So you had a crap sleep, now what?
Posted by Paul Landini
It could be that you’re a parent struggling to adjust to your newborn’s nocturnal habits. Or maybe you work a rotating shift that throws your sleep cycles into disarray every other week. Or maybe, like an awful lot of people these days, the stress of living in the shadow of COVID-19 keeps you awake at night. Whatever the cause, there’s bound to be a time or two where the idea of getting seven hours of sleep is something of a cosmic joke.
While chronic insomnia is no laughing matter, the occasional bout of sleeplessness is more of a nuisance than anything else. Most of us can stumble through a somnambulant workday fueled by adrenaline and caffeine. But what about that 7 AM workout that you scheduled with your trainer, or the after-work Peloton class you had your heart set on attending? When your sleep has been suffering, should you put off training for the day or should you grind it out for the sake of staying consistent?
To train or not to train, that is the question
Ask any fitness pro and they’ll tell you that consistency is the most important factor for achieving your health and fitness goals. A single, solitary workout over the course of a lifetime won’t have any impact on your physique whatsoever. But repeatedly string a few workouts together week after week, and, over the course of a year, you will definitely notice positive results.
Maintaining this progressive momentum is essential, so my response to the “Should I Train Today?” question is a resounding “Yes, yes you should”. However, this advice comes with a couple of caveats.
Dial down the intensity
Depending on what we’re talking about, “intensity” can mean a couple of different things. When lifting weights, intensity refers to the difficulty of the exercise based on the amount of weight lifted. For example, a 300-pound deadlift presents a more intense challenge than a 250-pound deadlift. When performing cardio or conditioning exercises, intensity refers to the energy demands of the exercise. A 100-meter sprint is a high-intensity exercise. A 100-meter walk? Not so much.
Multiple studies have confirmed that inadequate sleep can have a significant impact on muscle force output, especially when it comes to compound, multi-joint exercises like the squat, deadlift and bench press. Studies have also shown that one night of sleeplessness can lead to a noticeable drop in cardiovascular endurance. This means that, on those training days when you’re burned out from a lack of sleep, it’s a good idea to dial down the intensity a few notches. Subtract 5-10% from whatever weights you’re currently working with or whatever speed you typically run/cycle/row at.
Keep it simple
Some exercises present more complexity than others. The bodyweight squat is a basic movement that almost anyone can perform well. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the Bulgarian Split Squat, a single-leg exercise that seriously challenges balance, hip and ankle mobility, as well as motor control and lower limb strength. Which exercise do you think is a better option for the sleep-deprived? Pat yourself on the back if you chose the first one.
When you’re in a semi-zombified state, that’s not the time to practice new or novel exercises. Stick with what you’re already accustomed to, with what your body already knows how to do. Your concentration and focus will be compromised. So too will your motor skills. Don’t add to your body’s already-stressed state by presenting it with puzzles it’s in no condition to solve.
Give yourself a break
One missed workout isn’t the end of the world. If you’ve been up all night and you genuinely feel like hell, skip the gym. Go for a long walk instead and pay extra attention to your food choices that day (people who get less than 7 hours of sleep report stronger sugar cravings, and more hunger in general, than their well-rested counterparts). Get a good night’s sleep and you’ll be ready to conquer tomorrow’s challenges.