Shift Worker? 9 Tips to Juggle Work, Family and Training without losing your sanity!

What would you rather do?

Head out on your bike for a ride on a beautiful warm, sunny spring morning? Or be stuck in traffic on the way to work.

Swim in the sunshine in the middle of the day in an empty pool? Or share the ‘medium’ lane at the pool with 8 other people, one of whom is doing backstroke (badly) and another has adopted a liberal interpretation of the word “medium”.

There are good things about being a shift worker.

But there’s no doubt about it – shift work is tough.

I don't know where to start

I don’t know where to start

You go to bed when others are making breakfast.

You leave for work when the rest of us are kicking off our shoes and winding down after a long day at work.

Whether you work in manufacturing, nursing or the emergency services, it’s a challenge to squeeze your training around your work and your family.

There’s one thing that many shift workers say to me when we’ve talked about getting into triathlon or getting some coaching ~

I don’t know where to start.

So here are a few tips I’ve given some of my shift-working clients over the years ~

Believe it’s possible.

Like most things in life, your mindset dictates your success (or failure).

So you need to be aware of and (sometimes) change your mindset.

You need to believe that it’s possible – and it is because thousands of shift workers have combined their sport and life over the years.

But you also need to accept that it’s going to take a different approach.Which leads straight into the next point…

Don’t look at other (non-shift workers) programs

Don’t fall into the trap of talking to others about their training programs.

In fact, this is a big mistake everyone – shift workers and non-shift workers – make because you can let it mess with your head.

I think the reason most shift-workers don’t know where to start – and even doubt whether it’s possible – is because you’ve looked at a generic program you’ve downloaded from the inter web or at a friend’s  program and think to yourself “there’s no way I can do that”. And you’re probably right.

Ever worried that you’re doing less training than your mate who is training for the same race? Then you’ve fallen into this trap. Remember – their approach won’t work for you.

What does your week look like?

Don’t start with the program; start with your week.

You might need to do this exercise each and every week if your shifts are different (and that’s ok).

Start by blocking out the days you’re working. Don’t forget to factor in your commute, family commitments and sleep!

Some people are able to train immediately after doing a 12 hour shift. Others aren’t. You need to work out what will work for you.

Start with the big rocks

Start with your 4 quality sessions – swim, bike, run plus strength/core.

Quality meaning sessions that include some effort that’s designed to lift your fitness above your aerobic baseline and that’s specific to your goal.

These are not your long, slow sessions.

Quality sessions take you from your current fitness levels and move your fitness up the ladder, one step closer to your goal.

Where can you fit them in?

(Does it hurt your brain to think about this? Talk to a coach).

Make sure you think about the order too ~

  • let’s say for example you work 4 x 12 hour shifts (day or night) and then have 4 days off. You might be tempted to jam all your sessions in as soon as your first day off starts. But it might be better to have a rest day  to catch up on sleep instead (particularly if you’ve been on night shifts).
  • or consider starting with a swim on day #1 which is a little less taxing on your body because you’re tired and still recovering from work.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

You may have less time than the rest of us to train so you need to be deliberate and strategic about how you fit it all in.

If your run is a weakness, do your quality run early on day #2 before your quality ride on day #3.

This way the effectiveness of your run session isn’t compromised by tired legs.

Remember better > longer

A shorter but harder session, loaded with strategic intervals and efforts, will often yield better results than if all you do is long slow sessions.

Going out for a long, easy ride or run might seem like a good idea especially if you’re tired.

But you’ll get more bang for your buck – not to mention less total training time – with a smarter and more strategic approach.

Accept your journey will be different. And be ok with that.

Accept your journey will be different. And be ok with that.

You need to accept that…

….you’ll be tired.

….your training program will be different from everyone else.

….you’ll miss sessions from time to time due to fatigue. Don’t beat yourself up, don’t try to cram and certainly don’t repeat a session if you don’t nail it. Accept that it’s gone and let it go.

….you’re probably going to do much of your training alone (unless you can find a training buddy who is also a shift worker).

Which leads me to….

Join squad sessions as often as you can

You may not be able to join a squad or train with your mates for every session you do.

But try your best to train with others as often as you can.

It will help to prevent some of the loneliness and isolation that comes with the sport (and with shift work).

Don’t sacrifice the most important element…


It’s one of the single most important element of your program.

It might be hard, if not impossible, to get 7-8 hours each night, especially if you’re working 12 hours shifts. But try to get as much sleep as you can – both when you’re ‘on’ as well as during your days off.

Research shows that athletes who sleep less than 8 hours each night have 1.7x greater risk of getting injured than athletes who sleep more than 8 hours.

Now getting 8 hours sleep each and every night may not be achievable for you (heck, even I struggle with it!). But try to maximise your sleep at every opportunity you get.

So no more Facebooking in bed or falling asleep on the couch in front of the telly!

Make it a high priority, just like you would make it a priority to do your favourite training session each week.

Accept your journey will be different and be ok with it.

You can combine your shift work, a healthy family life and your training. It just requires a different approach.

Break the mould – in fact, smash it on the ground – and find your own path towards your training and racing goals.

Are you a shift worker?
Leave a comment and share what tips you’d add to this list?