How tired is too tired?

In the last few weeks, inspired by my Index Data colleagues Adam Dickmeiss and Jakub Skoczen, I’ve started running.  Humilatingly short distances, and at laughably slow paces, but running nevertheless.  I’m forty-three, I weigh over a hundred kilograms, and I absolutely love good food and drink.  If I don’t do something, it would be terribly easy for me just to slowly but inexorably get fatter and more unfit until I keel over.

Overweight runner

For avoidance of doubt: this is not me.

So far I have run four times, racking up a less than inspiring total of maybe three miles.  So you might want to take what I say with a pinch of salt.  Still, I feel like I got a general insight on yesterday’s “run”, if you want to call it that, and as usual I am arrogant enough to assume that the world ought to be told.

On my last-but-one run, I did manage to rack up a whole mile, but by cheating.  I ran half a mile, then walked 150 meters up the steepest part of the course I’d planned out, then ran the last half-mile home.  I made it back alive without having to stop.

But yesterday, attempting the same course, I got carried away and thought I’d be able to run the whole thing without dropping to a walk.  So I kept running up the steep part and into the homeward leg.  Well, I was right: I was indeed able to keep running all the way up the hill.  But it wasn’t far into the homeward leg before I just couldn’t keep going, and had to stop to recover before ambling home.  I ended up achieving less overall than I had the previous time when I followed the pan to go run, walk, run.

So here is the lesson: when deciding whether you are too tired to do something, don’t think about how tired you are now, think about how tired you are going to be.

I ran up the hill because I wasn’t too tired to do it.  But I should have been thinking about whether, having run up the hill, I’d be too tired to run home.

I think this principle applies in a lot of places.  One that’s bothered me recently has been in watching Season 5 of The West Wing.  During the crisis that engulfs the White House at the very end of Season 4 and which is the heart of the early Season 5 episodes, virtually every major character at some point tells one of the others to go home and get some sleep.  And every time the response is, “No, I’m OK”.  Yes, Josh: you’re OK now.  But once you’ve stayed up all night at progressively decaying levels of efficiency, you will be useless in the morning when you have to, I don’t know, formulate a policy on reducing subsidies for Minnesotan soy-bean farmers.   Don’t take a break?  You may be able to run up the hill now, but you’ll end up having to walk home.

A more relevant, and indeed non-fictional, application is programmers pulling all-nighters.  I guess every serious coder has done this a few times — I know I have — and there are times when it is absolutely the right and proper thing to do.  When there is a hard deadline in 24 hours and 24 hours’ worth of work left to do, the only sensible thing is to work for 24 straight hours.  But to keep doing it?  To get into a lifestyle where working through the night becomes routine?  No, it won’t work.  You might make it up the hill for today’s project, but you’ll end up having to walk home.  Plan for how tired you are going to be.

So: do I have the energy to take on the new project that someone’s suggesting?  Right now, probably, yes.  So should I do it?  Maybe not.  How tired am I going to be?


15 responses to “How tired is too tired?

  1. I had a good luck with the following strategy. Take a 30 minute or 60 minute walk. During that walk take short sprints. I started with 10 x 50m sprints. Walk about 2..3 minutes, sprint as hard as you can, walk ..3 minutes, sprint, … It was really amazing how this actually improved my endurance. First, I noticed how I could sprint for longer distances, then I tried running longer distances and it felt much more easier.

  2. If you’ll be keeping up the exercise, consider just walking instead.

    You won’t run out of breath, you get adequate cardio and use up as much energy, and if you’re willing to eat less carb and even eat several smaller meals instead of few large ones, you’ll lose the excess weight fast.

    There’s no real gain in pushing your heart rate that high for the hour or so that most serious joggers do – when will you ever need to run in that pace for that long? In fact I think this type of intense cardio will ultimately have a negative effect on your health, even if you can train your body to endure it for the time.

  3. Spaceman Spiff

    I was just about your age, and condition, when I started running. I was working in Massachusetts at the time, and my office was adjacent to the Minuteman National Park and the Minuteman Trail. I started with walking the trails in the park, and after awhile I found myself starting to run. After a year or so I ended up running 10k (6 miles or so) about 3 times a week, getting to where I could do the 10K between Lexington and Concord in about 40 minutes. I lost some weight (about 15 lbs), but basically my cardio-vascular system and general stamina was massively improved. Bicycling to work a few times a week (about 20 miles) also helped. The cool part was that my bike route took me right past Walden Pond.

  4. Good for you for getting out there and run/walk-ing!

    You might consider reading some of Jeff Galloway’s site or books:

    He’s a former Olympic runner who’s all about getting people into running so that they can be healthier and have fun, injury free.

    My wife and I have used his “run/walk” method and it’s great. Basically it’s “run for X minutes, then walk for Y minutes, and then repeat.” We used “run 3, walk 1” to get started, and that took us from 5K runs all the way through a half marathon. The minute of walking gives you a chance to rest up a bit, and will likely give you a better time (both clock time and mental time) for your run.

    Now, how to relate that to programming… Well, Jeff Galloway is all about running injury free for your entire life, no matter your age. That type of longevity is something we can consider for a software career – you want to enjoy your career as long as possible without burnout.

  5. Trying to run continuous long distances is less effective and more demotivating. Try an interval workout like couch-to-5k ( This one is really popular and there’s a zillion sites and even smartphone apps for it.

    And it works, I tell you from personal experience.

  6. Might I suggest cycling instead? Like your good self I imagine, I looked down one day and couldn’t see my feet. I said enough is enough and started running. I built up to off road 10k but it didn’t fit in with my lifestyle but I can cycle to work if I choose, which does. It’s just as aerobically challenging as running but with much less impact and you get to see more of the country. Plus the gear is groovier. Believe me, once the pounds start dropping you’ll be right into the gear and it ends up a self reinforcing cycle ( ho ho!). As others say though, you need realistic targets. There’s a saying in Gaelic – Beag air bheag (little by little). That’s the best way to decouch oneself and join the fiterati. Good luck sir!

