Exercise vs. Sleep

July 8, 2009

Two days ago I finally did it. I signed up for a race. A week from this coming Saturday, I will have accomplished my goal of running a race this summer. I am incredibly excited about it. I chose a 6km trail run so that I’ll have some nice scenery to look at as I’m on the move. I’m also getting a free pancake breakfast out of it, and how can you go wrong with pancakes, right? Right.

I haven’t been following any kind of training schedule at all. I’ve just been running about twice a week, for around 30 to 40 minutes at a time. Running by myself, weaving in and out of the streets and through parks. On Monday I went for a run with Caroline, so it was a really nice change to have someone to run with. Playing soccer twice a week has also been helpful for increasing my speed.

There’s just been one problem that has come up: the issue of sleep.

In some ways, sleeping is a real nuisance. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to crawl into bed at the end of the day, but sometimes the day just doens’t seem long enough to do everything that I would have liked. And that’s when I’ve had the conflict of trying to decide what is most important to me; sleep or exercise.

I’m well aware of the importance of a good night’s sleep. Resting is just as critical to our health as physical activity is. But what about when they cut into each other? I really like to exercise early in the morning. I don’t mind waking up at 6am to fit in a run before going to work. If I’m waking up at 6am, though, then it’s probably a good idea to go to bed at a reasonable hour. The summer is a sociable time and it disagrees with the notion of “reasonable hour”! Going out with friends or playing soccer later on in the evening keeps me up past the time I should be in bed. And then I have to make the decision, do I sleep an extra hour to get a decent amount of rest, or do I wake up early to go for a run, thus cutting into my rest time?

I usually choose the latter. I don’t mind foregoing sleep in the name of exercise because it makes me feel great. As long as I don’t do it all the time, my body is quite happy with waking up early. Sometimes the early morning exercise is actually what I need to keep my energized throughout the day. That, after all, is what I was doing with boot camp. I dragged myself out of bed early each morning no matter what I’d been doing the night before because it was something that I loved and made me happy. I think I’d rather be a little bit tired but have enjoyed a good and healthy burst of exercise than to get a longer sleep and miss out on the therapeutic run/walk/<insert other activity here> which does my body so much good. It can sure be a hard decision, even so.

What do you like to do? Rest or exercise? The biggest thing that concerns me when I don’t get adequate rest is that then I might not be performing as well on my runs as I could have if I’d skipped the run that day for the sleep-in, and gone for a run a couple days later. But on the other hand, I don’t want to keep putting it off. It would be too easy to say to myself that sleep is important, and I can always go for a run “some other time”- I wouldn’t want that to become a regular frame of thought.

It certainly is a conundrum! Have you had this issue before? What do you do to deal with it?

Anyone else running a race within the next couple weeks? If you happen to be in the area, you should join the Try a Trail race that I’ll be running on July 18th! It’s going to be a fun time. And pancakes. We all love pancakes.


  1. Hi Sagan,
    Congrats on signing up for the race, and good luck! You’ll have a lot of fun – race environments are so filled with energy and positivity! I have three races coming up over the next couple of weeks – so I can completely relate to this conundrum. In fact, just a couple of days ago, I was up early and planning to go for a run. But then I realized that I just was too tired to even give a half-good effort. I skipped the run, and rested instead. So – the key for me is to really “try” and listen to my body. Not that I get it right all the time. I tend to fall on the side of less sleep…and I know that can be bad too… (I don’t think I’m much help here today!)
    Awesome job getting yourself signed up for a trail race – I have one I do in August, and it’s my favorite race – love the feeling of running out in the woods…

  2. rest 🙂

    10 years ago Id have said exercise 🙂

    although now I do find that more rest actually helps me to both look and feel better.
    you are so in tune with your body, Sagan, that you will know if youre burning the candle at both ends as what would be TO ME might STILL be enough rest for *you*

    we are all so different in that way.

    (look at me 🙂 not much help either…)

  3. A trail run sounds great! I really want to get into trail running once we get back to the US. We have so many great trails in KY and we never took advantage when we were there before.

    It is sleep for me. I used to be an early riser with little sleep. I taught group exercise classes at 6am, in grad school I’d go to bed at 1am and be up to open our worksite fitness center at 5:30. It didn’t bother me, but within the past five years I will gladly take sleep. I’m not a morning person at all anymore and I really enjoy afternoon or evening exercise. I feel like I’m a person who needs 9 hrs of sleep a night to function at my best. I don’t always get it, but that is best for me.

    So many people I used to work with like to look at that as a luxury. They would have much rather complained about how tired and busy they were and brag about only getting 5 hours of sleep. I understand if you have kids, but these people didn’t! I’m a huge fan of sleep and not ashamed of it. 🙂

  4. Hi Sagan!

    This is a really good post – why should you choose between sleep and exercise? Both are equally important – maybe there’s something else that you can cut out of your day – for me, I limit my internet time to a mere 30 mins in the evenings and watch just 2 tv shows a week. This way I can still get what needs to be done, done.

