Running with shift work
This blog is about my experience and tips for with shift work. It covers tips for people who simply want to be more active, and for those who want to follow a training plan.
I work as a children’s doctor (paediatric registrar). Working as a childrens doctor includes working long and unsociable hours examples of the different types of shifts depending on my rota. Some weeks I can work one or two shifts others I may do more than 70 hours or 12 days in a row. Shifts I do include:
This can be very tiring- not to mention I work in a different city and need an hour to travel to and from work each way. I don’t have children but for parents it will be even harder as they also parent outside of work!. It is perfectly understandable if someone said they didnt run or exercise because they didn’t have the additional time, brain or physical capacity to do so.
However, it is also important to acknowledge that those who do shift work are at increased risk of health problems, risk factors include: obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, mental health problems and cancer.
Therefore, as a shift worker it is very important that you incorporate exercise and running into your time outside of work as exercise may help reduce some of the risks associated with undertaking shift work. For me this is part of my ‘self care’ for a good quality of life and helping me with my depression.
But, there is no denying that it is hard going. Sometimes, I’m so exhausted I skip a session and because I don’t have regular fixed hours it is hard to follow generic training plans. Sometimes I juggle working intense shifts (both physical and emotional) whilst having to deal with a ‘bad depression day’, and therefore it can be very hard to motivate myself to do a long or hard run.
I’ve search the internet for tips on how to run whilst doing shift work but have not found a huge amount so this prompted me to write a blog of what I've found.
Therefore, my top 5 tips to run whilst working shifts are:
1. Anything is better than nothing
Managing to run once a week for half an hour is better than not running at all. Equally not being able to run because of a ‘mad’ week isn’t the end of the world. The main thing is you try your best.
Usually when I’m tired/worn out/don’t have the motivation I'll commit to just doing 1 or 2 miles and I also give my permission to stop if I’m not up for it. 9 times out of 10 you’ll feel so better for giving it a go and you don't end up stopping.
I can remember a handful of times over the past 5 years when I’ve used the 'permission to stop' when I’ve actually stepped out to run. Equally sometimes I’ll tell myself I will only do 1-2 miles and because I feel better once I've started, I end up running longer.
2. Be honest and realistic to yourself
For a long time I kept saying I was going to wake up at 5am to fit in a run before work but it very very rarely happens. I would beat myself up when it didn't happen but after an internal struggle I’ve finally accepted that for now, I just cannot achieve this right now and that is ok.
Equally, if you know you can only commit to running once a week or 3 half an hour runs a week, or only running on your days off then do it! it is still awesome and your body and mind will thank you for it.
If you are thinking about commiting to a training plan think about if you have the time and energy to do so can you commit the time if you are averaging 50 hours a week or are you just too busy/exhausted? There will always be another race that you can train for when you will have the time to commit and equally running for yourself will be a good base for when you do feel ready to start training.
If you're not sure what you can or can't do you could trial a month of running without any fixed goals. Once the month is finished you can then look back at what you’ve done to see if there are any patterns/times/days when you find you are able to run and then use that as a template to create a plan to move forward with.
3. Sleep trumps running
A wise person once told me that “the healthiest thing you can do without doing anything is sleep” and the Maslow’s hierarchy of also justifies this!:
Sleep is vital for health and must be prioritised. Therefore, simply, if you don’t have enough time to work, do essential things, rest and sleep then you wont have time to run.
Some ‘weekend oncalls’ I work 9am-9.30pm Friday to Saturday. When you factor getting to and from work, eating and needing to relax, it doesn’t leave much time for sleep-For me being able to fit in 8 hours sleep between shifts is a bonus.
I used to get really down about the fact I am usually too tired to fit in a run before work (and there is NO way I could do it after work). Whilst some people are lucky and can function on 6 hours of sleep a night, I needs at least 8 hours (and ideally 9) So I've accepted it is usually a tight squeeze for me to fit a run in.
Therefore, when Im working 3 long days in a row I’ve removed the pressure on my self to do any exercise. If I do anything- it is a bonus. Will-power declines as the weekend progresses because I become more tired. So if I really want to try fit in a run doing it on a Friday morning before work is the day I’m most likely going to be successful as I will be most 'awake'.
