We’ve all been there, 12 hour night shifts, long drives, caffeine fueled days, and then you go to the gym already fatigued and can barely do anything. But training with little to know sleep is still better than not training at all right? Well maybe not.
For those of us with the struggle of restless nights, training can always be an issue to fit in effectively. In this article I will go over all the negatives that occur when trying to training and just function normally with a less than minimum amount of sleep, why they occur, and how you can fix it!
How Does A Lack Of Sleep Affect Training?
It is a well-known and accepted fact that almost everybody needs 7-8 hours of sleep a night to feel and perform at their best. Some of the lucky ones can get away with six hours a night while others need a full nine to feel their best (this is completely based on genetics and can’t be controlled). Unfortunately, in this age of smartphones and the mentality of always working, many of us aren’t getting as much sleep as our body needs. It might not seem debilitating when you can’t sleep for a single night, but when that night turns into a week or longer, the negatives become much worse.
A full schedule and lack of sleep can lead to constant fatigue, slowed reflexes, and a large boost of the stress hormone cortisol. And for those who aren’t aware, we as humans don’t enjoy cortisol. This hormone causes many bad reactions to occur in our body, and is directly linked to the amount of sleep we get. Known as a glucocorticoid, cortisol is produced in the adrenal cortex in greater amounts as our stress levels rise as well as when our circadian rhythm changes sporadically. Cortisol is made regardless of your stress levels and sleep patterns, peaking at 8:00 A.M. to wake us up in the morning (which is why you feel the most fatigued and groggy in the morning). By 3 am our cortisol levels are at their lowest allowing us to reach the best deep, restorative REM sleep.
It’s when we involve stress and less than adequate sleep that cortisol does not decrease throughout the day as it’s supposed to. When our normal sleep cycle is broken (for example going to bed a few hours later than usual, or waking up a few hours earlier than usual), our body believes we are migrating or in a time of danger (which is still a major stressor in our lives, although it rarely happens compared to our ancestors), effectively raising cortisol and keeping it there until the stressors go away. This is where the other functions of cortisol come into play, shutting down unnecessary functions in the body to ensure survival through said stressor. From the immune system, metabolism, muscle protein synthesis and the reproductive system, our body decreases these functions to let us focus on the stress at hand. In our ancestors this proved effective, letting us focus on catching dinner or escaping a predator, but for us modern humans we want these functions to be working properly 24/7, 365 days a year.
This is where training comes into play and only makes things worse. If an individual who just worked the night shift comes in to the gym and after downing three scoops of pre-workout tries to complete their normal routine. More than likely their cortisol is through the roof, and a few things will happen to them. More than likely they will have an impaired immune system, making it ten times more likely to contract a flu or cold from that last guy who didn’t wipe down the bench. Their metabolism will be extremely slow, making their pre workout meal sit like a rock in their stomach, a feeling nobody enjoys while trying to do squats, run, or any exercise for that matter. Their body will be unable to properly and effectively break the post workout protein they’ve eaten into amino acids, limiting the amount of gains they can get no matter how hard they worked in the gym that day. More than likely though, this workout will be less than great, considering his testosterone will be quite low as his reproductive system is temporarily shut down. And to make things worse, exercise also raises cortisol no matter what, adding to the cycle which is low energy and low productiveness.
So as you can see, increased cortisol can do some major damage to our goals and progress if we let it control us. Worry not, there is a way to minimize cortisol and you can probably guess what it is: sleep longer and better! For the remainder of the article I will try and help you fix any sleep problems that may exist, and trust me this is very important to your success in the gym and life in general.
How To Sleep Better
Not only great for lowering cortisol, a solid eight hours of deep sleep is where our body repairs itself and grows the most. This means if you are the individual who just came off of the night shift and wants to go train, it more than likely a better use of your time to get an extra hour of sleep and make up the workout tomorrow. As easy as that sounds, we have more distractions than ever to keep us from getting to bed on time. But after following these tips and taking it day by day, it is possible to fix a broken circadian rhythm.
The first step is to do your best to get off of any medication you are taking to help fall asleep. In almost every situation with sleep drugs they are meant to be used infrequently and when they are needed every night to fall asleep, something needs to be done to change it. Start by lowering the dose slightly every day, and if you start to have issues falling asleep and staying asleep, replace the medication with melatonin (a hormone our body produces to fall asleep at night). Hopefully over time (and actively lowering the dose) your need of medication and supplemental melatonin will be cut out completely. You could also try the supplement Glycine, which may help improve your quality of sleep.
The next step is a combination of getting to bed eight hours before you need to wake up, and limiting unnatural light after sunset. Our bodies are programmed to start producing melatonin once the sun goes down, and surrounding ourselves with eye straining light (especially blue light) stops this process and instead keeps cortisol levels elevated. As we discussed earlier, cortisol wakes us up and isn’t something we want in our bodies late at night. An hour before you need to go to bed try and dim the lights in your house as much as possible while still being able to do all your nighttime activates. Also do your best to stay away from your stimulating cell phone and video games before bed as these will most definitely stop you from falling asleep on time.
This next step is usually overlooked, as it requires you to know your own body well. You need to fall asleep eight hours before you need to wake up, not get in bed when you have eight hours to sleep. If you are the type of person who takes 30 minutes to fall asleep, get to bed 30 minutes before you need to fall asleep. But if you can pass out in less than five, then don’t worry about it. This step is all up to you knowing how your body works, meaning I can’t make a specific recommendation.
This last step is for those who can’t fall asleep without having the TV on. When it comes to getting the best type of sleep (REM) to grow and re-energize, sleeping with the TV on is a great way to get little to none of it. While you appear to get eight hours of sleep, the stimulating lights of the TV will primarily keep you in the lighter sleep stages, where you will not be helping your cortisol stay low or maximizing growing/neurological rejuvenation. Luckily there is an alternative to television which will stimulate your brain the same way and help you fall asleep without straining your eyes and limiting your melatonin production. This comes in the form of podcasts, something I utilize most nights to help me sleep. If you are skeptical, don’t knock it till you try it! Find one on a subject you enjoy (there is a seemingly unlimited amount of podcasts and subjects for everybody), and set it to a sleep timer on your phone of 30 minutes by your bed. This will cause the same type of reaction in your brain that the TV does allowing you to fall asleep more naturally, allowing your body to properly produce melatonin and reach REM sleep effectively.
Take Home Message
Of course I barely scratched the surface of sleep and training, as well as how to sleep better. But for anybody out there suffering from these issues I truly hope you can overcome them and return to sleeping as nature intended. When it comes to training, a full nights sleep is crucial to success and without it everything from your gains to your mood to even your health will be negatively affected.
If you follow the steps I laid out in the article I have complete faith that over time you will feel better, your progress will be kicked into overdrive and you might not even need that pre-workout that you’ve been taking continuously for months on end! So the next time you are sleep deprived and have the choice to either sleep or go to the gym, choose the option that will lower your cortisol instead of raise it even higher, you will thank me later.