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Running on Empty: A Tired Mom's Journey through Sleep Deprivation and Mental Health

Updated: Jan 13

In the chaotic whirlwind of motherhood, I found myself navigating the challenging terrain of single parenting these three rascals, while my husband worked across the world. The twists and turns of life led us to move continents not once, but three times in three years. Little did I know that this journey would take me to the edge of despair, battling postpartum depression and relentless sleep deprivation.

My journey of resilience and embracing tiny, thoughtful actions to "turn the boat around" carried me from the brink of surrender to a revitalized state. I transformed myself from an exhausted mom who had lost her drive to someone actively living her best life, exploring the possibilities of excelling in sports as a mom athlete.

a mother with her three children
Motherhood - the most remarkable achievement and also the most challenging thing I've ever done. Iwould not change a thing!

Tune In to Discover How Running Became My Lifesaver

Diving into motherhood in 2010 was not the first time I have met the stormy seas of life. Being an adventurous soul, I've always leaned more towards the philosophy of 'let's see what I can do' than 'I'm just fine in my comfortable bubble on the couch'. With that, comes sometimes seemingly impossible obstacles. 


In this week's The Athlete's Compass Podcast, I felt naked as I bare the vulnerability of my experience in early motherhood, sharing the struggles of raising kids who were far from being good sleepers. As I reflect on those difficult days, I connect the dots between mental health and the elusive quest for a good night's sleep stringed together night after night.

The turning point in my story on the podcast came when I admitted to contemplating suicide, perched on the cliffs of St. John's in Newfoundland. I've written about it before, but never publicly spoken about my mental health struggles.

With my husband away for weeks at a time, the relentless demands of motherhood pushed me to the brink. On top of the 24/7 mom service I was providing, I did not get much sleep, as any parent to kids under 4 is so sorely aware of. I also did not run, which has always been my go-to-instant-mood-booster.

I was running on empty and I knew it.

Enter the day I went hiking on the East Coast Trail.

As I sat by the cliff, mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted, I felt as if I was frozen, stuck in life. It was the instinct for self-preservation and the image of my children asking for their mom that pulled me back from the edge. Once again, these three amazing humans and my deep love for them got my sorry ass up, and I was able to shake off the dark thoughts.

kids wrestling and getting antsy
Getting outside NO matter what! Getting 3 kids under 4 outside-can be the biggest of challenges!

Enter the transformative power of running. As I kept walking along the East Coast Trail, I decided to run away from the cliffs.

In a moment of clarity, I found purpose in the rhythmic cadence of my feet hitting the ground. The elusive runner's high did not leave me empty-handed when I needed it the most. After 15 minutes, the feel-good hormones flooded my body and brain, making me dig into the last bit of mental strength.

This day pushed me to learn more about how I could help myself. As I buried myself in self-help books and books about resiliency (Angela Duckworth's Grit being one of them), I learned that runners high is nature's reward for persisting. The book The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. comes highly recommended if you want to learn why it feels so good to move our bodies.

Running can induce pleasure, alleviate pain, disappear worries, and stress and heighten the senses, caused by neurochemicals called endocannabinoids (McConigal). The theory goes that the early humans who often ran long distances would feel elated caused of these neurochemicals, allowing humans to survive as they were searching for food. Pretty cool, eih?

Running is nature's reward for persisting. Kelly McConigal, Ph.D

A simple run turned into a lifeline, providing me the strength to face the daunting reality of single parenting. Thus, the moniker "Tired Mom Runs" was born, symbolizing not only my physical activity but also the resilience that emerged from it.

Running became my "Me Time" it became my "surfacing for air". I felt I was drowning in motherhood and all the unrewarded, mundane duties I had to do. But every short run became my surfacing for air, leaving me hopeful and energized.

Sleep and mental health

You cannot will yourself to feel better when you are sleep-deprived. Our bodies, including our brains, need sleep. I think in some ways we've forgotten just how important the REST is as we work on getting better in anything, be it academic excellence or athletic pursuits.

