We know sleep is a crucial part of achieving any health or fitness goal. Whether you want to lose weight, gain muscle, perform in a sport or simply just feel your best, getting enough high-quality sleep is the key to getting you there.
The reality is, for most people, it’s just not possible to log the recommended 6–8 hours every single night. Work, family obligations, social commitments and stress get in the way. Not to mention the fact an estimated 50–70 million Americans are dealing with sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea.
Plus, when you’re sleep deprived, it can be even harder to convince yourself to get to your workout in and make healthy food choices. Next time you’re short on shuteye, try these smart strategies.
STICK WITH YOUR MORNING ROUTINE
In general, sleep pros recommend having a morning routine to get your day started. “It is critical to have a morning routine that allows you to become focused and prepared for the day ahead,” says Dr. Sean Hashmi, a nephrologist and adult weight-management lead with Kaiser Permanente Southern California.
If you have one already established, it’s a good idea to keep at it, no matter how tired you are. If you don’t already have a morning routine, here’s what Dr. Hashmi suggests: “I recommend and practice 5 minutes of meditation every morning, followed by a morning workout consisting of aerobic and strength training.” Even if it’s a short few minutes to wake up your mind and body, you’ll feel the benefits.
EAT A WELL-BALANCED BREAKFAST
“If you’re exhausted, it’s really hard to concentrate on anything other than your lack of sleep,” explains Alix Turoff, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. “The same goes for when you’re hungry. Pair the two together, and it’s a recipe for disaster.”
So what should you eat? “Make sure you’re not chowing down on a carbohydrate-focused meal, which will only lead to a blood sugar crash shortly afterward,” Turoff says. “Choose something with lean protein and fiber to keep you full until lunch.”
While a little caffeine is fine, resist the urge to overdo it on your morning cup of joe, which can lead to an energy crash later in the day.
“It is also vital to make sure you stay hydrated throughout the day,” Dr. Hashmi says. “Dehydration often manifests early on as loss of energy and exhaustion.” To perk yourself up, add some lemon or orange slices to your H2O, Turoff suggests.
“Expose yourself to daylight ASAP and make sure you get plenty of it during the day,” says Chris Brantner, a certified sleep science coach at SleepZoo. “Getting in the daylight naturally energizes you and helps you wake up. And there’s something about the sun that just makes you feel better. Not only that, but it can have the additional benefit of resetting your circadian rhythm, which could help with the following night’s sleep.”
Being tired can make it tougher to tune into your true hunger cues, leading to constant snacking. “Those who graze throughout their afternoons because they are overtired may be overdoing their calories without realizing it,” says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, resident registered dietitian at Betches Media. “Instead of having a ton of light snacks, make one snack nutrient-dense by combining proteins and fats with complex or slow-digesting carbs to keep your energy levels stable and sustainable.”
For example, throw some sunflower seeds in your Greek yogurt, snack on roasted chickpeas instead of pretzels or dip your whole-grain crackers in hummus, Beckerman suggests.
MODIFY YOUR WORKOUT
When you’re super tired, the gym is probably the last place you feel excited about going. But that doesn’t mean you should automatically skip your sweat session. “A majority of the time, it is better to get something in, even in short 15-minute increments throughout the day,” says Eliza Nelson, a certified personal trainer and orthopedic exercise specialist.
Still, the day after you haven’t slept enough is probably not a time to go all out in terms of effort. “Cardio is fine, but if you are heading for a lifting session, I wouldn’t recommend attempting to perform demanding and technical compound movements that stress the central nervous system like heavy squats, deadlifts or heavy overhead pressing movements,” Nelson says. “Not only will you risk injury, but your body may not recover optimally.”
Essentially, if you had planned to do strength training but think your form will suffer based on how tired you are, it’s a good idea to modify your workout. For example, Nelson recommends doing lighter weights and keeping rest periods shorter between sets to increase the intensity and get a good sweat in — without risking dropping a heavy weight on yourself.
KEEP LUNCHTIME PORTIONS IN CHECK
Avoid the temptation to eat a huge lunch if you’re already feeling tired. “Eating a big lunch will make you more sleepy,” says Dr. Victoria Sharma, a neurologist and sleep medicine physician at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “We get tired after a big meal because the body needs to use a lot of energy digesting that big meal. Also, insulin, which is produced in response to food, can increase levels of serotonin and melatonin, which can make us tired.” Keep it light and invest those extra calories in a healthy mid-afternoon snack for an energy boost when you need it.
DON’T GIVE IN TO SUGAR CRAVINGS
“Being tired enhances our cravings for sweets and sugar,” Beckerman says. “It’s important not to give in to that craving, because it may set you up for stronger cravings later in the day. So instead of having diet soda in the afternoon as a quick pick-me-up, have an unsweetened iced tea with lemon, a decaf coffee or unsweetened kombucha.”
TAKE AN AFTERNOON POWER NAP
“If you can fit it in, give yourself about 30 minutes in the afternoon to lay down,” Bratner suggests. “You might find yourself so tired from the sleep deprivation of the night before that you get to sleep quickly. The trick is to keep it short so that you stay in light sleep, feel refreshed when you get up and don’t mess with your sleep the following night.”