A good portion of athletes we work with here at Premier Endurance combine work, family and training in pursuit of their own personal goals. A further subset of these athletes work shift patterns both irregular and regular. The shift worker represents a unique challenge in terms of training prescription and recovery.
While this challenge is certainly unique in terms of the regular 9-5 or full-time athlete it does offer it’s benefits when used and planned right!
When we talk about the possible negatives of shift working and training usually there are two common issues: the ability to gain routine and the impact on sleep. While there are other individual issues present these two main factors seem to be the most impactful on our sports performance (and family life for that matter). So, let’s discuss these two issues.
The ability (or inability) to gain routine
When people think of training, they think weekly progression and similar layout week on week. While this is a nice to have it is not a need to have – the program should always be individual to each athlete and their specific circumstances. It goes without saying that a shift worker cannot have the same routine on a week to week basis as their work simply does not permit it. Let’s take two common shift pattern examples, 6 days on 3-4 days off (on days split between day and night) and alternate weeks of days v. nights. It’s clear to see that there’s no simple clean training layout here that would conform to a normal routine but why get hung up on that! Find a routine within your pattern – we’ll discuss this shortly.
Loss of sleep quantity and quality
Again, taking the above shift examples we’re changing our sleep routines on a semi-regular basis. This goes against the commonly given advice on developing good sleep habits. We’re all too aware on the importance of sleep for recovery and having problems in this area can negatively impact our training and general quality of life. This is such a common issue that it has been referred to within research as shift work sleep disorder and while a lot of people may not struggle here others do. Some tips for improving sleep which you can apply daily can be seen below.
- Avoid caffeine in the pre sleep window, 3-4 hours.
- Embrace napping for 20-30 minutes, but if it starts to impact sleep adjust timing of nap or avoid within the pre sleep window.
- During the hour pre bedtime, if possible, start to wind down with limiting screen time and bright lights, meditation or mindfulness can also help here.
- When sleeping during the day blackout blinds are a must along with a cool environment in your room. You may also want to ensure family or roommates keep noise to a minimum. A sticker on the door for delivery drivers is handy here too.
- Acknowledge the stresses. Some night shifts are more demanding than others, adjust training accordingly.
Tips & Ideas to Plan Training Around Your Shift Pattern
Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that we don’t opt for balance in terms of work, family and training more so prioritizing each at differing times. Also, the fundamentals of monitoring training, some of which we’ve discussed previously, are key in any training program so apply here also. So, when we nail these aspects what are some practical things, we can do to maximize gains while training with your shift patterns.
Don’t conform to weekly training cycles.
While it’s easy to plan training on a Monday through Sunday basis based on work patterns this is not the case for the shift worker. Intensity and volume should coincide with time available and how fatigued work has made you on a given day. Having enough experience of a pattern makes this a lot easier. An example here for someone working 6 days on 4 days off would look like this:
Monday (Night): Rest – rest from the previous 4 days training.
Tuesday (Night): Intensity Session – capitalize on the freshness from rest day. Sleep quality may have been a little effected here so acknowledge it’s impact.
Wednesday (Night): Endurance – Last day on nights, may be feeling fatigued.
Thursday (Day): Endurance – Low intensity following the transition from day to night and possible sleep loss.
Friday (Day): Evening Intensity – short intensity session post work. Capitalize on better sleep over the night which is common with this shift.
Saturday (Day): Rest – Prepare for mini block.
Sunday (Off): Outdoor intensity session – moderate and longer than normal intensity sessions. Or a group ride.
Monday (Off): Endurance Ride – length determined by circumstances.
Tuesday (Off): Endurance Ride – length determined by circumstances.
Wednesday (Off): Outdoor intensity session – be mindful of previous 3 days and adjust accordingly. This is a good day for overload if that is your goal.
A common hurdle we get with clients is snacking on night shifts, while snacks are great to meet energy goals it can become a problem depending on body composition goals. Simple tips here involve preparing meals and having healthy snacks. It is also important to fuel sessions appropriately before, during and after especially when training before a night shift.
Use testing and progressive overload as you normally would.
Testing is the foundation to set zones and identify areas to improve. When building tests into your program follow the usual guidelines of being well rested. For regular workers this involves limiting training beforehand and this is the same for you, but, you need to acknowledge the demand of the shift. Planning tests halfway through an off period is a good idea.
Likewise we need to ensure there is progressive overload of the training to promote adaptation. This means you need to change up training stimulus every so often along with increasing volume or amount of reps etc for blocks of time.
Don’t ignore how your feeling, watch the internal load.
Session RPE and heart rate are your friends when we’re looking at fatigue imposed by other aspects of life. Don’t be single minded in your pursuit of power or pace goals when sleep has been affected by your shift pattern. As an add on to this don’t discount poor sleep especially when the plan is for an intense session, be adaptable.
If you’re working with a coach, be honest with them.
Don’t ignore feelings and blindly follow a plan if it’s sending you down a hole. Take some responsibility and chat with your coach to alert them to possible negative adaptation. Having a good coach athlete relationship is key here.
While there is much more to nailing this routine than expressed above here, I believe these are the fundamentals from my experience of working with shift workers and how we plan our training together. If you have any tips on how you manage your training with shift work we’d love to hear from you!