Lack of sleep affects our hormones, immune function, metabolism, and cognitive function just to name a few. Most common illnesses are preventable by an active healthy lifestyle that includes 7-10 hours of sleep every single night. You are fooling yourself if you think you can manage with less.

At some point in our adulthood, we tend to forget to have fun. Combined with bad sleep and high stress, we become a sick mixture who feel like zombies, merely transporting our brains from point A to point B.

Think of the world where tired moms each find their "jam", their happy place, in physical activity, and making themselves feel good. Combine exercise with good sleep, these two go hand-in-hand, and tired moms around the world would be fitter, happier, and healthier. The best part of this utopistic scenario? No children would lose their moms to suicide.

What if tired moms could have FUN while exercising?! Is that yet another utopistic ideal? I don't think so!

Tired Mom Fairytale

As I visited my Happy Place (running) whenever I could, I kept thinking I could not be the only one feeling this way. Tired, numb, head in the dark cloud. I realized within my despair was a silenced fact that sleep-deprived moms struggle with mental health. I certainly was not the only one. Although I felt the urge to help others, I did not have a way - yet.

You aren't lost, you're just in an uncomfortable stage of your life where your old self is gone but your new self isn't fully born yet. You're in the midst of transformation. Marcos Alvarado

For starters, I started documenting my journey. I have a photo collection of very tired faces as if I knew I wanted to remind myself in the future just how far I had come. Enter gratitude.

Looking back now, almost a decade later, I am grateful for my journey. Had I not trusted through and clawed myself into the belief that there indeed WAS a bright light at the end of the long and dark tunnel, I would have missed out on incredible experiences, feelings, emotions, and people in my life.

I even fulfilled my life-long dream to compete in World Championships in 2022. "Your life, Marjaana, is from a fairytale," my elementary teacher told me a few years ago when I caught up with her during a visit to Finland.

I'd be a fool to underestimate the incredible power of serendipity that has blessed me with incredible people whom I call friends.

A woman happily riding her bike
From numb to exhilarated! I had forgotten to have fun and now fully enjoy challenging myself with long rides, runs and swims. Occasional scream of delight is guaranteed if you ride with me!

Plug in Your Headphones and Watch as I Share My Story in This Video

In my quest for better sleep, I share practical strategies I implemented, acknowledging that perfection was a distant ideal. From banishing devices from the bedside to establishing a strict cutoff time for electronic distractions, I took proactive steps to improve my sleep hygiene. Check out my top tips on how you can also do this below.

Note that you'll get them all by watching the full episode of the Athlete's Compass Podcast.

As I recount my journey, I mention the stigma surrounding mental health struggles and I highlight the importance of acknowledging one's vulnerabilities. My story resonates not just with tired moms but with anyone who has grappled with the profound impact of sleep deprivation, be it athletes, cabin crew(!), business executives, or exhausted parents.

If my story can help someone believe there is a light, I would love to hear about it. Don't be a stranger if you feel touched.

We end the podcast with a poignant note, with me emphasizing the paramount significance of sleep in my life. My story serves as a reminder that sometimes, the path to recovery and well-being begins with small, intentional steps – even if it means a run away from the cliffs of despair, and sleeping on the couch while kids are watching Paw Patrol.

Remember, even if today was a struggle, we can always start again tomorrow.

This is a story of any tired mom and dad who has found a solution in the balance of exercise and sleep- amidst the chaos of mother/fatherhood.

My top three books to help you get started

  1. Matthew Walker, PhD: Why We Sleep

  2. Kelly McGonigal, PhD: The Joy of Movement

  3. Michaela Haas, PhD: Bouncing Forward

Here's to the power of quality sleep. May you have the wisdom to prioritize sleep if you are struggling with your mental fitness.

Love, Marjaana

PS. Some of these methods I share and coach through in my The Fit Mom Method that is opening up in February!

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