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    Training tips for the sleep deprived - shift workers, busy mums and early risers

    on October 04, 2022

    It is well recognised that shift-work can have adverse effects on health and performance. The same can be seen in those who work unsociable hours, have long early morning commutes, have young children, or are carers, writes Dr David Haunschmidt.

    Lack of quality sleep, nutrition, daylight, exercise and being out of sync with our daily hormonal fluctuations can be a recipe for dysfunction. Suboptimal health and decreased longevity can result.

    It does not have to be this way. There are many ways to mitigate these factors and conquer shift-work for health and sporting success.


    Shift-work has been a part of my life over the past ten years throughout my career in medical practice. Much of this in situations where acuity and stress are high, with limited breaks.

    Through trial and error I, and many others like me, have continued to thrive and perform to a high sporting standard. Some tips and tricks I have learnt over the years: 

    1. Always prioritise good quality nutrition. It is very common for shift-workers to grab something quick and dirty to eat due to perceived lack of time. Spending an extra 10-15 minutes preparing a meal will pay dividends.
      Enough protein, fibre, and a varied colourful diet will go a long way for making your body function at a higher level.
      Equally, reaching for that sugary snack in the middle of the night may feel good at the time, but leads to insulin spikes and crashes, as well as poor health in the longer term.
      Take the time to make healthy meals and snacks to have on the go. You can even advocate that your workplace provides healthier snacks.

    2. Don’t rely on caffeine. I see so many people increase their caffeine intake to very high levels to get through shift-work. Stick to a regular routine. Enjoy coffee in your relative morning timezone. i.e. after waking before a nightshift. Similarly, don’t consume caffeine for at least six hrs before you plan to sleep. Stimulants plus sleep aren’t good bedfellows.

    3. Be intentional. Make it easy to do what you set out to do.
      Before going to bed, place your running gear ready by your bed, fill your water bottle, and set your trainers by the door. This means you don’t have time to talk yourself out of going for that wake-up run.
      You are already out the door before you've had a chance to change your mind.
      If you want to eat something first, set an alarm, intentionally plan the time it will take you to wake, eat, digest and exercise before you have to get ready for work. Plan for success.
      Another tactic is to arrange to meet someone for exercise. It is much harder to disappoint someone else. Do what you need to stay motivated.
    1. Set a goal that scares you. There is nothing more motivating than signing up for an event you feel will challenge you. This will be the driver to hit that exercise session in the middle of a set of winter night shifts.

    2. Sleep well. This is one of the hardest parts to master. On nights, it is best to reverse night and day, on late shifts aim for 7-9hours of sleep without compromise.
      There are many articles written on sleep hygiene. Some basics which work are: keep your bedroom cool, use eye masks and ear plugs, have a warm shower before bed, wear sunglasses if travelling home from work in daylight hours. Create a wind-down routine, including no screentime for an hour and no eating for three hours before bed.
      There is some evidence that taking Melatonin can help shift workers transition between time changes.
      Don’t wake up after a few hrs and plan to nap later. Aim for that solid 7 hr minimum.

    3. Be kind to yourself. Realise you may not be able to hit every training session. The ability to listen to your body is a skill which takes time to master. Replacing hard sessions with easier ones or prioritising rest can be the right thing for that day. Missing a single session does not affect fitness. It is consistency over time that leads to adaptation and success.

    Hopefully some of these methods work in helping you master shift work, whilst continuing to improve health and performance.

    About David Haunschmidt

    Dr David Haunschmidt is an accomplished ultra-runner and Ironman triathlete who fits training around shiftwork as an emergency medical doctor in New Zealand. 

    The ex-pat Scottish runner is also a sub-three-hour marathoner and a two-time race-record holder of the Tarawera Ultra 21km event. David was second in the Kepler Challenge this year and has notable wins in a number of previous races - the Whitianga Marathon, The Great Kauri Run and The Nugget, setting course records in the last two events in addition to the Tarawera TUM21.