Trading Sleep For Training? Why It's Not Worth It. | stephgaudreau.com

Trading Sleep for Training? Why It’s Not Worth It.

Trading Sleep For Training? Why It's Not Worth It. | stephgaudreau.com

Are you trading sleep for training time? Find out why it’s a raw deal.

Be honest. How many times have you woken up earlier than you should have to train? I know I have. Weekends used to prime time for long rides when I was racing bikes, and even early Saturday morning CrossFit training used to drag me out of bed too soon. On many of those occasions, I didn’t go to bed early enough to get 8 hours of sleep—the amount I need to feel my best—and heading out for a training session with less than 6 hours of shut eye was common.

Turns out, even though my nutrition was on point, lack of consistent sleep was hurting my training. Rest, recovery and sleep are even more important than the hours logged on the trails or in the gym, and if you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, you’re selling yourself short. If you care about your performance, keep reading.

A Simple (?) Equation

Want to train at your best? You need optimal fuel (nutrition), physical stimulus (training) and recovery time (active recovery, rest and sleep) in the right balance if you want to maximize performance. Eating poorly for the demands of your sport? Expect eventual plateaus or backslides in performance. Training too much or too little? You’ll either slip into overreaching or overtraining or the physical stimulus (hormetic stressor) won’t be great enough to see gains.

These aspects of athletic training and performance are pretty well understood in theory (though the exact implementation can be elusive) but it’s the sleep, rest and recovery pieces that athletes often neglect. Can you get by on suboptimal sleep for a while? Sure. How long? Depends on you and the other stressors going on in your life but eventually, it will catch up with you. As any dedicated athlete knows, suffering declines in performance, desire to train or getting injured can be devastating to a season, and if any of these are preventable by a commitment to better sleep, it’s a worthwhile pursuit.

If you’re sleeping less to train more, it’s time to rethink that strategy.

“…But What About That Guy At My Gym / My Training Partner?”

“He only sleeps 5 hours a night, and that guy is a beast!”

He’s also not you. You don’t have the same life, the same stressors, the same genetics. And, you may not really know exactly what’s going on below the surface of his beastly exterior. Sure, he might be able to do it, but the assumption that you can (or should) because he can is folly.

Need more convincing?

Recent research shows that even one week of sleep deprivation may have important negative implications on gene expression (i.e. how genes are turned off or on). In one study, the experimental group that slept for just under 6 hours a night—compared to the control group which slept 8.5 hours a night—had genes related to normal circadian rhythms, stress, inflammation and metabolism (among others) turned on or off when they shouldn’t have been. (Source)

These are certainly important physiological processes to keep on an even keel for everyone, but athletes in particular can incur significant physical / psychological stress and inflammation. Rest, recovery and sleep are the critical yin to all that yang. During sleep—and its different phases—the body undergoes physical and psychological restoration. That’s the good stuff that you need.

Is 8 the Magic Number?

I don’t know exactly how many hours of sleep you need to function at your best, but my general rule of thumb is at least eight on a daily basis, and if my training is particularly punishing, that number becomes sacred territory. During the day, I take steps to prepare for restful sleep, and in the evening, I’ve developed a routine to help settle me down.

(Note: If you train in the late PM, that extra cortisol bump can make it hard to wind down. Develop a solid routine around bedtime and do what you can to train as early in the afternoon as possible.)

Some things I do to ensure kick-ass sleep:

  • Eat a protein-rich breakfast. This is standard for me, but getting enough amino acids early in the day provides substrate for serotonin, which is later converted to melatonin, the hormone that ramps up in the evening to help put you to sleep.
  • Stop drinking caffeine before noon. I’m somewhat sensitive to it but in general, the earlier I stop caffeine, the better I sleep.
  • Go to sleep at a consistent time each night. The earlier, the better.
  • Develop a bedtime routine that helps me wind down, and start that at least 30-45 minutes before I want to be asleep. Rushing around like a crazy person at 9:45 and expecting to be lights out at 10…not so great.
  • Limit blue light exposure (from TV, computer, phone, etc.) as much as possible at night. Do what you can. Look into getting f.lux (free) or amber glasses. Read a book instead of catching up on Instagram or Facebook while you’re lying in bed. (Please, no hate mail.)
  • Make sure my room is dark and cool. Cavelike is what you’re after.

