Ask Stew: Night Shift (Training, Living, Eating and Sleeping)

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It can be challenging to stay on your fitness schedule while working an overnight shift.
It can be challenging to stay on your fitness schedule while working an overnight shift. (Courtesy of Philadelphia.gov)

Working the night shift is common for any tactical profession.

Military, police, firefighter and EMT often have a few days of the week where their job requires working all night. The adjustment to having a regular schedule of night-shift work is easier than back-to-back night and day shifts. Both situations can be more easily managed with a few rearrangements of your schedule. Here is an email from a young man who is joining the military but currently works as an EMT.

Stew, I'm trying to start training for the military. I am currently working overnight as an EMT. (10p-9a Tues-Thurs) On these days, how do I replace my morning workout, and how do you recommend that I handle eating late at night or exercising?

Congrats on your future profession as well as your current skillset. Your EMT training will come in handy in your future in the military as well. Getting used to the night shift and having energy to train after always has been a challenge. However, by shifting your day 12 or so hours, you may find adding a workout easier. Here are some tips:

1. Focus on getting the workout done before your shift, especially the night shift. You will find the workout before your shift as a good wakeup for the normal sleep hours you may have. 2. Eat your meals and snacks as you normally would as if your shift was 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. These meals can be smaller because you typically are not as hungry overnight, but you still need to eat for energy if moving, driving and working, and you need to stay awake. Focus on not eating foods that make you sleepy like sugary snacks, breads and drinks. Eat a light mix of proteins (meats, eggs), complex carbs (fruits, vegetables) and good fats (nuts, fish, olives, etc.).   3. Once you shift is done, you will be tired. Try to unwind an hour or two. Maybe run a few errands and get a solid "day" of sleep. If you can sleep from noon to 6 or 7 p.m., you will be ready to roll for the night shift.

More realistically, it is likely you may have to get 3-4 hours of sleep in the morning or afternoon and a few more hours before your shift. Just save an hour to work out and clean up before your shift.

Shift work is not easy, but it can be easier to acclimate to when you shift your sleep, meals, and activity to help you stay awake when the body naturally wants to slow down and sleep.

Tips for the night shift:

  • Work out before your shift.
  • Avoid caffeine 3-4 hours before you are trying to sleep.
  • Blacken out and make your room dark when sleeping during the day.
  • Keep your room quiet if possible and consider "sleeping music" to get sleepy and distract from the day's noise.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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