The Sleep/Workout Connection

Gym time along with good nutrition should equal consistently good workouts, right? I was reminded again yesterday (the hard way) that there is a third “piece to the puzzle” – sleep. Monday night I slept very poorly. I was lucky if I got three hours of sleep. Tuesday morning’s workout was humbling. I realized from the moment I put weight on the bar that I was going to be in for a struggle and just had to accept (albeit with some frustration) that I was going to have to scale back or risk hurting myself.

Ever have these nights?

Ever have these nights?

I have spent the past six months really working at rest and recovery after workouts. I feel like I have made strides towards “listening to my body” and take a very proactive approach to recovery. I consider recovery to be the deliberate actions I take towards healing and preparing for my next workout – nutrition, hydration, stretching, ice, compression, foam rolling, etc. All of these things definitely help, but just about every “expert” out there will tell you that sleep is the most essential part of recovery to your body. According to Muscle & Fitness Magazine, “You give your body the chance to repair, recharge, and regrow during sleep,” says wellness expert Dr. Felecia Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, RACSM. “It’s the ideal time to replenish nutrients, and, since your body isn’t moving, it allows the muscles to repair themselves. Along with inhibiting the production of growth hormone (GH), which increases during deep stages of sleep, sleep deficiency can curb energy levels, diminish alertness, weaken the immune system, and cause you to be more … uh … forgetful.”

What does lack of sleep do to your workout? Well, I am guessing most (sane) people end up skipping workouts altogether when they don’t sleep well. This is a vicious cycle because a good workout can actually promote quality sleep the next night. So skipping that workout may end up causing a repeat of the awful, sleepless night. I have learned to get through the normal aspects of my day on little sleep – working, errands, etc. I notice the effects the most at the gym. Yesterday I was lifting 15-20 percent less weight than I can do on any given day and it felt heavy. I’m talking maxed out heavy. I notice the same decrease in performance in my running pace as well. I am not proud to admit this, but there was once a half marathon that I ran after getting no sleep. Needless to say, my pace per mile was a good minute off and I ended up getting sick after that one. (Don’t try this at home! Not my finest fitness moment for sure.)

So what is one to do when you can’t sleep? I am not a doctor and as I just admitted I still struggle with sleep from time to time. However, because I have grasped the importance of sleep on my workouts, I have tried just about everything in order to find things that seem to at least help. I should add that since I am not a doctor and have no sort of medical expertise, I think it is important to check with your doctor if your sleep is severely disturbed. (I did do this personally and ruled out any underlying cause to my insomnia other than the fact that I am a “type A” who cannot “shut my brain down”) For me, the following make it more likely I will sleep at night:

  1. Do not workout within a couple hours of bedtime. You know that “high” you get after working out? It is really hard to fall asleep right after that! I did violate this “rule” a few times while training for night runs before Ragnar and I definitely noticed a difference.
  2. Cut out the caffeine. Did you know that caffeine can arguably stay in your system for up to 12 hours? Most people agree it is less than that and suggest cutting yourself off 4-6 hours before bedtime. If you are having sleep issues and think you might be caffeine sensitive, I would personally suggest cutting it out much, much sooner. I aim to not consume caffeine after 10am. There are days I get “lazy” about this and drink it later, but if I get into a stretch of poor sleep I get back to this. Be careful of hidden caffeine sources as well – chocolate, etc.
  3. Evaluate your workouts and make sure you are not over-training. Did you know that over-training can cause insomnia? According to Ace Fitness “During sleep the body has time to rest and repair itself. An over trained body, however, is sometimes unable to slow down and completely relax, making it difficult to recover between workouts.”
  4. Avoid naps at all cost. If I fall asleep during the afternoon, even for 15 minutes, I can almost guarantee I will not have an easy time falling asleep that night.
  5. Exercise daily. (Or at least most days) While you may have to scale back those sleep-deprived workouts, even a brisk walk can help get you out of that “vicious cycle.”

To sum all of this up, today was definitely a new day at the gym. I slept much better last night and felt like myself today. It’s “Wild Wednesday” so the workout was crazy, as usual, but I was able to get through my reps with some reasonably heavy weight today. Yaaaay!

No reason for this picture other than to show off my cute dog (jk!) and mention how I often joke I wish I could fall asleep as quickly as her!

No reason for this picture other than to show off my cute dog (jk!) and mention how I often joke I wish I could fall asleep as quickly as her!

We were all really exhausted after today’s class (and a few people had to rush out) and not feeling very creative in posing for our Wild Wednesday picture. Here is what we came up with.


I hate that sleep is one aspect of training that I do not have full control over. You can’t make yourself sleep. I can control my workouts and nutrition, but need some cooperation from my body to get good sleep.

Which “piece of the puzzle” do YOU find most challenging – sleep, nutrition or workouts?

4 thoughts on “The Sleep/Workout Connection

  1. I also struggle with insomnia. And the weird thing is that each year it happens during summer. Yes, my workouts feel harder than usual, but when I feel that I don’t push myself. I just let it be and try to do my beat given the way my body performs on those days. I also experience memory issues while the insomnia episodes. :(

    • I have never really thought about the seasons, but now that you mention it, I may have more issues in the summer too. I wonder if it has to do with the more hours of daylight or something?

  2. I have definitely come to think of this trifecta as a cycle- when I workout I sleep well and when I eat well I workout well and sleep well, etc! It’s good that you’ve been focusing on the sleep aspect of the puzzle. It’s a huge one!

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