How to Get Adequate Recovery as a Sleep-Deprived Parent
With exception to Hercules, special operators and other immortals, we all need sleep to recover from the rigors of life and our workouts. But, what if we can’t get that much needed sleep?
I read an article a while ago, where a professional athlete was interviewed about his workouts and recovery. This athlete commented that there is absolutely no excuse for anyone not to get at least eight hours of sleep every night. I thought to myself, “This guy obviously does not have kids.”
He then went on to say, every night he would lay down in his perfectly darkened, temperature-controlled room, put in his ear plugs and fall into a splendid sleep, while his saint (I added that part) of a wife would deal with the kids. Well, that’s just super, but what about the rest of us who don’t have the luxury to throw our spouses to the wolves while we enjoy blissful z’s?!
With three young kids in our house, a full night’s sleep is a rare luxury. Even when all the kids stay asleep, I find myself waking in expectation of someone crying about a drink of water, dropped binkie, or dirty diaper. Aside from buying some high-tech ear plugs or hiring a night-time nanny (which has crossed my mind), how are we average parents supposed to hit it hard in the gym when we’re so sleep deprived we can barely remember what workout we did two days ago?
"Even when all the kids stay asleep, I find myself waking in expectation of someone crying about a drink of water, dropped binkie, or dirty diaper."
I have been pondering this predicament for some time now. Especially once I realized I couldn’t come close to hitting the same intensity I was doing BC (before children) without feeling like I got run over by a freight train. Yes, I’m being slightly dramatic, but you all know where I’m coming from. In search of an answer, I dove into the research and did a little experimenting. What I have come up with will probably not get you to peak performance, but it should help keep you from feeling old, tired, and sore every day.
First, let’s do some minor exploration into sleep, in which there are four stages:
- Stages one and two occur when you’re transitioning from wakefulness to a light sleep. I’m guessing this is where I spend most of my sleeping time.
- Stages three and four are where the good stuff happens, deep and REM sleep.
During deep sleep, your muscles relax, blood supply to your muscles increases, hormones are released, and tissue growth and repair occur. REM sleep, which occurs about every ninety minutes after falling asleep, is vital for the restoration of neural functions. If sleep is disrupted before deep and REM sleep occur, the entire process starts over again.
So, if you live in a house with a nursing baby, or just young kids in general, there’s a good chance you’ve spent at least one night in the last week where not once have you reached the third and fourth stages of sleep. Not only does sleep disturbance keep you from feeling rested in the morning, but the National Sleep Foundation notes that sleep deprivation may increase levels of cortisol and decrease glycogen production, which can significantly hinder your recovery efforts.
Everyone knows nutrition is imperative when you’re working for results, but when you’re failing on the sleep requirements, that makes nutrition much more crucial. Not only should you be choosing fresh, nutrient-dense foods, but you also need to make sure your protein intake is up to snuff.
In a recent issue of the Strength and Conditioning Journal, the timing of post-exercise protein ingestion was discussed. While some experts believe there is a golden window of opportunity after a workout to ingest protein, others believe the amount of protein you ingest within a 24-hour period is actually the key. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on which tactic is most effective, and different studies have found both methods to be beneficial.
So, why not cover all your bases? Unlike how much sleep you get, what you put in your mouth is completely under your control. Play it safe - eat or drink some sort of protein prior to training, so that you already have amino acids present in your blood stream when your muscles begin to break down. Post-workout, go ahead and hit that window of opportunity, just in case it actually does exist.
"Play it safe - eat or drink some sort of protein prior to training, so that you already have amino acids present in your blood stream when your muscles begin to break down."
Please note, I’m not suggesting you slam a protein shake before and after your workout. If you use shakes, drink one either before or after. Whichever side of the workout you don’t take it, choose a different protein source, preferably real food. I like cheese sticks before a workout. They’re easy to pack, and give you a minor carb and protein boost without making you want to hurl mid-workout.
Throughout the rest of your day, incorporate wholesome meals and snacks with adequate protein, fat, carbs, calories, nutrients and antioxidants, and don’t forget to hydrate. While good nutrition can’t make up for lost sleep, the combination of bad sleep and bad nutrition is certainly not going to help you.
No one really likes recovery days, but in the grand scheme of things, they are one of the most important aspects to a successful training program. Our bodies are constantly under stress, which can be broken down into three categories: physical stressors, psychological stressors and emotional stressors.
Obviously, our workouts are the primary source of the physical stressors, but packing and caring for kids could also fall into this category. I know for a fact, packing a squirming, thirty-pound two-year-old and a twenty-pound baby in a car seat from the car into the doctor’s office is more of a workout than a couple sets of cleans.
"Nothing screws with your psyche more than being awakened from slumber, yet again, to offer the loving acts of a parent when all you really want to do is scream."
Jobs, kids, and life fill out the psychological and emotional stressors. I think sleep deprivation could also fit here. Nothing screws with your psyche more than being awakened from slumber, yet again, to offer the loving acts of a parent when all you really want to do is scream.
Since we’ve got these stressors coming in from all angles all the time, we have to give our bodies the time to rest and reset. During the recovery period, we aim to normalize cellular processes and enzymatic functions, while giving the body a chance to return to homeostatic equilibrium. We’ve also got to have the opportunity to restore and replenish energy sources.
So, what’s the best way to go about this? Passive recovery is one option in which you actually rest, take the day off, kick your feet up and spend a day on the couch - oh wait, you have kids. Never mind.
In all seriousness though, passive recovery is one way to give your body a break. The other, and maybe more favorable, alternative is active recovery in which you engage in low-intensity exercise or a lower workload than normal. Active recovery facilitates blood flow to the recovering muscles, removing metabolites and flushing the tissues with oxygen and nutrient-rich blood.
The number of rest days you need per week is dependent upon your own personal recovery abilities. Play around with it to determine the programming that best enhances your performance. Back BC, I used to be able to go two to three days at a time and then take a rest day. Fast-forward to three kids later, and now I lift every other day with the occasional two-day break when my joints and muscles still aren’t up for another heavy lifting day.
Keep It Simple
To sum it all up, I failed to find the Holy Grail of recovery. It’s basically stuff we already know. The key to succeeding in the gym while raising kids comes down to optimizing recovery when your quantity and quality of sleep are limited.
So here’s to stealing as much sleep as humanly possible, fueling your body with only the best, and giving yourself a much-needed break every now and again.
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1. National Sleep Foundation: "What Happens When you Sleep?"
2. National Sleep Foundation: "Sleep, Athletic Performance, and Recovery"
3. Jeffreys, I. “A Multidimensional Approach to Enhancing Recovery,” Strength and Conditioning Journal. October 2005.
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