We talked to some of our tactical athletes about managing stress, training around shift work, and maintaining balance.

Interviewed and Edited by Jacob Bailey

Our tactical athletes frequently ask, “How do I keep a consistent training schedule with my shift work job?” The answer, as with almost every question we get asked around here, is, “It depends.” Because we know that’s not the most satisfying response, we asked four of our resident experts to tell us how they train around an odd sleep schedule.  None gave us a simple, one-size-fits-all guide, but four common themes emerged.  Use these easy principles to find a work / sleep / training balance that works for you!



is a former Army Ranger, Fully Certified Instructor and owner of Element26 Gym in Bloomington IL. He trains law enforcement, military personnel, and medical professionals and is the coach of our Gym Jones Tactical Online Team.


is a nurse in the cardiovascular ICU at the University of Utah. He trains at Gym Jones Headquarters.


is a Fully Certified Instructor and owner of Project Deliverance in St Louis. He trains flight nurses, military personnel, law enforcement, and firefighters.


is a firefighter with Unified Fire in Salt Lake City. He is currently in Paramedic School and trains at Gym Jones Headquarters.

Principle 1: Be flexible.

Shift workers have to balance countless variables when figuring out when and how to train. They have inconsistent schedules, demanding personal lives, and unique training preferences. Because of this, flexibility is key.  Be patient if your training schedule changes from week to week.  Make adjustments to the workouts you have planned.  And if needed, give yourself permission to skip a workout altogether.  If you insist on stability and predictability, you’ll certainly fail.  So, be prepared to adjust on the fly.

You may have to adjust your training load, depending on your schedule.  “When I have cops and nurses who work three 12s, I’ll typically just have them do four days in the gym and three days off,” says Kurtis Frasier. “We structure their week around their goals and adjust the actual workouts around their jobs, depending on what went down on any given day.” You might also choose to train at unusual or unorthodox times.  Nate Goodwin, ICU nurse and Gym Jones athlete, does his workout before his shift, because it “helps [him] into a good headspace” and “helps [him] stay awake … rather than just drinking tons of caffeine.”  By contrast, Salt Lake City firefighter Chris Bertram finds that his day runs better when he trains immediately after a 48-hour shift: “When I’m on shift for 48 hours, regardless of whether I run 30 calls or 6 calls, I always get off shift the same amount tired. So  I’ve found, if I can work out right after I get off shift, it helps me destress and get myself back into the mode of regular life before I go home to take a nap.” If training helps you prep for your shift, then get your workout in before you go to work.  If not, do it after.  There is no right or wrong way: Matt Owen, for instance, reports that some of his athletes train right after a shift before they go to bed, others train right before they go on shift, and others do something in between.

Even once you’ve found the solution that works best for you, you may have to make adjustments depending on what shift you worked, what happened that day, and what your training program requires. When that’s the case, trust your coach to help you make a good decision.

Principle 2: Treat the gym as a tool to help you do your job.

Training can help you perform better at your job.  As Goodwin observed, “Constantly having to push yourself through stress like we do at the gym trains your mind to be able to overcome that stress every time you confront it. That does translate well to higher stress situations, you’re just able to think more clearly because you regularly do it in the relatively safe environment of the gym. It helps you come back down from stress more quickly, too. I have coworkers who can’t get over it all day after we run a code. Whereas, I think people who are more fit and are used to pushing through stress, are able to be in the moment, execute, and then go back to being at a normal pace, rather than getting caught up in it.”

When you’re making decisions about your training schedule, remember that the gym should support your performance at work, not the other way around. This might mean taking a day off when you didn’t plan to, or listening to your coach’s advice on scaling your workout. Frasier says, “There are plenty of days where I look at someone when they walk in and say, ‘Nope, go home. The gym is not the place you need to be today.’  I have rules for my cops; if they haven’t slept 6 hours they can’t come to the gym.” Matt Owen likewise adjusts his workouts for athletes who are exhausted after a busy shift. “When an athlete wants to be in the gym but they’re not quite 100% recovery status wise, we don’t do any max effort lifts, we just look to build some training volume,” he says.  “We’ll keep loads around 50% and do higher rep schemes. If they’re feeling okay as the workout progresses, I’ll have them get on the bike or the skierg or the rower, and even get some intensity in there, because there’s no real danger of getting hurt on any of those machines. But we’re definitely going to stay away from any heavy lifting.”

Also remember that your job likely puts you under the same kind of stress we apply at the gym, so on any given day, putting yourself through both might be excessive. Goodwin recounted, “An exercise physiology teacher once told me: a stress is a stress is a stress. Whether that’s mental or physical or emotional or psychological, it all hits your body the same way.”  This principle now guides Goodwin’s training decisions: “If I have a shift where my patient or patients crash, and it’s super stressful, I often make the decision just to not train after work. To give myself that extra rest, get extra sleep and better nutrition rather than training.”  When deciding whether to train after a shift, you should consider the total stress you’ve experienced and your overall need for recovery.

Principle 3: Be cautious about caffeine (and other supplements)

Caffeine and other supplements can help you get through long shifts and heavy workouts, but they can also make your life more difficult.  Goodwin learned this lesson the hard way: “When I initially started working night shifts,  I’d drink a Bang energy drink and would be up and twitchy all night. Then I’d get home and be all full of energy and unable to sleep, and would have to take a bunch of melatonin to sleep. And it was this horrible cycle that I put myself in.”  If sleep is scarce, take Goodwin’s advice and “[be] vigilant about everything else (hydration, nutrition).”

“Your biggest ticket to recovery is sleep,” he observes, so “when that’s not on the table, everything else becomes much more important.”

Be careful about sugar, too. “It’s so easy to reach for sugar when I  get off of a call and I just have an adrenaline dump and I start relaxing,” says Bertram. “People bring us cake, sugar, fatty treats all the time so it’s constantly around you.” Goodwin adds, “You’re going to have coworkers who love to eat sugar because it’s one of their coping mechanisms, but you can’t feed into it. Eat real foods, and hydrate properly.”

Principle 4: Take time to relax and reset.

As much as we love pushing ourselves to the edge, it’s important to recognize your limits–especially when your job has real-life consequences. A lot of our athletes think that training in a fatigued state will help them perform under stress and fatigue when their job requires it. Simply put, that’s a terrible idea.  Frasier says, “The analogy I give people is that you’re like a car. If you’re driving a shitty beat up car around town all the time, and then decide to go on a cross country road trip, your car is going to break down. Nobody would do that. You’re gonna get things fixed, get an oil change, take care of that car before you ask it to perform. Your body is the same way. You can’t beat yourself up consistently and expect to perform well when you need to.”

Goodwin agrees: “Let yourself have some down time. Staying in that super high adrenaline state all the time is not psychologically healthy, and you’re never going to recover properly. I find I’ll get into cycles where I just want to stay on that high, because it’s fun, I enjoy the feeling, it’s why I do what I do. I like the adrenaline dump. But if you’re living that way all the time, you’re not recovering, you’re not sleeping well, and sometimes you just need, you know, even just a morning to chill out and relax and not immediately hop on my mountain bike or go skiing to chase that same feeling even when I’m not at work.”

Looking for a training solution for tactical athletes? Try a one-week free trial of our Gym Jones Tactical Online team. You’ll get daily programming, direct access to your coach, and support from an online community full of athletes like you. Try it today!