When you’re well-rested, you are probably highly motivated to hit the gym, fire up a Peloton session, or go out for a run. But what about those days when you wake up bleary-eyed, battle with your snooze button, and want nothing more than to stay in bed? Sometimes there’s an opportunity to work on your mental toughness by training anyway, but in certain circumstances, doing so will not only affect the quality of your workout but also increase your risk of injury and illness. So how can you tell the difference and make a sensible choice? That’s the question this article will attempt to answer.
What Kinds of Training are Best When I’m Sleepy (And What Should I Avoid)?
If you’re feeling run down or worn out, that little voice inside your head that also pipes up whenever you’ve scheduled an early session, are facing your hardest workout, or just would rather be sitting on your sofa may well pipe up and tell you to skip today. After all, there’s always tomorrow, right?
But giving in to such self-talk too often will make it all too easy to find the easy way out at times when you should be finding a way to fight through your sleepiness. In his book The Champion’s Mind, sports psychologist Dr. Jim Afremow states that winners understand that feeling good is overrated and know that to achieve greatness, they need to show up and give their best no matter what the circumstances are. So while it’d be ideal to be fresh off the back of a solid seven, eight, or nine hours sleep, not being sore, and without a care in the world when you go to train, more often than not life will throw some obstacles in your path that you’ll need to go over or through to get one day closer to your goals (unless it will risk illness or injury – more on this in a moment).
So, if you decide to take the path of mental toughness, what exactly should you do physically when you’re tired? It’s important to note that there is no universal, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Everyone’s physiology is different, and so while we might be able to find some lines of best fit, what works for your training partner or coach might not be the best solution for you.
With this in mind, consider what types of workouts take the least out of you, and which leave you feeling the most drained. At times when you’re tired, it’s typically best to go with the former and forsake the latter. If you find that hard and fast intervals seem tough at the time but don’t take much out of you, then you might want to try this kind of session when you’re tired. Whereas if you usually find that you bounce back quicker from slow, steady state distance work, then go with that instead.
While cultivating awareness of what kind of training you can perform when you’re tired is important, the scientific literature does offer a few clues into which kinds of workouts to avoid. Sleep scientists from Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco compared the outcomes of college basketball players when they were tired versus well-rested. They noted a six percent difference in free throw shooting and a nine percent gap in three-point field goal percentage – the difference between a great shooter and a good one, and a good one and an average one.[i] So it’s probably best to steer clear of workouts that require fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination when you’re sleepy.
You might also do well to approach strength and power training with caution when you’re weary. Exercise scientists from the UK found that sleep deprived athletes saw a significant decline in jumping ability and grip strength.[ii] The latter is often associated with central nervous system fatigue, implying that the lack of slumber led to a decline in neuromuscular output. However, one set of sleep-compromised athletes had gotten four hours’ shuteye and the other none, so if you slept for five or more hours, you might be able to dial back the volume and/or intensity of your weight training and plyometrics and still be OK.
A review of previous studies published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport took a more nuanced view of the correlation between sleep deprivation and resistance training.[iii] The authors found that while maximal strength output for compound exercises (think deadlifts, squats, and Olympic lifts) was limited by consecutive nights of poor sleep, isolation exercises (curls, heel raises, crunches, etc.) were not affected. So even if you usually focus on functional movements, you might want to consider concentrating on complementary or “finisher” exercises instead when you’re tired.
When Should I Skip Training?
While there are probably days that you’re tempted not to train because you’re tired but push through anyway, there are also those occurrences when you might want to pump the brakes instead. While a desire to be tough is admirable, it also pays to be smart about when to forge ahead and when to pull back for the sake of your overall wellbeing. A study of 122 young athletes found that those who got below eight hours of sleep were 1.7 times more likely to get injured during training than their peers who were more well-rested. When their sleep total dipped below six hours, there was a 4x increase in injury rates.[iv]
It’s not just your risk of getting hurt that increases when you’re training while tired. A team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University discovered that people who slept for less than seven hours were three times as likely to catch the common cold as those who got a full eight hours.[v] A subsequent paper published in Sleep went further down the sleep deprivation road and concluded that participants who slept for six hours or less had a four-fold increase in risk of cold infection.[vi]
This group was sleep deprived for seven days before being exposed to rhinovirus (aka a clinical cold), suggesting that if you get one bad, restless night you might well be OK to train and continue your normal activities, but if your slumber has been compromised for a week or more, it’s probably best to cancel your workout and focus more on rest, while attempting to get back into your normal sleep pattern. Missing a single day of training is a small price to pay compared to being out of commission for days or weeks because of illness or injury.
How Can I Utilize an Active Recovery Day?
On those occasions when training would be counterproductive or even detrimental to your health, you can still do things to benefit your body and brain. You might try a more sedate activity that you’ve never done or only do on rare occasions, such as yoga or tai chi. Or perhaps you make things even easier by simply heading out for a light hike or walk where you don’t think about or track your distance, time, or other stats.
Another active recovery option would be to spend extra time on mobility exercises. You could target an area that you’ve injured a lot, like that ankle that’s been sprained all too many times or the shoulder that always feels tight. Alternatively, you could use a massage gun, foam roller, or other tool on an area that you don’t usually focus on, such as your forearms, lower back, or feet (go easy with a softer ball for this last one). That way you’ll remove any tightness that might hold you back when you return to your regular training routine.
If you want to avoid mechanical load altogether, getting in hot water is always a solid choice for a rest day. The heat response will not only raise your heart rate but could also activate heat shock proteins that are tied to immune function, according to a study released via the Journal of Athletic Training.[vii] Don’t have access to a hot tub or sauna? A warm bath will do the trick. Want to dial things back even further? Head to your bedroom, draw the curtains, put in some earplugs, and settle down for a quick nap. In an article for MasterClass, Matthew Walker, founder-director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, stated that napping can reduce the fatigue you’re feeling from a bad sleep, increase relaxation, and help stabilize your mood. He recommended dozing off for 20 minutes or, if you have built up enough sleep pressure to need a longer siesta, an hour to allow your body to co
[i] Cheri D. Mah et al, “The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players,” Sleep, July 1, 2011, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3119836/.
[ii] Tom Cullen et al, “The Effects of a Single Night of Complete and Partial Sleep Deprivation on Physical and Cognitive Performance: A Bayesian Analysis,” Journal of Sports Sciences, December 2019, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31608829/.
[iii] Olivia E. Knowles et al, “Inadequate Sleep and Muscle Strength: Implications for Resistance Training,” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, February 2, 2018, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29422383/.
[iv] Matthew D. Milewski et al, “Chronic Lack of Sleep is Associated with Increased Sports Injuries in Adolescent Athletes,” Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics, March 2014, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25028798/.
[v] Sheldon Cohen et al, “Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold,” Archives of Internal Medicine, January 12, 2009, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19139325/.
[vi] Aric A. Prather et al, “Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold,” Sleep, September 1, 2015, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4531403/.
[vii] Masaki Iguchi et al, “Heat Stress and Cardiovascular, Hormonal, and Heat Shock Proteins in Humans,” Journal of Athletic Training, March/April 2012, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3418130/.