advantage of the sleeping time and get your workout over with for the day prior to the shift – helping you stay awake during the evening. These workouts can be your normal workouts, but you may want to try a mobility day every now and then after a moderate level of sleep when tougher workouts are mixed in the day before.
On days that you get very little sleep, taking small breaks to wake up with some form of activity will help you stay alert. Do naturally if possible (like with calisthenics) and avoid caffeine toward the end of the shift. Maybe also start this shift with a workout as well, but after these days, the goal is to recover and recover well with good food, hydration, and sleep. Focus on your breathing to work through some of the stress of the day and let nature take its course. But after these days, I would definitely make the workouts that follow (and even precede them) to be easier mobility type workout days or complete physical day offs (other than some stretching).
Of course, you need to make sure all other de-stressing recovery methods are in play as well. Mobility Days, Easy Days, Breathing, Nutrition, and Hydration are some of the recovery tools you cannot neglect during the long days and nights of shift work and deployments. Truly these workouts you do can be ideal and greatly needed for stress mitigation and when in doubt, go for a long walk/bike ride and focus on breathing (treadmill / stationary bike) deeply in the nose and out the mouth (breathing article).