How to stay in shape when you work long hours
- Make sleep a priority
- Rely on HIIT training
- Diet: Simple and strategic. Buy in bulk
How to stay in shape when you work long hours—a problem for a lot of us. To be a good athlete, you need to train several times a week, eat a nutritious diet, and live a healthy lifestyle. That’s entirely doable for people who work 40 hours a week—but what about someone who works 60 hours a week, or more?
The answer is that it’s still doable, but it takes strict time management and a training program designed to pack as much productivity as possible into short periods of time. Here’s how to train like a Spartan when you work long hours.
1. Make Sleep Priority Number One
If you’re overworked, sleep needs to be your absolute number one priority—and that means getting at least seven hours of high-quality sleep per night.
How do you do that? First, and most importantly, protect your sleep time. Designate a seven-hour (or preferably eight-hour) period in which you’ll always be in bed: 11 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., for instance. Barring unusual circumstances like long-distance business travel, you should always be getting to bed at your designated time, even if it means letting some work wait until the morning.
In addition to getting enough sleep, you also need quality sleep, which means sleeping deeply and restfully throughout the night. Here are a few ways to improve sleep quality:
- Sleep in total darkness. If any light gets into your bedroom, install blackout curtains. Wear a sleep mask when traveling, or if you can’t completely darken your room.
- Cut out caffeine before noon, because even caffeine consumed in the morning can still reduce the time spent in deep sleep.
- Stop working at least an hour before bedtime to allow your mind to wind down.
- Start dimming the lights between dinner and bedtime. In particular, darken the screens of your electronic devices using f.lux or something similar.
- Don’t do anything in bed other than sleep, sex, and maybe a half hour of fiction reading before going to sleep. In particular, don’t work or watch TV in bed.
2. Make Workouts Short, Intense, and Convenient
Working long hours doesn’t leave you much time to exercise, so you need to squeeze as much value out of the time you have as possible. Generally, this means making your workouts short and intense, and doing them at the most convenient possible times and locations.
Ideally, you’d have a gym at your apartment or office so that your workouts don’t require any additional commuting time. Barring that, your gym should be close to one of those places, or directly between them along the route you take when commuting to and from work.
As for time—weekday workouts should be immediately before or after work, or possibly during your lunch break if you have the time and a good gym at your office. The timing of weekend workouts can be more flexible.
You can make your workouts shorter and more intense a few different ways. For cardio workouts, you can substitute high-intensity interval sprints for steady-state training. However, if you’re training for a Spartan race, you will want to include some long-distance endurance running, probably on weekends.
Resistance training workouts can be made shorter and more productive by shortening the rest periods between sets and performing your workouts circuit-style. By alternating between exercises that target different muscle groups, you can have shorter rest periods while still allowing the individual muscles to get a fair amount of rest.
For example, instead of doing four sets of bench presses and then four sets of rows with three minutes’ rest between sets, you could alternate one set of bench presses, one set of rows, then a set of bench presses, and so on, with one minute’s rest between sets.
In general, to stay in shape when you work long hours, sessions should be 30–60 minutes long. Here’s an example of a weekly training schedule for someone who works from 8 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. on weekdays and is pretty busy on weekends too, goes to a gym located near their home, and is preparing for a Spartan race:
- Monday, 8 p.m.: Upper-body strength at the gym, 45 minutes.
- Tuesday: Rest.
- Wednesday, 8 p.m.: Lower-body strength at the gym, 45 minutes.
- Thursday, 8 p.m.: Upper-body endurance + HIIT sprints at the gym, 60 minutes.
- Friday: Rest.
- Saturday, 8 a.m.: 45-minute run.
- Sunday, 8 a.m.: 1.5-hour run.
Total: Just under five hours a week of exercise, with only a few minutes of commute time. If you wanted to save even more time, you could remove the Saturday run and move the Thursday workout to Friday.
3. Keep Your Diet Simple and Cook in Bulk
To stay in shape when you work long hours, come up with two to four breakfast meals that you really like, and eat those same meals every day for breakfast. Do the same for lunch on weekdays—pick a few meals to eat every day, whether they’re things you can get near the office or things you’d make at home and bring to work. Allow yourself more variety at dinner and at lunch on weekends.
If you don’t have time to cook every day, designate two times a week to prep meals in bulk. At these times, you’ll cook four to six servings of food at a time (assuming you’re cooking only for yourself) and saving the leftovers to eat later. In the sample schedule above, 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays would work well.
Every meal you eat—whether at home or eating out—should include the following:
- At least 30 grams of protein
- At least 10 grams of a healthy fat like olive oil, coconut oil, or the natural fat found in fish
- One or more servings of low-starch vegetables like broccoli, peppers, or squash
- One serving of fruit
In order to build healthy habits, you need to maintain consistent meal times. For the example I gave of someone working 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., something like the following would work well:
- 7:30 a.m.: Breakfast
- Noon: Lunch
- 5 p.m.: Small afternoon snack
- 9 p.m.: Dinner
4. You Can Still Train Like a Spartan, Even If You Work Like a Dog
Being athletic when you work long hours is tough, but it can be done if you’re disciplined and you make training a priority. You need to keep your workouts short but brutal, cook food in bulk, and get plenty of sleep every night.
Most importantly, you need to maintain a schedule, such that you’re doing everything at the same time every week. By building and sticking to such a schedule, you can develop powerful health habits that you’ll be able to stick to even after a 10-hour day in the office.
The Spartan approach to simple, fast and healthy good is foundational when you're busy as hell. Download the Spartan Meal Plan.