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How to workout when you're tired

Most newborns suck at sleeping. So do toddlers and big kids with nightmares and also me, with chronic insomnia. We also know that sleep (and lack of it), can make or break a workout. 

Honestly, I’ve done 3 triathlons on very, very little sleep, so it can be done! But obviously not ideal. I’m writing this at 10 month pp with baby #3, so we are very, very into the sleep-deprivation phase of parenting. (Which feels like most of it, but hopefully is not your own experience!)

To workout or not workout when you’ve had a bad night is something most of my clients struggle with as well. We know that exercise will make us feel better, give us more energy, and help us sleep better. Does this really mean you should go out for a run or try to keep up with a class if you can barely keep your eyes open? Sometimes, but there’s a lot to keep in mind. 

Your lack of sleep can raise your heart rate and make you more accident prone. So please skip the heavy, complex, marathon days if you can. A step aerobics class or work on the agility ladder certainly wouldn’t be my first choice, either. If you are getting less than 4 hours of sleep, you should seriously consider taking a nap when the baby goes down. (Yes I know I hate that advice too.)

Here is what I recommend for my clients when they aren’t sleeping well, and how I program their workouts around a bad night’s sleep. 

  1. Lock it in. 

This is the time to use machines. A machine at the gym will help you get in the proper posture and allow you to push more weight without risking a sprain. So rather than a barbell squat, which will require more concentration and balance, use the leg press or smith machine so you have that extra support when you need it. This applies to cardio as well - rather than run on a treadmill- use the recumbent bike or elliptical. If you are working out at home, you can use bands and blocks to keep your posture in a stabilized position. I would also recommend closed-chain exercises like a push up or squat vs open-chain (chest fly or single-leg exercises). 

  1. Slow it down. 

This is not the time to push HIIT workouts unless they are strength based. There is no evidence to suggest that endurance vs HIIT workouts are better for sleep deprivation ( tbh studies on this seem somewhat controversal as sleep deprivation is a form of actual torture, remember!) . However, I prefer a slower workout when I'm tired. If you have had a rough night of sleep, take it easy. You can absolutely still run but you might want to cut it short or slow it down. Yoga, Pilates, walking, and slower circuit training are all great ways to move after a rough night of sleep.

  1. Keep it around 10-15 reps 

Big heavy weights are probably not going to feel good, and a 2lb weight at 20 reps might make you fall asleep on your mat. Something in that medium range- nothing too heavy or too light might be the sweet spot right here. Power lifting or exercises that require a ton of balance or coordination are not recommended as lack of sleep can increase your risk of falling

  1. Stay hydrated and stay in the sun 

Use that extra oxygen to keep your energy up and stay in the sun as much as possible. I usually tried to get my kids outside at least 2x for a walk in the morning and afternoon when they were wee. I firmly believe that getting sun or any outside light is helpful for resetting the circadian rhythms. I know this is so hard in the winter or bad weather-  but working out in natural light can help. Workout near an a window or go outside if possible. 

  1. Crank it up. 

At this point we all know that music with a fast BPM can get you moving! Make sure you have a playlist that inspires you to move and has a beat of 110-30 on the days you want to lie down. Having a song that is an old-favorite and guaranteed to make you move will help you get started.

  1. Get accountable! 

When you’re tired you are NOT going to want to workout. But it will really, really help. Grab a buddy, sign up for a class, hire a trainer (cough cough) who can meet up with you so you make sure you stick with it. If you have an appointment and have made a commitment to another person, you will very likely show up. 

We all know that a little bit of movement is better than nothing, so even if you walk instead of run, scale down your weights, or cut your workout time in half, you’re not wasting your time. A workout can increase your brain function when it is tired, and that will help you feel more human. As a mother of now-older kids, I can safely say that yes, it does get easier as the kids get older. So hang on, take care of yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for help so you can get some much-needed rest.

Looking for postpartum exercise guidelines and need workouts to do in that first year? I've got you covered! Grab a copy of my book - The Complete Guide to Postpartum Fitness and learn everything from diastasis-friendly exercises to breastfeeding and exercise, plus a workout program and follow-along videos to last your first year!


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