Microorganisms buried in marine sediments are known to endure starvation over geologic timescales. However, the mechanisms of how these microorganisms cope with prolonged energy limitation is unknown and therefore yet to be captured in a quantitative framework. Here, we present a novel mathematical model that considers (a) the physiological transitions between the active and dormant states of microorganisms, (b) the varying requirement for maintenance power between these phases, and (c) flexibility in the provenance (i.e., source) of energy from exogenous and endogenous catabolism. The model is applied to sediments underlying the oligotrophic South Pacific Gyre where microorganisms endure ultra‐low fluxes of energy for tens of millions of years. Good fits between model simulations and measurements of cellular carbon and organic carbon concentrations are obtained and are interpreted as follows: (a) the unfavourable microbial habitat in South Pacific Gyre sediments triggers rapid mortality and a transition to dormancy; (b) there is minimal biomass growth, and organic carbon consumption is dominated by catabolism to support maintenance activities rather than new biomass synthesis; (c) the amount of organic carbon that microorganisms consume for maintenance activities is equivalent to approximately 2% of their carbon biomass per year; and (d) microorganisms must rely solely on exogenous rather than endogenous catabolism to persist in South Pacific Gyre sediments over long timescales. This leads us to the conclusion that under oligotrophic conditions, the fitness of an organism is determined by its ability to simply stay alive, rather than to grow. This modelling framework is designed to be flexible for application to other sites and habitats, and thus serves as a new quantitative tool for determining the habitability of and an ultimate limit for life in any environment.