    Congratulations on signing up for your first race! You’re going to be great!

  5. A trail run does sound great! For me, when I started exercising (at about 300 lbs) I wanted to exercise in the morning so people wouldn’t see me! These days, I still exercise first thing – even if I didn’t go to bed on time. The extra energy I get during the day is worth the terrible feeling of dragging my self out of bed early! I also get the added benefit of being done with exercise before all the kids (7) come tumbling down the stairs!

  6. Lance- so true that it depends… we just have to listen to our bodies and do what they tell us.

    MizFit- good point. Sometimes there’s loads of energy stored up there even on little sleep.

    Lori- that’s good! I’m such a morning person. Even if I’m running on little sleep, I tend to wake up fairly early automatically.

    Michelle- thanks! The reason for the difficulty is that it’s not things like Internet or TV that are keeping me up- it’s generally social situations. And I’d rather not cut down on time that I get to see people, especially with all of the conflicting schedules. So in that case, I have to choose between sleeping or exercising.

    Diane- I love the extra energy too. And that’s something you DEFINITELY need if you’ve got 7 kids!

  7. It really depends on the situation. Most times my kids won’t let me sleep in but they do like going to the childcare at teh gym! Although sometimes I’ve put them in the childcare and then laid down on the stretching mats and fallen asleep. Gross, I know. I’m all about just surviving these days;)

  8. I split it down the middle. Exercise for a quick 30 minutes and try to go to bed 30 minutes earlier. Does not always happen, but I try. When I find myself hitting coffee more than once a week, then I know that it is time to just get more sleep.

  9. ooh is that trail race anywhere close to North Carolina?

    I tend to exercise late morning or late afternoon. So if I feel that I truly need to sleep, I workout in the afternoon. Otherwise, I try really hard to just get up and forget about the extra 30 minutes. Once I am up its hard to get me back to sleep for awhile- so it usually is worth it. Plus, I am more tired the next night and just get to bed earlier which catches me up on shut-eye and continues the early-rise the next day.

  10. Good luck with the race! I wish there was a reasonable distance trail run in my area–they always seem to be half marathon distance or longer here. I’ll have to look harder…

  11. It’s all about finding balance, something I’m also struggling with right now. We need sleep, but depending on your diet, you may need less than others. I think our circadian rhythms also change in summer, when we are more exposed to sun. As long as you’re not tired, go for it!

  12. congrats on the race! Youll do awesome!

  13. I have this problem all of the time! I used to always always always choose working out. Without a question. Even if I was tired, that’s what caffeine is for!!

    Well, that didn’t last. 🙂 If I have one night where I don’t get a lot of sleep (less than 6.5 for me), I REALLY try and force myself to get more the next night (at least 7 hours). And I switch my workout to the p.m., if possible. But when I’m beyond a doubt exhausted? Those turn into my “day off” from working out!

  14. Ok, immediately in my head I say SLEEP! But honestly, I usually choose working out over resting. I’m not a fan of taking days off or taking time to just chill. But sleep? Yeah, that is why morning workouts and I don’t get a long.

    Have a good race! You will do awesome!

  15. Do you use an alarm clock to wake you up? If not, then I think that your body might have rested enough and is ready for a morning run. Also, a nap during the day may balance the less amount of sleep you get.
    Good luck on your race! We all love pancakes indeed. 🙂

  16. Ahh, pancakes remind me of the yummy maple syrup in Autumn with all that beautiful colour in the trees. I choose sleep and then run before dinner. Then I’m not in a rush either.

  17. Good luck on the race!
    I’m like you…I prefer to lose sleep. Actually, I find sleep a nuisance, too…I kinda wish we humans never had to sleep! 24 hours in a day is just too short!
    But in the case of exercise, take care of yourself. Once in a while is ok, but continuous repetition of this and your body might just crash…it needs to rest or whatever exercise it does will only end up harming itself!

  18. Ooh, I’m so excited about your race! I might even buy fresh pom-poms! 🙂

    When time is an issue, I put sleep and exercise on equal footing and let the housework and other things lag behind. I don’t mind a little dust.

  19. I like Mia’s advice about naps. I have become a huge fan of naps…perhaps you need a nap sometime during the day. Would you like me to have a word with your boss and see if you can fit in a quick nap in the middle of the work day? Word on the street is that she (your boss) can be quite understanding & is actually pretty awesome (and is a huge fan of your blogs) 😉

  20. sometimes i have sleep issues… 😦 i know it hampers me but haven’t figured out how to shut off my mind all the time.

  21. Charlotte- hey, when you’re tired… anywhere will do 😉

    Small Steps to Health- coffee is a good judge for that.

    bhealthier- win win all around! And the race is near North Carolina if North Carolina is close to Manitoba…. by which I mean no 🙂 Roadtrip it to Winnipeg and run it with me! Hehe.

