Fatigue: The Hidden Threat Keeping You From Your Health and Fitness Goals

August 29, 2017

Ever struggle getting out of bed in the morning during the work week? Always need that extra cup of coffee in the afternoon to keep you going? How about coming home from work with no energy to complete any more tasks for the day?

We’ve all experienced this at one point or another in our busy lives, and most of us just accept it as normal routine.

It’s called fatigue, and it is the enemy of your health and fitness progress.  

Fatigue often presents itself as a feeling of being overworked or having low energy for daily tasks. It is common for people experiencing fatigue to feel that no amount of sleep or rest will help energize them. Not only does it impact your energy level, but you also feel emotionally drained and fuzzy in your thoughts.

Let’s dive in deeper to gain a better understanding of where your fatigue is coming from and how it weighs down your health and fitness.

Tracing the sources of your fatigue

Is fatigue simply a matter of not sleeping enough?  

While sleeping poorly can certainly contribute to fatigue, there are many other contributing factors that can keep weighing you down:

  • Consuming alcohol in excess
  • Drug use
  • Extreme physical activity
  • Lack of consistent physical activity
  • Certain medications
  • Poor eating habits

Understand there is a difference between being tired periodically after a long day of work and being tired everyday most of the time.  The latter is sometimes referred to as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and is a clinical condition where fatigue has lasted longer than 6 months.

With more acute, non-clinical fatigue that many of us face, it is typical to experience forgetfulness, slower reaction times, feeling lethargic, and a general state of grumpiness.

With the hectic nature of our daily schedules, it is easy to see how we allow sources of fatigue to pile up.

Late for work? No time for a good breakfast-- some snacks or doughnuts will have to work.  

Forgot to make your lunch? Fast food it is!

Staying late to finish a project? The gym will have to wait-- it’s time to go home for dinner.

And then the kicker: you get home after a long day and just want to sit down, eat food, and get all caught up on your favorite shows.  Think of how many times during the week you follow the above pattern of eating poorly, staying up too late, and neglecting your fitness program.  The cycle of fatigue-enabling behaviors goes on and on!

But how is fatigue holding you back from your fitness goals?

Know the balancing act between fatigue and your fitness

Now that we have painted a picture showing how fatigue affects your daily routine, imagine what it is doing to your fitness and health.  

Fatigue is actually a normal part of the training process; however, as fatigue is prolonged, it becomes known as “overreaching”, or worse, overtraining. Both are when there is an imbalance between exercise stress and recovery from that stress. Overreaching is common in athletes, generally only requiring a short recovery time (no more than a couple weeks), and can even lead to improved performance. However overreaching can become overtraining and often results in injury. Recovery can take months and even years with overtraining .  

Imagine this: you fatigue your body during exercise, and with adequate rest and recovery, your body bounces back, or supercompensates.  Think of when you feel stronger, faster, or better conditioned in subsequent days and weeks-- you have improved!  

When you reduce the amount of rest and recovery between workouts, or add in more training, your body cannot bounce back as easily in the same amount of time.  The weight on the bench press feels heavier, you feel sluggish in your run, and the first round of spin class really takes a toll. You are fatigued!

Image source: Peak Endurance Sport 

Image source: Positive Health 

If you are trying to make gains in your health and fitness, it is critical to understand that what you do outside the gym in the other 23 hours of your day matters! No matter if you are a weekend warrior trying to get back in shape or a well-trained athlete, fatigue and overreaching impacts us all based upon our own level of fitness and abilities.  

Take Charge Against Fatigue

It seems as if there is no way to escape fatigue from our daily life and exercise efforts.  Are we all destined to fail to reach our fitness goals?

The answer is a resounding no; there is much to do when combating and preventing fatigue from sabotaging your fitness efforts.

Think about your daily routine now: are you getting regular physical exercise? How about being consistent with getting a good amount of quality sleep?  Are you regularly eating balanced meals that align with your fitness goals?  Let’s explore each of these fatigue-combating factors.

Let fitness fuel your fire

If we want to keep fatigue in check as we pursue our health and fitness goals, our fitness plan itself can help us accomplish this.  It turns out that exercise helps us increase brain function, reduce our risk of stress and anxiety, improve our mood, and helps keep us mentally sharp.  

Remember that fatigue affects you in the exact opposite way: it zaps your energy, leaves you feeling fuzzy, and dampens your decision-making capabilities.  A review of research studies on the effects of exercise on the brain health and function highlights that regular exercise helps prevent fatigue from negatively impacting memory and decision making.  In summary, working on your fitness helps combat against mental fogginess!

