Here’s How to Tell When You’re Too Tired to Work Out—and When You Should Power Through
To snooze, or not to snooze? This is how to choose between working out or getting more sleep.
By Team Peloton•
We’ve all been there: Your way-too-early alarm goes off and you roll over in the dark, groggy and sluggish. Or maybe you’re slinking home from work at the end of a long, busy day. The last thing you want to do is jump on your Peloton Bike or head to the gym for a sweat session. How do you know if you’re actually too tired to work out, or if you just need a little extra motivation to move?
Of course there are warning signs that you’re experiencing genuine physical exhaustion and it’s important to listen to your body so you know when to take it easy. But sometimes, a bit of exercise can actually restore your energy levels. Here’s how to tell when you’re too fatigued to work out versus when you should power through the tiredness—plus the best exercises to boost your energy levels.
The Difference Between Exhaustion and Being Tired
It might sound like splitting hairs, but there’s a scientific difference between a body that’s exhausted and one that’s merely tired. Tiredness refers to a short-term state, and one that typically has a known cause—and therefore a solution as well. For instance, if you stay up all night finishing a work report and have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, you’re tired. Lack of sleep is the cause, and an afternoon nap will probably fix it. If you’re tired, a short aerobic session may actually help to restore your energy.
Exhaustion, also referred to as fatigue, is a continuous mental or physical state that often has no specific, identifiable cause. Getting extra sleep may not improve fatigue, and it’s a sign that you may need to reduce the activity you’re doing until your body recovers.
Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, you know that the benefits of working out are many: Exercise boosts your brain health, reduces your risk of illness, strengthens your bones, and improves your mental health, to name just a few. Research also shows that exercise increases the production of mitochondria, components of your cells that turn the glucose from food you eat into fuel your body can use. What’s more, aerobic activity raises your heart rate and gets oxygen circulating in your body, which helps your muscles function more efficiently, saving you energy.
With exhaustion, however, your energy is depleted below a level that will benefit from exercise. Exercising when you’re exhausted runs the risk of injury, since you don’t have the strength to practice proper form. In these cases, skipping your workout and getting high-quality, restorative sleep is important to your overall health. In fact, getting enough sleep (think: seven hours of sleep or more) can lower your risk for chronic illness, reduce stress, improve your mood, and boost your immune system, research shows.
Signs You’re Too Tired to Work Out
And so, the eternal dilemma: to snooze or not to snooze? When push comes to shove, how do you decide whether the benefits of extra sleep outweigh the benefits of a quick workout? Here are a few indicators you’re too tired to work out:
You’re chronically sleep-deprived.
You constantly feel overwhelmed and stressed.
You’re sore without good reason.
You’re having trouble focusing.
You’re struggling to maintain your form in strength workouts.
Let’s take a closer look at a few of these common reasons.
You’re Chronically Sleep-Deprived
Can’t remember the last time you slept for more than six hours? Are you falling asleep at work, in waiting rooms, or in front of the TV at night? Go ahead and ignore that alarm. Getting enough sleep is the first step in having a successful workout; a lack of sleep may leave you with less energy and poor attention and visual accuracy. Translation: You’re more likely to stumble during a run or misjudge your kettlebell swing. Your safety is always first during any workout, and if you’re too tired to be alert, go ahead and sleep in.
You’re Mentally Overwhelmed
We know that exercise relieves stress, and sometimes, a quick 20-minute workout during the day can help you mentally reset. However, in prolonged periods of stress, your cortisol levels are consistently elevated, putting your body in a constant state of fight-or-flight. In these instances, exercise might not be as helpful as sleep.
Here’s what happens: When you’re feeling chronically overwhelmed, your body accumulates stress in what’s called an allostatic load. Basically, your body can’t tell the difference between internal stress (say, worrying about applying for new jobs) and external stress (running a 5K every day). If your stress levels are already high, hard workouts can feel 10 times harder—and you might be better served by having a chill night in and focusing on your self-care.
You’re Sore From Previous Workouts
If you’ve been making fitness gains and your muscles are talking back to you, go ahead and take a rest day. Remember, rest and recovery are essential to letting your muscles repair so you can hit the gym again soon. Soreness is your body’s way of asking for recovery time before diving into physical activity again. Don’t be ashamed to give your muscles what they need.
When to Power Through
If you’re just not in the mood to work out, it can be difficult to decide whether you’re really too tired or if you’re struggling with motivation. In these instances, try picturing your future self. Will future-you have a little burst of energy or enjoy the release of endorphins that come with a workout? Or will you be grateful that you listened to your body and took that much-needed break?
Only you can know for sure. One option may be to test the waters with a light workout: something that won’t require a ton of energy and might end up benefiting your body. For instance, if you usually exercise after work, instead of skipping your Peloton Tread session and vegging in front of the TV because you’re too tired, head out for a 20-minute walk instead. An easy walk will still get your blood pumping and heart rate up, and you just might feel more refreshed once it’s over.