    Lisa, Kelly & Mary- I’m so excited for it!!!

    Hanlie- never thought about our circadian rhythms changing, but there might be something to that…

    Holly- that seems like a good way to do it.

    Mia- technically I use an alarm clock, but I usually wake up 10 minutes before the alarm. Or an hour before the alarm. My body likes to just GET UP AND GO in the morning.

    Spring Girl- ooh pretty memory.

    Burpexcuzme- VERY good point. I’ll be careful. And I agree, 24 hours sometimes isn’t nearly enough for a whole day.

    Cammy- ooh pom poms! For that, I might even let you share my pancake breakfast.

    Anonymum- That depends. Is it a paid nap? 😀

    ttfn300- it’s HARD to shut your mind off, isn’t it?!

  22. Currently I am totally a “SLEEP” person. I did boot camp last month, getting up at 5:00 am and it was TOUGH!

    Still, I know all the benefits of morning exercise. I know I need to do it. After a full day of work and school I want to feel entitled to just veg. And if I don’t work out I don’t.

    It’s amazing how, even if you know what the right decision is, sometimes it’s so hard to implement.

  23. Congratulations on the race, Sagan! For me, it’s all about finding the right balance — if I forego exercise, I feel miserable. But if I forego sleep, I’m equally miserable. I try different combinations, but I also have to factor in the different stresses in my life at any given time, whether it’s work, kids’ activities, etc.

    The key, I think, is staying flexible and re-adjusting over time. If you’re training for a race, you might find exercise more important. But once the race is over and classes start again? Sleep may be the bigger priority. Working with what you have on any given day, in terms of time and energy, is a great way to make healthy choices without being rigid.

  24. I’ll always choose sleep over exercise. But I only exercise 4 times per week, 40 minutes each session, so usually I can have both. 🙂

  25. Maybe a short “power nap” in the late afternoon, and you will have the best of both 🙂

  26. Congrats on entering the race! You will do well and have fun, I am sure.
    If you feel you need more training for the race I would pick that over sleep…after the race, sleep would definitely win!

  27. Hey Sagan!
    I have this issue ALL the time. I wake up at 4:45am to get a workout before work. But that means I go to bed at 8pm. Sharp. This is not necessarily because I want to. It’s because I have to. My body is simply exahusted at 7:45pm, so I absolutely must sleep. But, as you may realize, this is quite restrictive in term of social life, because even if I want to go out, I’m simply too tired to actually enjoy myself. And, of course, you get into a habit, right? So even on weekend I get up early, and have to go to bed early as well because I’m tired. When for whatever reason, I get little sleep, my performance is affected and I feel like I have no wind, no power in me.
    As you see, my friend, I have no answers for you, just empathy because I struggle with the same thing. The only thing that I would maybe suggest (which is not always feasible) would be to work out at lunch or right after work, so you can sleep in a bit more and don’t have to go to bed as early.
    YAY for the race!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  28. I enjoy both and equally understand the importance of both, but never seem to get enough of either…make sense?


  29. Just_Kelly- so true!

    Dara- good point. Flexibility is super important.

    Veredd & Dr J- a nap would make the most sense, but midday napping tends to just make me exhausted.

    Missicat- thanks! I’m really looking forward to it.

    Marta- it’s so tricky to fit it all in!

    Mike- I often feel the same way.

  30. It really depends on my overall state of restedness. Once upon a time, exercise might have won. Two kids later, I have absolutely NO sleep reserves, so sleep wins – always. (Not to be scary about kids…mine are just crazy when it comes to sleep!)

  31. I am 100% exercise…although you may be a little more tired throughout the day, the good feeling that you get when you work out stays with you for the rest of the day. Plus, no matter what happens that day, you can go to bed with the idea that you did at least one good thing fo yourself!!

  32. […] Exercise vs. Sleep – if you had to make a choice, which would you choose? […]

  33. I’ll always go for exercise over sleep. I began running when I was in my 20’s and had four small daughters. I did it for sanity! I always got of early and if that didn’t work I’d run after they were in bed. I gave up some sleep but was completely reenergized.

    I’m 55 now and living in AZ. I’m training for a 1/2 marathon so now get up between 4:30-5:00 to run before it gets too HOT! Again I find myself reenergized and proud of myself for hauling my butt outa bed vs using the excuse…It’s too hot to run!

  34. Though my racing days are over I still say exercise. The more to do with my waist line than performance, sadly. I usually give myself about 5 minutes and if I feel like I cant go on, then I stop.

  35. I wish my answer was exercise, but it’s not!

    I agree with you. Prioritising sleep over exercise is ok in principle, but in practice, it just turns into an excuse to not exercise.

    Can anyone remember during the presidential race, Obama was quoted as saying if he had a choice between exercise and more sleep, he’d go for exercise.

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