Ask Stew: How to Train When Missing Sleep

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Service member sleeps during Relay for Life.
Spc. Robert Nieratko; 24; from Belmar; N.J., a supply specialist with D Company; 250th Corp Support Battalion; sleeps during LSA Anaconda's Relay for Life, Aug. 18-19, 2006. (Sgt. Kevin McSwain/210th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

If you work long hours, 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:

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 get back-of-back days of good night’s sleep, the harder workouts you prefer will work well for you, as you are able to recover fully.

I would avoid tough workouts before sleeping. Make these be stretching, breathing and mobility cardio workouts if working out before going to bed. This helps metabolize some of the stress of the day; 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 done before your shift. These 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 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 make the workouts that follow (and even precede them) easier mobility-type workout days or complete days off (other than some stretching).

Make sure all other destressing recovery methods are in play as well. Mobility Days, easy days, breathing, nutrition and hydration are some recovery tools you cannot neglect during shift work and deployments. These workouts can be ideal and greatly needed for stress mitigation. When in doubt, go for a long walk/bike ride and focus on breathing (treadmill/stationary bike) deeply into the nose and out of the mouth (breathing article).

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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