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I regularly receive questions from new parents who are wondering how they can continue exercising while caring for their child (or children). I won’t claim to be the authority on the subject, but I do have two young children. My son will be 3 in May, and my daughter is just shy of 8 months.
I honestly cannot remember the last time I had a full 8 hours of sleep. It’s been years. Dealing with limited sleep is something that I’m quite familiar with. For several months after the birth of each child, we went through our share of sleepless nights. It’s amazing that there were times when my wife and I were excited to get 4 hours of sleep. As a man, I have no business complaining however, as I’m not the one who was up every few hours nursing the baby!
Currently, my daughter is beginning to sleep much better, although teething may have her up once or twice during the night. I average somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 or 6 hours of sleep per night, which usually comes in three hour blocks. When my daughter wakes up, I wake up, which usually means that I’m up for a while before falling back to sleep.
Functioning with 5 or 6 hours of sleep is all that I know. I don’t know what I’d do with 8 hours of sleep. My wife and I chuckle when a friend or family member (without kids) will gripe about feeling tired after not getting their full 8 hours of sleep. Inside my head, I’m usually thinking to myself,” You have NO idea what tired is!”
There have been days when I’ve worked late, am up with one of the kids in the middle of the night, and then up early the next morning, which means a total of just a few hours of sleep. No, it isn’t fun, but it comes with the territory as a new parent. My children come first. Taking care of them is at the top of the priority list. If that means feeling a little tired the next day, so be it.
On the flip side, having a child doesn’t mean that your life ends. Yes, your life will change, but it is supposed to be for the better! There is no reason to fall apart physically and mentally. Considering that my daughter is getting close to sleeping through the night, I figured I should share a few thoughts while the subject is still fresh in my mind. Below are a few tips that have worked for me.
Personally, I find that morning workouts are best. I’ll wake up before the kids, which makes for an ideal training time. The way I look at it, if I’m going to be tired, I may as well get a workout in early on, as I’m going to feel tired regardless. Oddly enough, I find that morning workouts tend to wake me up. It may take a few minutes to get the blood flowing, but once I hit the zone, I forget about feeling tired and my adrenaline takes over. I then feel much better throughout the day. I rarely notice myself feeling tired afterward.
If I skip a morning workout, it throws a wrench in my plans. I always find myself busy with work during the day (and often into the evening), which makes it more and more difficult to find time for my own training. By training early in the morning, there is absolutely nothing (later in the day) that can disrupt my workout.
Morning workouts may take some getting used to, but eventually become just another part of the daily routine. I consider the morning workout similar to how I did my roadwork back in my days as an active fighter. Whenever I’d begin training for a new fight, it would take a few days to get used to the early morning runs. Within a week, it was just another part of the day. I didn’t think twice about it. I could wake up without the alarm clock. As poet John Dryden once said,
“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.”
Morning workouts work for me. That doesn’t mean they will work for you. You need to find something that jives with your own schedule. Be prepared to actively MAKE time to train however. Don’t expect extra time to fall out of the sky. As a father, husband, and business owner, I always have a full plate. I try to make the most out of each minute. For me, it means waking up earlier than I would otherwise. For you, perhaps it means going to bed later. Ultimately, the time is there. You just need to look for it.
Life’s Tough, Deal With It
Life’s tough, so let’s not pretend otherwise. Dealing with less than optimal sleep conditions isn’t always going to be fun. There will be days when you are tired and cranky. That’s life. I don’t feel bad for you. I’ve been there myself.
The fitness community as a whole needs to stop making bullsh*t promises. Nothing worth having comes easy. A ten minute workout is better than nothing, but let’s not pretend that it will create the next Spartan warrior. Training is like most things in life. You get what you put into it. There is no easy way. Hard and consistent work is the only legitimate training secret. Unfortunately, most people don’t want anything to do with it.
So no, I can’t promise that you’ll wake up feeling chipper after you’ve been up half the night. There is a good chance that you’ll wake up feeling miserable. Take comfort in knowing that you aren’t the only one. I’ve been in that same boat many mornings. I don’t cry myself back to sleep however. I wake up, play some loud, obnoxious music on the headphones, and begin training.
When I’m tired, I find that I perform better when targeting strength. I can always put out some quality strength work. I rarely find myself as eager to perform lengthy conditioning workouts. From a conditioning standpoint, I’ll do better with abbreviated methods (ex. a short finisher after my main workout).