Sleep your way to health and fitness

It seems we hear so much about the importance of sleep these days and its role in helping combat and prevent fatigue cannot be understated.  An ever-expanding body of research is showing that regularly getting 8 hours of sleep each night is critical for keeping full alertness and minimizing fatigue.  

If you are struggling to make it through your afternoon and lack the energy to make it over to the gym, poor sleep might be the culprit.  Studies focusing on airline pilots show how losing out on quality sleep is known to cause both slower thinking patterns and reactions.  Think of memory issues or difficulties in making decisions you have when you hit your afternoon wall.  Your work may not be as complex as flying a 737 aircraft, but it is affected nonetheless!

If you need to get yourself going for your workout, run, or bike ride, your warm-up started the night before: when you were sleeping!

So will sleep help you simply get yourself to go workout, or is there more to it?

It turns out that sleep can actually enhance your fitness and performance as well.  Well-rested individuals have better reaction times, fewer injuries, athletic longevity, and faster sprint times.  Studies following teenage athletes showed that those who are chronically sleep deprived have almost twice as many injuries as those who get more consistent, quality sleep.  

Further studies on adults who are sleep deprived revealed their reaction times are up to 50% slower than when they are rested.  This same study compared being sleep deprived after one very poor night of sleep to that of being legally intoxicated with a blood-alcohol level of 0.10%!  

If you want to combat fatigue and make gains in your fitness plan, sleep is a critical tool.

When it comes to food as fuel, choose wisely

One of fatigue’s more surprising sources comes from the type of food we consume as fuel.  As noted before, consuming junk food, drinking alcohol, and having an inconsistent diet all contribute to fatigue.

But shouldn’t eating something help give us energy?

Eating well in the 3 to 4 hours prior to training can help fuel performance during exercise by keeping your muscle-fuel stores topped off.  Feeding in the 30 to 45 minute window after exercise with quality foods also appears to be better for rebuilding muscles than delaying your meals.

Despite this time frame focused around exercise, this does not mean your food intake can be neglected the rest of the day!

The foods we eat absolutely have an effect on our fatigue levels by way of affecting our hormones and blood glucose levels.  Choosing the right foods to feed consistently throughout the day will help you manage your blood glucose, and thus combat fatigue.

Need snack ideas? Try almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, spinach salads, pumpkin seeds, or berries.  These foods contain healthy Omega-3 fats, protein, or low glycemic carbohydrates to help you keep your energy levels more steady.

Connect the dots to achieve your goals

Now that you have controlled your fatigue, shouldn’t you better understand your health and fitness goals?  Many of us fail to reach these goals not only due to fatigue, but due to the fact we fail to set what is called a S.M.A.R.T goal.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Result-focused, and Timely.

  • Specific: Think of stating the exact what, why, how, and when of your goal.  
  • Measurable: so that you have tangible evidence of progress toward success.
  • Achievable: something that is realistic, but will challenge you given your current abilities or state.
  • Result-focused: so that you have a clear idea of what the outcome will look like.
  • Time-bound: to devote yourself to a timeline, and create an appropriate sense of urgency to act!

Setting Goals, Taking Action, Measuring Progress

Now that you are aware of how fatigue can sabotage your efforts of attaining your health and fitness goals, as well as the importance of setting SMART health and fitness goals, it’s time to define some common health and fitness parameters.

But what are good goals to set for health and fitness in the first place?

When it comes to setting goals around health and wellness, consider setting goals dealing with sleep quality and quantity, body composition, or cardiovascular function.

With fitness goals, they will be specific to your interests, such as: increasing strength levels, improving endurance for races and marathons, completing a fitness test or activity, or simply participating in recreational activities a specific amount of days per week.

Regardless of your SMART health and fitness goals, you will be well-served to track your progress by setting your own Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s).  Think of KPI’s as your quick reference to see if you are keeping en-route to your goals.

While elite athletes monitor many factors like fatigue that impact their health and performance goals, there are a handful of solid KPIs for you to choose from to begin your process.

Consider this: now that you know how important it is to combat fatigue when pursuing your goals, a few KPI’s to keep track of might be sleep quality and quantity, as well as daily caloric intake of macronutrients. And rest assured, there are numerous apps for you to use to help keep track of these elements as well!

Touching base daily or several times a week with your KPIs allows you to objectively stay informed as to how you are progressing to your goals.  By tracking these KPIs, you are also able to see when you stray off track and can quickly remind yourself to reset.

It is important to remember that with fatigue, there are many factors that you can control when it comes to preventing or correcting the onset of fatigue.  Your health and fitness goals depend on it!


Matt Hauck, MS, CSCS is a fitness and performance specialist, working with high school, collegiate, professional, and Olympic athletes, in addition to fitness and wellness enthusiasts.