Handling Shift Work

A HUGE thank you to Ehayes for this comment. It was too good not to share as it touches on the demands of shift work, heightened need for dialed nutrition, and a real need to be flexible with training. Ego driven, non-adaptive training will get anyone overtrained or injured, but the process happens much more quickly in the shift worker:


My personal experience as a Firefighter, my wife Emergency Nurse and dedicated Paleo listener, Crossfit games competitor, no kids at home yet. This is in response to the LEO and many other podcasts topics concerning shift work people.
Robb is right on the money with maintaining consistency in an otherwise chaotic schedule. My advice:
You must be more strict on Paleo than your friends.
Your training must be flexible, but the goal and program has to be more focused. Your day to day energy is never quite the same as the last.
Intermittent Fasting comes naturally when getting a call at lunch or dinner time, but never planned.
Don’t be afraid of an extra rest day. It is better than adding insult to injury.

My schedule is every other day, 24 hr shifts, after 3 worked shifts, 4 days off. That works out to sleeping at work 1/3 of my life. While at work, if I sleep, I float between 7 fire station thus sleeping in a different old creaky bed most nights. I unplug all electronics in every room because they all have the common comforts that should not exist in a bedroom; t.v., internet, radio etc….There is always a chance of being woken up, therefore the sleep is absolutely never as good as being home. Limit one cup of coffee, because the potential to drinks 10 cups on certain days is not out the question. Just an example of necessary parameters I need for consistency.

On to the point.

Paleo IS nutritional consistency. As shift work folks, it has to be tighter compliance because the symtpoms of non compliance plus bad sleep are worse.

My wife is gluten intolerant. When she worked 3am-3pm, an accidental gluten ingestion was worse than when she is on a 7am-3pm and getting 8 hours of sleep vs. 5 hrs sleep. Also, symptoms of hypothyroid were subtle, but enough to question without diagnostic tests taken. Allergies were worse and on and on. On day shift, these symptoms are not present. She can choose to work day shift, which is great, bu those who cannot need a tighter diet to maintain normalcy, in my experience. As for me, no outward signs of gluten intolerance here, but Paleo has made days after a bad shift that much more tolerable. Thanks for that.

My goal- Strength is #1
You need to be able to work on your goal wherever you are. If you can’t consistently work on your goal you will not achieve it. Pick something achievable, with a defined track to get there and crush it.
CF Football Strength never miss and METCON only when I can- Strength is not always on the correct day and not always recommended loads. Loads are easily adjusted for tired days but the ROM is still there. I get PRs when I feel good. I can do strength at work or off work. The point is, goal is consistent, load is flexible and I make progress. Met Cons only when I feel good. Of course I practice gymnastics, sprints, etc… when I feel good, but they are 75% efforts. 100% efforts on rarely practiced movements equals injury.
I have tried jumping between CF Football, OPT, and others at the same time. It is a road to nowhere and for me injury. What if you feel great but its a light day or you feel bad but its a triple day. How can choose what to do? They all have different goals. It just doesn’t work. And training tired does not translate into better production while being tired at work, it leads to injury.
My rotation works on a 9 day cycle. Not a single online workout program exactly fits into my schedule. Pick one that you CAN follow, do it on the days that work for you. Stick with it for 3-6 months minimum. Make progress
In the case of Shift Work, less is more and simple is better, in my experience.

Categories: Athletic Performance, Athletic Performance, CrossFit, Paleo Testimonials


Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation

Have you heard about the Paleo diet and were curious about how to get started? Or maybe you’ve been trying Paleo for a while but have questions or aren’t sure what the right exercise program is for you? Or maybe you just want a 30-day meal plan and shopping list to make things easier? Then Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation is for you.


  1. Justin De Quim says

    ear plugs and one of those sleeping on a plane eye covering thingies..also use a lilght box at night to stay awake rather than el caffeine.
    Make the light box oneself using a solux 3500k 50 w 12 v bulob..Solux of this kelvin most closely replicate earlu morning light….the goose neck clip on light is also vely good too

  2. Tony says

    Speaking from a LEO perspective, diet cannot be stated enough, especially considering your peer group who may enjoy the 3am taco run. Also, overtraining is huge and needs to be monitored carefully. Sleep, Diet, and Crossfit style training could make you, or destroy you. So what are your choices????