Bodyweight exercise comes in handy if you train at home. Yes it’s effective, but perhaps more importantly it is quiet! You can work very hard with your child sleeping in the next room. An added bonus is that the gym is never closed. You can train at any time. This isn’t to say that you should abandon free weights, but rather a reminder that there are other options available if necessary. Personally, I often mix free weights with bodyweight exercise. If for some reason I have no equipment available however, I can always find a way to complete a quality full body workout.
Better Than Nothing
Get over the fact that you may not have a full hour or two blocked off for uninterrupted training. There will be times when parent duty kicks in and training is interrupted. It’s not the end of the world. A few sets of anything throughout the day is better than nothing. I can always manage to find time for a mini-workout at some point during the day. A few favorites of mine include the ab wheel, handstand pushups, pull-ups, a variety of isometrics, etc.
I certainly prefer an uninterrupted workout, but if for some reason it doesn’t happen, I can always find a way to accumulate a decent workload throughout the course of the day. For example, just recently I decided to do 50 bodyweight squats each time that I let my dogs out. I racked up 250 squats in what amounted to just a few minutes spread throughout the course of the day. Clearly, this isn’t the most significant accomplishment in the world, but it is better than nothing.
I find it particularly useful to have goals in mind. If I’m tired, I’m not in the mood to improvise. I need to have an idea of what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m not looking to solve any complex algorithms first thing in the morning. I need to be focused on something specific.
Keep It Fun
I work almost every day of the year. When I’m up early in the morning, I don’t want to view my training with a job-like mentality. Yes, I work hard, but the work needs to be something that I enjoy. Training needs to be fun, particularly when it is something that I’m doing without a full night’s sleep. Enjoying the work allows me to look forward to training. It’s one of my favorite parts of the day. If I dreaded the training, I doubt I would do it.
I strongly believe that clean eating contributes to my ability to recover from less than optimal sleep conditions. I don’t believe in micro-managing the eating process, but I do believe in clean eating. My nutritional strategy is very simple. I eat real food (ex. fruits, veggies, fish, meat, etc.) when I’m hungry, and I don’t eat any artificial and/or processed junk. That’s it. I have better things to do with my time than counting how much of this or that nutrient has been consumed in this or that meal. My ancestors did pretty well without calculating zones and nutrient ratios on the abacus, so I see no reason to change. I never get sick, recover quickly from training, and feel good throughout the day. If it isn’t broken, I see no reason to fix it. Find what works for you. That’s the best nutritional advice I ever heard, so now I’m giving it to you.
Don’t Believe Everything That You Hear
I’ve had many people tell me that it is absolutely essential to receive 8 or 9 hours of sleep each night. I respond by sharing my story, and it’s as if they do not believe it could be true. How could I be doing something that is not reflected in the peer reviewed study that they read in a recent journal! It can’t be!
Well guess what, it is. I’m all for science, but at times I prefer falling back on the most basic definition. Merriam-Webster defines science as the state of knowing. I know what my body needs to function. When I read a study that suggests otherwise, my first thought is that they sure as hell didn’t study me. I continue to make gains, so I know that I’m doing something right.
And please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not suggesting that my way is the only way. I’ve found what works for me. You need to find what works for you. You also need to realize that the body is much more capable than many believe. I’ve hit PR’s in the gym on mornings that followed sleepless nights. I’m not suggesting that you stay up all night before attempting your next PR, but at the same time, don’t be so quick to doubt your abilities.
I’m not perfect and I have bad days just like anyone. I always wake up and try however. And when I compare this approach to other options, it’s always an easy decision for me to make.
A Small Sacrifice
Parenthood is the absolute best thing that has ever happened to me. I don’t have words for how amazing it is to be a father to my children. Losing a few hours of sleep is nothing to me. I’d give up on sleep entirely if I had to for my kids.
To those who struggle with less than optimal sleep conditions, keep in mind that it does get better. My son has been sleeping through the night for almost 2 years now. My daughter isn’t far off from doing the same. Yes, the early months can be tough when dealing with limited sleep, but remember that it will get better. Also, keep in mind that it really isn’t that bad. There are far worse circumstances in the world. Take a look through the news and it won’t be difficult to find far worse scenarios. You’ll realize that losing a few hours of sleep really isn’t a big deal.
If losing a few hours of sleep is your biggest problem, you really don’t have a problem. Get up and get busy and you’ll feel much better afterward (not to mention feeling better about yourself).