Exercising your way through a sleep deprived day


My sons were amazing sleepers...as babies.  Around age 2.5, mutiny ensued.  My eldest endured the wild combination of potty training, a new baby brother, transitioning into a "big boy" bed, and a beautiful developing imagination.  While the youngest didn’t have the new baby to taunt his sleep, he did get to move twice in the same summer. To put it mildly, for the last 3.5 years, my husband and I have played Russian Roulette with sleep.  We've even joked through the rougher seasons that our sons played Paper, Rock, Scissors before bed to decide who got to wake up Mom and Dad.  Through all of our slumber "fun," we've continued our triathlon habit despite being TIRED.  All. The. Time.  I know that one day I’ll have to drag my teen boys out of bed, but for now, I combat  this sleep deprivation season with self care - eating well, moving often, and a good mental strategy.

What happens with exercise when you are sleep deprived?

Exercise relieves stress, helps us maintain healthy body weight, and improves mood, overall physical and mental performance, and sleep quality.  On a physical level, lack of sleep decreases reaction time, coordination, recovery time, decision making skills, and increases your risk for diseases including cancer, heart disease, and adrenal failure.  When we are sleep deprived, we are less likely to exercise, but for the reasons above, exercise should be continued to aid in alertness, mental performance, stress management, and break the cycle of poor quality sleep.  Stuck in a negative sleep cycle now?  Here’s how to break it:

  1. Choose frequent, strategic physical activities throughout the day.


  • Early in the day
  • ~30 minutes after you drink your normal coffee or tea
  • When you feel tired or sleepy
  • Between 1:00-3:00 p.m. during your body’s natural afternoon rest time
  • At least 3 hours before bedtime


  • Exercises and movements in which you are experienced
  • Moderate to light intensity or short bouts of high intensity
  • Outdoor activities
  • Skip prolonged bouts of high intensity, endurance challenges, or technical movements
  1. Choose exercises that will wake you up.
  • Full Body Stretch
  • Inversions
  • Moderately paced walking, running, or cycling (and even better outside!)
  • Mind-body practices like Yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi
  • Short High Intensity Interval Training Sessions (H.I.I.T.)
  • A shorter or less intense version of your “normal” workout
  1. Skip high intensity or prolonged endurance activities.
  • Long run, ride, marathon cardio session, or strenuous hike
  • Heavy, prolonged weight lifting sessions
  • Long H.I.I.T. workout
  • Explosive lifts
  • New exercises
  • Exercises that challenge an injury

…and skip the pre-workout supplements!  These tend to mask our mind-body connection and decrease our ability to feel our movements, therefore increasing the risk of injury, especially when you are sleep deprived.

  1. Skip the workout all together when…
  • you begin a workout and after 10 minutes you are still feeling tired and sluggish.
  • you are sick or feel like you are getting sick…..but stay active throughout the day!
  1. Exercise presence and compassion.
  • Acknowledge your current season of life:  “I’m a toddler mom who’s son is currently not consistently sleeping through the night.”
  • Acknowledge your energy state: “Today I feel exhausted.”
  • Own your decision to exercise and what you did based today’s life circumstances: “I got in a great 30 minute ride today!”
  • Acknowledge how you felt after your workout: “I feel awake, grateful, and ready to conquer my day.”
  • Be proud of getting it done!

What else have I learned in the past couple years of balancing sleepless nights with endurance training?

Here are few more non-exercise strategies that have directly helped my family stay active:

  • Choose a sleep strategy that works best for your family. Co-sleeping, toddler on a pallet on the floor, kids in the same room, etc.  There are lots of options!  Choose the option that helps everyone get the most sleep.
  • Set your family up for success at bedtime. Everyone wants and needs sleep!  While is seems like those sweet kiddos are out to get you sometimes, they’re not.  They need help sleeping too!
  • Sleep when kids sleep - SERIOUSLY! Kids’ bedtime at 8:00 and you have to get up early to train or have a big presentation the next day?  Go to bed when they do, or shortly after to bank up some hours before the midnight house party begins.  Worst case?  You get a full, uninterrupted night of sleep and wake up early without your alarm clock.
  • Take a 10-20 OR 90+ minute nap before 4:00 p.m. to help you feel better. Research shows that a 10-20 minute nap allows our brains to settle and re-organize and helps us feel more energetic upon awakening.  Don’t go past 20 minutes unless you have time for 90-120 minutes or you’ll wake groggy!  If you’ve had a really stressful day physically like a race, long run, or ride, a 90-120 minute nap allows you to move through a full sleep cycle where physical repairs occur which can aid in exercise recovery.  Note:  Naps should be considered a supplement to evening sleep and should not be substituted for a full night of sleep.  Be sure to nap before 4:00 p.m. to avoid interrupting your night-time sleep where our body re-boots, cleans house, and balances our hormones.  Read more about the physiological benefits of sleep here.
  • When motivation to exercise is low, choose the easiest workout option. This applies to anytime, but particularly when we are sleep deprived and the great debate “to” or “not to” exercise feels amplified and the “not to” argument seems validated.  Make this decision easy on yourself by doing something fun.
  • Get active with your kids! When I’m tired, my patience significantly drops, so being cooped up inside with my energetic boys is incredibly challenging.  Rather than spending the afternoon inside with lots of “please, settle down!”s, we hit the trails where we enjoy our time together exploring nature.  BONUS – They are more tired at bedtime and sleep better that night!
  • Eat well.  See Nutritionist Ashley Bailey's Post 6 Tips for Eating Your Way through a Sleep Deprived Day.
  • Try some brain hacks!  See Lisa Allred's Post (coming soon!) on Thinking Your Way through as Sleep Deprived Day.

Hey, when they don’t sleep, we don’t sleep either!  If you’re skipping workouts because you’re tired and aren’t sure where to start, ask a trainer for help!  While personal trainers are skilled in providing fitness workouts, the best workout is the one you’re going to do.  Be up front and honest about what you need including your current sleep situation so your trainer may provide you with both a workout and strategies for successfully making exercise happen!

How do you stay active when you’ve missed some ZZZs?


About Author

Amanda Pack

Sr. Recreation and Fitness Program Coordinator

Amanda received her B.A. in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At SAS, she has shares her passion of wellness with SAS employees as a Senior Recreation and Fitness Program Coordinator. When she’s not teaching others how to squat, chaturanga, and run or coaching expecting moms and Ironmen-to-be, you’ll find her exploring the outdoors with her husband, two sons, and schnoodle, cooking, propagating succulents, and training for endurance events. She’s a 2x IRONMAN finisher and multi-marathoner who loves to be on the trails or on her yoga mat! Amanda is registered through Yoga Alliance as an Experienced 200 hour Yoga Teacher (E-RYT200), certified in personal training and group exercise instruction through the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), an IRONMAN Certified Coach and has training in prenatal yoga, Cosmic Kid's Yoga, and as a postpartum doula.

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