    I think Ehayes was pretty well bang on. You need to get your diet in check, stick to one program to avoid overtraining and get sleep when you can. I would suggest a program with a strength bias with short met-cons. I would keep any runs to short sprints with the occassional 5km (due to fitness testing) and no program that involves 2x a day training.

    The only thing Ehayes missed, you need to make sure the program you choose, you love. It may be best to give a couple of different programs a go for 30 day trials and find the one that you enjoy the best. Sleep deprivation, bad work days, etc, makes motivation for training difficult unless you are going somewhere to have fun that happens to involve training as well.

  3. says

    This is smart training. Good insights that should translate for those of us who are students/parents/frequent fliers/etc. that have inconsistency in their schedules. You must be stricter about Paleo, smarter about recovery, volume, and injury prevention. Thanks for sharing!

  4. says

    Solid advice, Ehayes, and I’ll echo everything he’s said. As a Firefighter/Paramedic for the past 15 years, when it comes to training, LESS can be MORE, and diet is everything.

    I’ve learned to follow programming based on trial and error, and dipping into that overreaching stage is just too damn easy, especially when sleep is scarce and cortisol is high. Shiftworkers have to learn to self-regulate and back off or take forced rest days; one of the first things I ask the shiftworkers I coach is “How’s your sleep? How are you feeling?” While it doesn’t seem to affect the guys in their low 20s, guys over 30, and 35 especially, take a huge hit when sleep suffers.

    I also agree 100%—tight regulation of a dialed diet makes recovery WAY easier.

  5. Chuck O says

    As a professional FF/Medic i cannot agree more with the above stated material. Keeping your diet tight, sleep and plenty of rest on your days off keep my overall stress level’s in check! I would really like to give some love to http://www.firegroundfitness.com/ for a great progarm for FF/LEO’s and type career’s.
    Thanks Robb and Ehayes for the read!

  6. Brandon says

    As a ten year firefighter the guy is right . You have to dial it up when you can. Paleo nutrition over the past year has changed my life. My coworkers think I’m nuts but they all come to me for nutritional advice. Staying strict will make a huge difference. Rest and reload weeks are what will keep the overtraining at bay.

  7. Brandon says

    Sorry what I wanted to say was deload weeks. Freakin iPhone . I usually cycle three weeks of hard training with a week of taking it easy . I’ll do some easy running and body weight wods.

  8. ehayes says

    I am working on a presentation highlighting some of these key points for my department. Has anyone done this or know someone else who has done this. My plan is Nutrition and Cortisol control first, Physical Fitness second. I’d love to discuss your approach.
    The crossfit/ mixed modal functional fitness methodology has definitely made its way into military, fire and police. Articles have been written about its implementation. This is obviously a huge advance forward from the flutter kicks and 4 mile LSD (that’s long slow distance) days at the academy.
    The lifestyle factors have not been addressed however. From a Health and Fitness perspective, the majority of people still put physical fitness ahead of diet. This is a mistake.
    True story: We had our yearly physicals. A guy with essential hypertension, 130/90, was told he should start running instead of riding his mountain bike to lower his blood pressure… by a nutritionist. I got him to go paleo for a month, 110/60, lost 14 lbs, and his bike rides, which he actually enjoys, got better.
    My point is, these types of people are generally active. They have hobbies they enjoy. Most don’t have to be told to be active. But the information they are getting from the nutrition perspective is garbage and the lifestyle management is simply non- existent.
    Another funny thing about that. I gave my presentation to a board. They wanted to evaluate it first. They say they already have a certified nutritionist. She recommends running for blood pressure, fruits, veges and whole grains.

    I rely on the weekly Paleo Solution podcast to remind myself that I am not preaching purple kool aid.