My Challenge to You

Don’t train unless you’ve had at least 6 hours of sleep. If you find you’re missing more days than you’re actually training, it’s time to evaluate why you’re not getting the rest you really need.

Need more help with training? Check out my ebook, The Paleo Athlete. (There’s more about sleep in there, too!)

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Trading Sleep For Training? Why It's Not Worth It. | stephgaudreau.com

How much do you sleep? Do you notice a difference in your performance when you sleep more? Leave a comment below.

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12 Responses

  1. I’m so happy you posted this because I’ve been trying to be more conscientious about sleep quality AND quantity! I added those amber glasses to my evening routine and I’m surprised how well they work (however, my internet habits haven’t waned)! Eating better has also definitely improved my quality of sleep. The last missing piece is getting more than six hours each night but that is the biggest challenge due to my schedule.

    I plan on getting your eBook when I have some extra scratch but I have a few questions. I’m struggling with re-integrating workouts in my routine but with my new full-time work AND school schedule, it seems like I’ll only be able to do it at the crack of dawn (we’re talking 5am) or later at night (7:30pm). I know I need to get to bed earlier to get at least another hour of sleep but timing fueling before and after workouts has been a challenge. In the AM, I rely heavily on BP-style coffee to get me through AM work and class. I’m not so directly concerned with IF/keto but it really does help me with energy, attention and focus. If I did stick to the 5am or 7:30pm workouts (Cross-fit style or <3m run), what do you suggest I eat beforehand or afterwards? If this is addressed in the eBook, I'll gladly look for the answers there but hoping in the interim, you might be able to give me some ideas.

    1. For 5 am, a small snack of protein + fat is an option (hardboiled eggs you’ve made ahead of time are great for this, or some nuts with a bit of meat). Afterwards would be a post-workout snack of protein + carbs!

      Hope this helps for now, and yes, the book explains a lot more 🙂

  2. honestly, babe, ever since i read your ebook i have changed my ways. i woke up every morning at 5:45 am so i could go to the gym before class. but after reading your book i took the tip about not setting my alarm just to get to the gym. now i train on my days off from class OR after class. i have improved in so many ways and cannot thank you enough

    1. This makes me so happy to hear that I’ve helped you out, Meg. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the good things but you help me remember them!

  3. Great article! I struggle with this as I work shifts (Im an emergency room PA) and frequently rotate between night and day but still want to work out every day. I know that I do well with 7 hours of sleep so I have made it my goal to set my alarm 7 hours from the time I’m going to bed, regardless of what time I turn in so I know I am making sleep my priority. Sometimes Im heading to bed at 10pm sometimes its 1am or even 8am after night shifts so this strategy has been very helpful for me. Choosing sleep over exercise is critical because your workout won’t be effective and you will be ramping up inflammation & stress hormones (i.e. belly fat!).

  4. I always get worried when I read stuff like this because while I’m not short on sleep because I’m getting up to go to the gym, I am up with my baby several times in the night and then she is up for the day around six. My babies don’t sleep thru the night until after age two, and my son didn’t sleep well at night until he was five, so we are talking YEARS of sleep deprivation. Sometimes they are up for a couple hours in the middle of the night.

    1. With babies, you have to do what you can do. Getting light to moderate exercise is a good thing but smashing oneself with training and trying to be highly competitive in sport (while suffering from said sleep deprivation or interrupted sleep), however, is not going to make one healthier.

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Hi, I'm Steph!

Nutrition and fitness coach for women, Lord of the Rings nerd, and depending on who you ask, crazy cat lady. My mission is to help you fuel for more, not less: bigger muscles, strength, energy, and possibilities. We’ll do it with my signature blend of science, strategy…and a little bit of sass.


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