4. Night shifts sucks
In principal you’d think you could just fit in all the things you would do during days but one thing night shifts do is make you feel rubbish. Even if I had the opportunity to sleep 8 hours in between nights (and doing all the right sleep hygiene things) it doesn’t happen and I usually manage between 4 and 6 hours because my circadian rhythm is messed up. I feel groggy and awful for it so when Im actually awake I lack the energy to run even if I have the time.
Therefore, during a period of nights I give myself permission to not do any running. Going back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs our physiological need to be met first..!
So again, during nights any run is a bonus so if you feel up for it absolutely give it a shot but equally if you don’t that is also fine!
If you are planning to exercise during a stretch of night shifts I recommend having a de-load week. Night shifts, poor sleep, long hours and hard effort or very long runs are probably not a good mix .This may as a consequence delay your recovery for when you have finished and rested well. I always say its good to make the most of the good days and try not worry too much about the 'bad' days :).
5. Be flexible
Shift patterns, and days worked may vary weekly. You might not be able to do your ‘weekly Sunday long run’ or ‘Saturday park run’ because you are working a long day on or doing nights.
Many coaching plans are generic and will not take these change in shift patterns into consideration. Therefore, the onus is on you to change/adapt.
It could be that you can fit in a long run on a Friday instead of Sunday but it means you’ll have to skip a recovery run.
If you want to train for something but are worried about following a fixed training plan you could consider what I follow as a rule of thumb; which covers the essentials of a plan (which can also be tweaked for your distance you are training for):
- one 3-4 mile run,
- one 2-3 mile run which consists of an intervals/tempo run
- one long run
When/on what day you do these runs doesn’t matter as long as you have sufficient recovery time inbetween (at least 24-48 hours).
Now I am only writing this section because It took me a long time to realise what I now accept and think it needs saying.
Shift work is rubbish and its not good for your health. There I said it.
However, in my case- I love working as a children’s doctor (something i've wanted to do since I was 12 years old) and it is something I don’t want to give up. Equally, shift work may work for you because of pay, child care etc.
So its all about making the best of the situation you have. You may dream of completing a sub 3 hour marathon (FYI im not a fast marathon runner) or a sub 1 hr 30 half marathon but, your shift work may prevent you from doing this.
E.g. to hit a sub 3 hour marathon you’ll need to (probably) run 50+ miles a week, sleep, rest and eating well. When you factor in 60 hours of work/night shifts etc (and even parenting) you may just have to accept that its just not possible even if you are capable of achieving this when you compare yourself to someone who works Monday to Friday 9-5pm.
Equally if you are following a 2 hour half marathon training plan which has 5 runs a week and you are only able to complete 3 runs of the plan then it would be fair (and realistic) to readjust your goal. You might do a sub 2 hour half marathon but you probably wont. It doesn’t make you any less of a runner if you dont.
For a long time- I resented this fact “its not fair” etc but it’s fact. However, Im proud and love working as a children’s doctor and I am willing to ‘sacrifice’ this for the sake of working in my dream job.
I also realised that I am in control of my life and I can (where possible) make changes to suit my life style needs.
For example I work ‘80%’ ie I do 80% of what a full time doctor does. This gives me 20% more free time to do things I want to do like running. For this, I have to take a pay cut and for others this may not be feasible but reducing hours is something to consider if you have the option or alternatively explore all possible avenues to find the best thing that works for you.
For me exercising is just as important to me as being a doctor. By being able to exercise I am investing in my health, mental well-being and happiness and I am a better doctor for it. Some people may frown at the idea of going ‘part time’ and suggest it shows a lack of commitment but I disagree. Its your life, and do what you want.
Equally, not being able to achieve the running goals you want may re-evaluate your work. You may decide that actually, shift work is not for you because you can’t do the things you enjoy and it prompts you to look for a job with more regular hours.
What ever you do, it should be the best for you! You only have one life.
Children's doctor and PhD Student from Leeds
Club: Hyde Park Harriers