  9. Rene says


    Great post and great advice. I am a Paramedic that has followed CrossFit for about 5 years and CFFootball or MEBB for the last 2 years. The biggest challenge I find when adapting a program to my sched is NOT skipping my goats…its just too easy for me to avoid those double under workouts…oh well, squats are more useful anyway. Please let us know how your presentation goes…maybe you should post it so the rest of us can present it to our bosses.

    • says

      Yea, we should have a podcast looking at “goats”. In the context of the sport of fitness, really big deal. For general bad-assedness.

  10. Roelant says

    not shift work per se, but I’m a professional student :-)

    been doing PaNu approach with good results.

  11. Dave says

    Thanks for this post – it was very insightful and exceptional! I’m a contractor working with the military, currently deployed in Iraq. My old man was in LE for 33 years, so I’m familiary with the workload you speak of. Some of the folks I advise find the very same thing – the food you eat HAS to be dialed in first…everything else is secondary, especially with the workload the job brings to it – lots of movement on foot under heavy load in 100+ degree heat.

    As for your workouts – why not create your own cycle? I worked with a guy who basically did that due to what we had available at the gym at the time. If your schedule is a 9 day schedule, why not base your workouts on a 3-day rotation. For example: Day 1, heavy lifts (squat, dead, oly lifts); Day 2, cardio (lots of sprinting, could even use a row machine/stairmaster in the fire house if you can’t break out for a run – might even try to loosely follow CFE – sprints one cardio day, time trials the other cardio day); Day 3 rest and/or active recovery, like yoga (again, something you could do, maybe save the yoga to an ipod or zune and can be done about anywhere). Then repeat. If there’s a day that’s missed due to work, then no sweat – just go with whatever you already have programmed. Another alternative for the cardio days would be a short bodyweight METCON (Cindy, for example) – again, can probably be done in most firehouses/locations.) Every 1 or 2 cycles, change up your heavy day (one cycle do squats & deads, the next do cleans & snatches) so you get some variety.

    Just some thoughts. Good luck on your presentation, sounds like it’s advice a lot of the community needs to push up their organizations. Thanks for stepping up and doing that!


  12. says

    Great post! Sleep a lot and get/stay really strong. Pretty sound advice. I use a sleep mask all the time. Granted, probably not the most macho looking thing in the world (and NO, I dont have my name in diamante on the front), but I would guesstimate it improves my sleep by 20%, no doubt in my mind.

  13. MANNY C says

    just wanted to thank you all for the great dialogue/discussion. this stuff is great and can realy serve to callibrate our lifestyle. i’d just like to piggy back on the 4 week cyclical training style mentioned above. can’t say enough great things about it. personally progressed more and very consistely by following a 21 day on 7 day off approach as well. my twist on it that has worked better for me lately, rather than always just backing it off every 4 week and doing ‘light wods’ , i have seen great results from taking every 4th, 4th week completelty off, i.e. stay the hell out of the gym, go on a sleep diet (try to force yourself to stay in bed as much as possible, etc.). i pr every time i come back fresh. might work well for some folks out there too. -mc

  14. Chuck O says

    no idea, but i would love to check out your work and see how i comes out. I can’t agree with the dialing in the diet before you get to crazy with the fitness program. I really need to sell this to the membership of my FD!
    BTW..have you seen this http://engine2diet.com/, Talk about a set up..i was given this by my Chief, total BS i told him.

  15. Angela says

    As a LEO, I have been struggling keeping up with everyone else at my box for a while, to the point that I felt overtrained and recently decided to quit training at the gym and start doing my own training. This post helped me to understand the reasons why I have felt this way for so long, like no matter what I did, I could’t catch up. I am an avid paleo follower and now I am planning to do some Oly training, and some CF football type WODS., we will see how that works out. Again, thank you for posting this.

  16. ehayes says

    The key point in me choosing CF Football SWOD as my first priority and DWOD as my second is because it is flexible, strength focused, and if I have to scale back I still get a decent lifting session. I don’t feel like I have to cherry pick a different workout because the posted one is going to burn my candle at both ends.
    I think this could work for any program depending on your goal, i.e. CF endurance, gymnastics moves + Metcon etc..