Best Exercises to Do When You’re Tired
We get it, you’re already a little tired—and when you’re tired, making any decision (let alone browsing hundreds of different workout options) can feel overwhelming. We’ll keep it simple: Instead of doing nothing when you think you’re too tired to work out, consider one of these Peloton exercise classes.
No surprise here: Yoga can feel amazing for your body, especially when you’re a little drained. Deep breathing plus gentle stretches and structured poses equals energy restoration. Try a vinyasa flow if you want to get out of your head and into your body. Or, if you had a stressful day, we suggest sinking into these stress-reducing yoga poses.
Try it: A 20-minute Peloton restorative yoga class will make you feel rested and ready to go again. Looking for something a little more advanced? A 30-minute slow flow yoga class can get you an even deeper stretch.
Walking is the perfect low-impact, moderate intensity exercise to try when you’re not ready for a torching HIIT session. In fact, research shows that going for a 20-minute walk three times a week can boost energy levels by 20 percent.
Sometimes you just need a good stretch to help your body get out of its rut and back in the game again. Like yoga, stretching improves blood and oxygen flow throughout your body and also serves a practical purpose of helping prevent injury.
Pilates is a combination of strength, flexibility, and posture training, and most of it’s done with your bodyweight only (although you can invest in Pilates props). It’s a low-impact workout, so it’s easy on the joints, and the focus is on building core strength through small, controlled movements. While Pilates can be demanding, it’s more accessible for all energy levels than, say, a 45-minute hill run.
Try it: A 45-minute Peloton Pilates class is just the right level of challenging for days you’ve committed to working out even though you’re tired.
How Sleep Impacts Your Fitness Performance
If you’ve weighed the pros and cons and decided you’re truly too tired to work out, don’t feel guilty: Reams of research show that catching up on sleep just might be the best fitness performance boost of all.
Let’s start with the basics: The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults get between seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Most of us are nowhere near that. Lack of sleep affects your fitness performance in multiple ways. According to a review in Current Sports Medicine Reports, not getting enough sleep results in:
Greater perceived exertion during activity
Slower running pace
Decreased glycogen (energy) stores
Poor reaction time
Lower placement in competition
One reason that lack of sleep leads to more injuries: Research shows that insufficient sleep decreases growth hormone release in your body, which is essential for muscle repair after a tough workout. Meanwhile, sleep deprivation raises your body’s production of inflammatory proteins, which inhibit the recovery process.
To make sure your body is getting enough rest between hard workouts, aim for seven to nine hours of shut-eye every night. You can’t stockpile your rest on the weekends (meaning: sleeping five hours a night Monday through Friday, then lounging in bed all day Saturday doesn’t cut it). A regular sleep routine is the way to go to optimize your energy levels.
Also, consider taking at least one rest day every seven to 10 days, per the American Council on Exercise. That means no workouts—or at least, no hard sessions (restorative yoga is good and encouraged!). This will help you avoid overtraining syndrome, where your body becomes too tired to reap the benefits of exercise.
Listen to Your Body
The key to avoiding that too-tired-to-work-out feeling is knowing the signs of workout fatigue early, so you can cut back before it becomes a major issue. Paying attention to the cues your body is giving you can help, but distinguishing between being tired versus lacking motivation isn’t always easy. These are a few ways to tell them apart:
Tired: When your alarm goes off, you close your eyes and immediately fall back asleep.
Unmotivated: When your alarm goes off, you close your eyes and imagine how much nicer it would be to stay in bed.
Tired: The last reps of every exercise during your strength session are much harder to get through than usual.
Unmotivated: You skip the last reps in your weights session because you know they’ll feel hard.
Tired: Your average pace on your run is 10 to 20 seconds slower per mile than usual.
Unmotivated: You shorten your run by 50 percent because you just aren’t feeling it today.
Tired: Your muscles are still sore two days after your usual cardio class.
Unmotivated: You feel OK after your usual cardio workout but decide to skip the next one, just in case you’re coming down with a cold.
Peloton’s Balanced Workout Approach
Even when you’re doing your best to listen to your body, there are times when you push too hard and find yourself exhausted and possibly flirting with injury. Then again, there are days when you’re ready to knock it out of the park and then some.
That’s where Peloton’s balanced approach to fitness comes in. Our classes are structured to cover a wide range of lengths and levels, so if you’ve only got 15 minutes but want to blast the heck out of your quads, you can do that—or if you have 45 minutes but need to go at a slow pace for recovery, you can do that too.
Peloton offers a range of class activity and intensity, from a 60-Minute Power Zone Ride to a 10-Minute Tabata Row session. You can choose what works for you on any given day. Plus, you can stay on top of your goals, gym workouts, and track your progress on the Peloton App.
There’s no exact formula for figuring out whether you should push yourself through a workout when you’re tired. Everyone is different, so the important thing is learning what’s best for your body. If you push too hard and get injured, you’ll only set yourself back farther from reaching your fitness goals. So sometimes, rest is the best option. Consider factors like how much sleep you’re getting, what your stress level is like, and whether it’s taking you longer than normal to recover from your previous workout or if you feel unusually sore. Learn to listen to your body’s cues and back off from working out as needed. In the long run, a little rest will make you fitter, faster.