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Sleep and Minimum Standards

Got great question in from Jack:

“We're due to have our first baby any minute (was due on Sunday) so I have a few months off from work. I have grand plans to get fit and I'm curious as to the reality of having a newborn and trying to get fit (obviously different for men and women and very different for all as each baby + circumstance is different). I will have more time as not working but assuming a lot less sleep with a significant emotional load from the life change. So it's interesting to see what reality unfolds.”

This question is one of two that have come in from Jack.

And what a question it is.

I am a dad, I have two boys. The eldest of which is the same age as WG-FIT. He was the reason I worked so hard to build the name and reputation of that little gym.

And in the years since founding it, I have had several members who have become Mum's and Dad's for the first time.

And I do believe that there is one lucky child out there whose parents met in Wild Geese and went onto marry!

So what is the reality of having a newborn?

Our hero has correctly identified the two main points, less sleep and an additional emotional load. Let’s talk about the sleep aspect.

There is a bit of joke made by parents where we say "I used to think my life busy, but then I had kids"

Or after hearing a person say how tired they are, "oh, and how old are your kids"

Both these comments are guaranteed to get up the nose of a non parent. But once you cross into parenthood, they make so much sense.

You are going to be tired.

Like really really tired, pretty much all the time.

Personally I am OK with this. My earlier career was in the hotel trade where a 65 hour work week would be a "quiet " week.

I'm well used to a less than optimal sleep routine. Not everyone has my history, and different individuals tend to have different sleep requirements, as similar we all are, that doesn’t make us all the same.

Sleep is where our brain "cleans" and repairs itself. It does a sort of "defragment the drive" process as well as wash out dead cells and metabolic waste products.

Without sleep these processes can't happen.

We go through a number of cycles while sleeping, each cycle lasting in around 90 minutes.

Sometimes a bit longer or shorter than 90 minutes, but that’s a fair estimate of the average.

Each cycle has each of the sleep stages within it, deep non REM sleep being where the physical repair occurs, and REM where the software seems to sort itself out.

On average we require 5 or 6 cycles to be optimal. That is 7.5 to 9 hours sleep.

We can operate on less, 4 cycles gives 6 hours, but pretty soon we will start to feel the sluggishness.

And long term there is evidence to suggest chronic brain health deterioration.

The good news is these cycles don't necessarily have to be concurrent. At least all the time

The idea of biphasic or 2 stage sleep gets talked about a lot.

That is to wake up for a period midway through the night.

So rather than a solid 8hour sleep, we sleep in 4+4 with a gap in the middle.

This is observed in hunter gatherer tribes living without electricity.

Even before I knew this was a thing, I recognised the value of 4+4 in my hotel days, and also when travelling. I'd often get 4 hours at night and the other 4 during the afternoon.

Again, not optimal, I cannot recommend you use this long term, but it's a strategy that can get you over a hump.

Could we sleep in 90-120 minute blocks spread over the 24 hours? I wouldn't like to say for definite, and I'm sure the science guys wouldn't approve, but that is what having a newborn feels like.

As much as I like the idea of the blocks, it’s important to learn how you and your body responds to sleep. If you wake feeling groggy and discombobulated, the chances are you woke from deep sleep. If you wake relatively alert, then you’re likely at the start or end of a block.

Now, napping.

It is a really good idea to learn how to nap. This is true in general, but especially with young kids.

A nap is NOT sleeping.

A nap is more like the process of falling asleep. Just entering the first, very light stage but definitely not going into deep sleep. Waking from deep sleep is horrible.

But if we nap from anywhere between 8 minutes through to maybe half an hour we should feel refreshed.

As you begin to drift into sleep the brain wave activity changes, this same change has also been shown to happen during meditation, and it’s this I think that revitalises us.

Caffeine here helps.

Caffeine takes around 20 minutes to act, this means we can drink an espresso, go lie down, ideally with our feet elevated, close our eyes and nod off. In a around 20 minutes the coffee will aid us to wake up naturally, rather then a buzzer going off.

I have used napping on and off for decades and highly recommend it. The busier and more time constrained you are, the more valuable it becomes. It can take some getting used to, but well worth the effort.

Now, what about fitness training.

I advise almost all my clients to exercise and train, but to do so without expectation of progression.

Athletes are different, they may still have athletic goals to tick off.

But non athletes who are training for simple "always ready" health purposes don't need to worry about progression during this stressful life period.

This is where the idea of minimum standards really shines.

Minimum standards is kind of an in-season training idea, where we want athletes training but not fatigued for sports practice or competition days.

We can look at having a newborn as an analogue of being in-season.

So what are minimum standards?

They are standards that you know you can always hit.

While they are personal and individual specific, there are a few that ought to be fairly universal.

Such as being able to run 10k in <60 minutes (or an erg equivalent)

A bodyweight deadlift (1.5 is better) and a bodyweight squat (adjusted for squat type)

If you're a kettlebell person, can you do 100 reps in 5 minutes with a weight approx 25-30% bodyweight?

These are merely suggestions

The point is, if you do them today, you can repeat them tomorrow, and the day after that.

If you got zero sleep, you can still hit them.

This why they are minimum standards

And if any day happens where you struggle to hit one or more, then this is indicating that you are operating below minimum.

You may need additional rest, additional calories, maybe you’re neglecting your maintenance work (rehab or mobility work)

Training then is simply warming up, work up to the minimum and make an executive decision whether to stick with that or push on.

Utilising the “Rule of 10” as per Dan John is a good idea here.

Say you’re doing squats and you get to your minimum standard load.

You now have 10 reps in which to decide where to go.

Will you stay at this weight for all ten reps. Or increase over a few reps.

You could do 5 at minimum, increase and do 3, increase again for 1 or 2.

You could to 5 at minimum, then 5 slightly heavier

You could do 2 reps at 5 gradually heavier sets

The choices are many, just keep it in around 10 reps of minimum or more.

Endurance can be slightly trickier to manage, but I’d be watching the heart rate and not spending too much time over 90% max HR as this is where you eat into recovery.

If you focus on these minimums, you will remain fit and strong. You may not necessarily get fitter or stronger, but you'll not go backwards, nor will you eat into your limited recovery bank.

This idea of minimum standards is not just for in season athletes and new parents, it's a solid idea for everyone to have.

If your regular training is going in the right direction you may find some of those standards change. Your minimums raise.

This tells you your training is good

And anytime life gets a bit chaotic, you simply get into the gym, warm up to the minimum and then decide whether to push on or not safe in the knowledge you are at least in good shape.

I hope that helps

As ever, I want your questions, so hit reply and send them in.

Chat soon


Dave Hedges

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