    The foundation for the presentation I have put together is all of the information Robb references. Paleolithic Solution Seminar, the podcast, Performance Menu articles, Gary Taubes, Vege Myth, Lights Out, Primal, more books and all of the blog’s. I was given some money to buy reference material, so obviously the Paleolithic Solution Book is on order and will go to all of our stations.
    It would be much, much more effective to have Robb come and speak. Since cost is an issue, I will have to do.

  17. Adam says

    Ehayes, great insight into the tumultuous life cycle of shift work. One of the great benefits, as you eluded to, is the built in randomness of our profession. The key, I believe, to maximizing individual potential in our situation is hormone regulation, i.e. nutrition, light control, quality of rest, and stress relief. Followed by strength biased MEBB xfit type stuff. This is something that I have been pushing the past 5 years in my department, it started with doing things differently as a station Captain, moved to individual conversations with management and finally, aided by the OCFA Wellness Study, Ive been given a two hour block each year during our Unit Safety Conference to present almost exactly the plan you laid out in your post to all of our employees. I have put together a Powerpoint presentation that is mostly hard data and talking points but I would be happy to share it and any other information/ideas with you.


  18. ehayes says

    SForman- Hey buddy. Hope to see you at the CA FF Olympics.
    I will send you what I’ve got soon. Thanks for the offer.

  19. Paul Dalton says

    Really enjoying reading this post. I’m a 38y/o FF/Medic (15yrs) CrossFit for last 3yrs. I have 3 kids and a second job(s).
    I’ve played w/ various versions of nutrition, training and recovery. It is still a work in progress but here is what I do :
    Nutrition is based on the CF Rx “Eat meat & veggies…” I gravitated back to using this as it seems to work well & is simple to do.
    Training is based on two things: a journal & how I feel. I use the journal to keep it broad & evidenced. I set specific goals for every 3mos or so. Outside of that, I try and take notice of some things: my energy level, attitude towards training, aches… If I’m tired then I take the hint -> and the day off. Occasionally, to apply variety, I push through the tired. Most times I feel these workouts are productive and I have even set some PRs; which only adds to the mystery of whats best to do… Great Discussion

  20. Eric says

    Ive been waiting to see a thread like this for a long time! Im a realtively new Firefighter whos been on for a year and a half. Ive been Crossfiting with the occasional dab in CFE (Im actually on the mainpage today) and 5/3/1 for quite a while now and I feel both bring alot to the table for the job

    For sleep I typically run my stopwatch at night. I stop it between calls if we get any and sleep as much as possible when I get home to get my total amount of sleep up to 8-9hrs.

    The biggest problem Ive noticed is trying to stick to a Paleo approach at work. Meals are typically full of gluten at my Firehall and your looked at as an “outsider” if your not in on them. I pull my weight around the hall, train with the guys and maintain a shitload of enthusiam but it seems as if I make the other guys (11 in total ) at my hall feel bad becuase I eat so well.

    What are some tips you guys could give surrounding this? Cheers!

    • says

      I know where your coming from Eric, I take shit constantly about my health habits at the station. Many of the guys I work with think I’m completely nuts. At first it can seem tough to fit in while doing this stuff but after a while you’ll realize that everyone has their quirks. The best advise I can give you is to embrace it. Try not to preach to the other guys and learn to laugh at yourself and admit when something seems a little out there. Eventually you will gain respect for being true to who you are and for putting your health first, after all in our profession it’s extremely important to stay in top physical shape. At my station the guys like to say that you can’t pull or sprain fat, that when I remind them of the link between obesity and low testosterone. I’m sure you know that being one of the guys means being able to bust balls the same as the rest of them. If they give you too much crap just let them know the reason your doing it… so you don’t end up a fat ass like them. Just remember not to be to hard on yourself. I like to work in a cheat meal once a week on shift, it helps break the tension and let everyone know I’m not some kind of food nazi. And when they ask why you do something explain it to them, I’ve got a couple guys to start wearing blue blockers just by explaining why I do it. Good luck bro.

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