  7. Thanks to all for the suggestions about exercise regimes.

    Cycling to work is a bit of a non-starter for me, because I work about six yards away from my bedroom. When I lived in Crouch End, I used to cycle to work in Tottenham Hale — about four miles each way, five times a week — but for some reason that didn’t do much for me, fitness wise, and I kept getting knocked off my bike. I guess central London isn’t the best place for biking.

    Walking (alone) won’t do it, either. I just don’t have the time. If I am going to exercise, it’s going to need to be something more intensive than walking, and also more goal-oriented (to keep my interested). Running is the obvious candidate. That various walk-a-bit-run-a-bit regimes are interesting, and the couch-to-5k program has been recommended to my elsewhere, too. I could look into that, but it seems a bit complicated. The great advantage of running is that you just step outside your front door and start, well, running.

  8. I recommend “The Runner’s Body” by R. Tucker and J. Dugas before or along your adventures with running. It helped me to avoid injuries (so typical for eager novices) and understand what running really is.

  9. Congratulations on getting started running!

    I had a similar start; just over two years ago, having just turned 40, I decided to start eating better (not less, just better), and also start running. I was around 110 kilos at the time. I started the way you did: I just stepped out the door and started running. Two blocks later, I walked, and then I ran some more, until I’d run about a mile. And I kept doing it. One day I decided to just keep a running gait, even if I was moving at a pathetic shuffle that was slower than walking speed. But I kept at it. Soon I could run a mile, then two, then three. Weight fell off me; I lost nearly twenty kilos over six months. A year after I started, I ran a half-marathon.

    Couch to 5k is good (especially if you run with a phone that can cue you when to change from walking to running), but if that’s too fiddly for you, just keep hitting the pavement every few days. You will still get there.

    As far as walking goes as a substitute for running: it didn’t work for me. I walked to and from work (3-5 miles total, per day, in a hilly city) for two years without losing any weight at all. Only when I started running did the weight seriously start to go away. You also won’t improve your body’s work capacity or exercise your heart to the same degree with just walking.

    I had problems with severe knee pains after I got to the point where I could run 5km or so. I’d run, and then for two days I had problems walking (and even standing up from a sitting position). I switched from regular running shoes to Vibram FiveFingers (essentially unpadded gloves for your feet). After about a week of adjusting to them, the knee problems went away; 10K runs became a regular part of my schedule.

    Anyhow, stick with it. The rewards of getting in shape are totally worth the effort.

  10. Tagore Smith

    I agree with your general point- I’ve done some programming marathons in my time (I once wrote a raytracer in five days that was the only piece of required work for a semester-long graduate course- IIRC I failed to get the refraction working correctly though, because I was too tired at the end ;) .) .And I have sometimes gotten a lot done in them.

    But there’s only so long you can work like that, and you’ll eventually (fairly quickly) start getting so sloppy that it is self-defeating. I do think that it is a good thing to be able to work like that, when necessary, and I still sometimes like to just program for 60 hours in four or five days, but I had better be able to take a significant break after that.

    I’d also say that I think it is better to not tire yourself on unnecessary things. I tend to think that we all have a “pain budget”- a certain number of things we can do each day that we don’t really want to. Better to get the important ones out of the way first. I’ll admit that I am not always very good at this.

    I do wonder if you have considered a combination of interval training and resistance training?

  11. David Whiting

    When I started running a while back I tried to run too fast too soon, go knackered and had trouble keeping interested. Then I got a Polar heart rate monitor and using that was able to keep my heart rate in the zone that allowed me run indefinitely (well, that’s how it felt). It was much slower than I tried previously but I knew it was doing me good. Over time I got fitter and was able to run faster.
    I often got knee pains and then got Vibram FiveFingers (mentioned above by Mark Cogan). My knee pains vanished, and running is so much more fun and… sensual with them. I feel like a kid again when I run.
    Don’t knock walking though. 10,000 steps a day, with at least 3,000 of them at 100 steps per minute has also really helped me.

  12. Why are you trying to run a mile? Shouldn’t you be going for a kilometer or two?

    Seriously, mixing running and walking makes perfect sense early on. After all, you are out of shape. We started running guided by Lance’s Running for Health and Beauty. Lance says that one shouldn’t run so hard that one can’t keep up a conversation. You want to pace yourself so you don’t get winded. Sprinting or tearing up a hill will leave you winded. Slow down. It’s amazingly good advice.

    I still remember the thrill the first time I ran for a 10 full minutes. I was gasping a bit at the end and had covered less than a mile. (This was in the States). After that it got a lot easier. Pacing is very important.

    Programmers aren’t the only ones pulling all nighters. The architectural term is charrette, from the little cart used to pick up final projects a L’Ecole de Beaux Arts back in the late 19th century. I was told that they had a dawn deadline, so an all nighter was a rite of passage. It probably also taught a lot of budding architects to pace their work better.

  13. Slightly OT: the issue of programmers pulling all nighters , has the biggest effect where they are in a devops role. i.e they are also incharge of operations. The two roles(development and operations) demand different levels of alertness (i.e to say they have different error tolerance). And estimates have to take this into account. This is the lesson i have learnt in my experience of switching from a MNC to a startup.

  14. That is an excellent point, Anand. An important question to ask is: “too tired for what, exactly?” I’ve certainly had days when I’ve been too tired to write good code, certainly good algorithms, but have been perfectly able to write good documentation, or deal with stacks of overdue emails, or what have you.

  15. Pingback: My plan for 2012: do things that children do | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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