Working Out With Little Sleep: Should You Do It?

Proper sleep is vital when it comes to performing at your best, mentally and physically. So with that in mind, is it smart to go to the gym as you normally would if you’ve had a poor night’s sleep? Or should you take the day off to rest and recover?

Read on and we’ll tell you. We’ll explain how sleep and exercise are linked, whether you should still maintain your regular workout schedule when you’re short on sleep, and how you can promote longer and better sleep in the first place.

The Link Between Sleep and Exercise

When you work out, the time you spend in the gym is obviously important. But just as vital is the time you spend sleeping.

It’s not just a one-way relationship, either. We need sleep to improve performance in the gym, but exercise may also help us sleep better.

All the evidence we have pointed towards the symbiotic relationship between sleep and exercise. If you want to look and feel at your best, you’re going to need both.

Recovery During Sleep

You always need to ensure you’re getting the adequate recovery that matches your output.

Recovery is actually where muscle growth happens. Strength training results in little tears in your muscle tissue. The body naturally repairs these tears, causing muscles to grow bigger and stronger.

While you sleep, the body’s production of growth hormone is at its highest, helping your body grow and repair much faster than it can while you’re awake.

Why Rest is Critical for Performance

When we work out, our energy stores become drained. The body uses glycogen and similar forms of energy to power the muscles and get through tough workout sessions, whether you’re lifting, doing cardio, playing a sport, or anything in between.

After a workout, your body needs to be able to replenish those energy stores, in order to have the fuel for the next workout. If you go back to training when you’re only, say, 75% recovered, you’re likely to run out of energy earlier than expected.

Sleep is when the body is able to rest and recover the best, so it’s so important that you make use of this time the best you can.

Does Exercise Help Sleep?

Sleep and exercise is a two-way street. Getting enough sleep will help your performance, and exercise will help you sleep better too.

While it’s unclear exactly why, numerous surveys and scientific studies show a clear link between exercise and the length and quality of sleep you get.

It’s worth mentioning that, for some people, exercising at night (close to the time you plan to go to sleep) may have the opposite effect.

The endorphins released when you exercise, coupled with the rise in body temperature, may actually make it harder to sleep. So it’s generally a good idea to try and get your workout in earlier in the day.

What Happens if I Don't Get Enough Sleep?

When you don’t get enough sleep, your body won’t produce enough growth hormone, and you’re likely to end up tired and sore the next day, because the tears in your muscle tissue have not had time to fully repair

You’re also likely to display decreased performance both physically and mentally, the form of:

  • A faster rate of exhaustion
  • Slower reaction time
  • Decreased power and muscle strength
  • Worse decision making
  • Decreased cognitive ability

With all these concerns, not only does your performance take a hit, they also increase your risk of injury, compounding the issues caused by an inadequate night’s sleep. 

Should I Go to the Gym With Little Sleep?

Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to go to the gym and work out as you normally would if you’re running on low sleep.

But it’s more a matter of how you work out, rather than whether you should or should not.

If you try to do high-intensity exercise or work out for a long duration, you’re putting yourself at serious risk of injury.

What’s worse is you’re going to drain your energy stores, which are already lower than usual due to the lack of sleep. That means you’re not going to be fully recovered the next day.

If you do go to the gym after a night of little sleep, it’s a good idea to keep it short and light. Around 30 minutes of light to moderate cardio should pose little risk, and may even be beneficial in helping you sleep better that night.

Can I Workout on 6 Hours of Sleep?

The recommended range of sleep is between 7 to 9 hours per night. It’s worth mentioning that this recommendation is for people in general, regardless of how active they are. Athletes, or people who work out a lot should be aiming for the upper end of the 7-9 hour range. So 6 hours is really not ideal if you want to maintain performance.

If you’re only able to get 6 hours of sleep, you don’t necessarily need to cancel all your workout plans. But do take it slowly, and be careful not to push yourself to the absolute limit.

Is it Better to Sleep a Bit More or Go to the Gym?

It’s not a good idea to sacrifice sleep in order to get a workout in. You won’t perform as well, and your body won’t be able to fully recover.

Worse still, you’re risking injury. That one early workout doesn’t mean anything if you miss out on weeks or months of workouts as a result of getting injured.

If you’re struggling to find the time in your schedule to get enough sleep while also making it to the gym, instead of sacrificing sleep time, try to shorten your workout and focus on high-intensity exercises, as opposed to 1-2 hour sessions.

How to Promote Optimal Sleep

So how can you actually go about getting longer or better sleep?

Whether you struggle to get to sleep, or struggle to get deep and restful sleep, there are some things you can do to help.

Stick to a Regular Sleep Schedule

Our body has an internal clock that tells us when we’re supposed to be up and active, and when we should be sleeping. When you mess with that clock, problems arise.

You’re going to find you have a better time falling asleep, and staying asleep, if you do it more or less at the same time every night. Settle on a schedule that allows you to get 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, and stick to it.

Limit Blue Light

Artificial “blue” light, like we get from electronic devices such as smartphones, can be harmful to our natural sleep patterns. These lights mess with our internal clock, tricking the body into thinking it’s daylight and we’re supposed to be awake. Try not to look at any of these artificial light sources for at least an hour before bed.

Limit Caffeine (Especially in the Afternoon)

Caffeine is a strong stimulant, which also messes with our internal sleep schedule.

The good thing is, it doesn’t last forever, and the body breaks it down and flushes it out eventually. However, this takes a number of hours. So if you drink caffeine too late, it may still be active in your body when you’re trying to get to sleep.

It’s a good idea to limit caffeine, and ensure you don’t get any caffeine at all after around 1-2pm.

Get the Right Nutrition

A lot of minerals and nutrients can have positive effects on sleep - both getting to sleep and the overall quality of sleep.

Glycine is one such mineral that has been shown to have a beneficial impact on sleep. Glycine is an amino acid, both naturally produced by the body, and present in protein-rich food sources. Bone broth protein powder is a particularly good way to get glycine in your diet, which may help you sleep better.

In addition, try eating foods high in tryptophan (such as milk, turkey, and chicken), or supplement with minerals like magnesium and l-theanine.

Final Thoughts

If you want to reach your athletic goals, one of the first things you should understand is the link between sleep and exercise performance.

It’s important to understand how your performance suffers when you don’t get adequate sleep. If you don’t, you can easily end up pushing yourself too hard after a night of poor sleep, seriously draining your energy or risking injury.

If you do work out after a bad night’s sleep, keep it light and pay attention to how your body feels. Don’t push yourself to the limit - instead focus on getting a better sleep the following night, after which you’ll be able to go and get it again when you’re fully recovered.