You should try to train either in your middle and late morning or throughout your late afternoon and early evening. These times are relative, depending on when you usually start your day.
The following reasons explain why these periods work best for training.
Motivation gets you started; habit keeps you going.
– Jim Ryun
- Your circadian rhythm has alertness peak twice throughout the day.
The circadian rhythm developed throughout our evolution, serving as an internal clock that aligns roughly with a 24 hour day. It operates independently of your actions, yet those actions help to establish its pattern. This seems to have developed so as to encourage activity and rest during certain times, regardless of how you felt, such as from fatigue on a previous day. This rhythm closely matches the rising and setting of the sun, as the lives as humans had to revolve around it to see well in their environment.
This causes energy to peak soon after you wake up from sleeping at night and then in the early evening nearing bedtime. Our ancestors may have needed the alertness to hunt and forage during the day, with some time to rest while the sun felt hottest, followed by more vitality to prepare for sleep. These peak phases work best for both physical and mental work.
According to some research though, this alone does not explain everything. Studies reveal that some people strongly prefer to begin their days either earlier or later than normal. These are represented by morningness and eveningness, with those within each called larks and owls respectively. These outliers likely remained in the population since they fulfilled valuable roles within their societies, such as serving as watchers for their people during unusual times, or maybe just because it failed to interfere much with their lives.
Hummingbirds are intermediate types that appear more flexible. At least half of us form this crowd.
Despite these preferences, everyone can affect their rhythms through zeitgebers. These include the timing of seeing light, exercising, eating, socializing, feeling heat, and similar activities associated with daylight. The inverse applies to nighttime as well, including darkness, relaxation, snacking, quietness, coolness, and so forth. This makes sense, considering that the sunrise and sunset changes for the same location throughout the year.
You should already know if you lean toward one of the extremes. You may struggle within society’s standards, especially as an evening type, feeling less alert when you would like to be. Still though, both types revolved their clocks around light, the strongest zeitgeber, and both do well to have most of their activity take place in what would occur under the sun. Evening types likely do not have a natural wake-up time much past 9 am, and morning types much before 5 am.
With electricity though, these rhythms can get disrupted. In the past, fires and candles allowed people to stay up later but provided far less stimulation than the late-night artificial blue light experienced today.
Morning types will likely gravitate toward the late morning, so 2-4 hours after they rise. Nonetheless, someone less suited to this can likely use zeitgebers to advance their clock, unless maybe if having a strong preference for eveningness.
If training in the morning…
- Get as much light as possible before you start exercising. This will wake you up faster. Consider using a light box if you get up while it remains dark outside. Most indoor lights are not nearly bright enough. If possible, try to wake as the sun rises.
- Reserve when you first wake up, ideally for at least a couple hours, for something other than training. Alertness continues to increase as you wake up from sleeping at night, but the body still needs time to prepare physically. Your internal temperature needs time to increase, which will boost your performance. The vertebrae within your spine must decompress the fluids that built up before handling heavy loads. Many trainees also feel better with a meal in them, especially for intense work.
- Training early versus late will further entrain your circadian rhythm so you feel better earlier.
Those that do not adapt well to the morning may find themselves sluggish or lacking time to train then. After a typical workday, most people will get a final boost. It may not peak as highly as the morning, though those with a preference for the evenings self-report more energy here. Physically, your body is also fully warmed up by now. Some research demonstrates that strength and endurance are highest in the late afternoon-early evening timeframe.
If training in the late afternoon or early evening…
- Try to finish at least 4 hours before you sleep. If you time this right, the cooling effect as you reduce heat from exercise will relax you. Otherwise, heat can keep you alert. The light that you will need to train with can delay your sleep as well.
- Willpower decreases as the day continues. Do you find yourself skipping most evening workouts? If so, you may want to train earlier if you cannot stay disciplined to form the habit.
In either period…
- Try to warm-up outside by walking in the sunlight. The light, heat, and activity will prepare you. This will help you to sleep better at night too while improving your health, such as by generating more Vitamin D.
- Try to wait at least an hour or two after a large meal before training. This food can divert blood from the muscles and make you feel drowsy throughout digestion. If this process makes you feel exhausted, you instead should consider yourself sleep-deprived. Some food though will replenish glycogen in the muscles, which will help, so long as you time it right or keep it smaller if you have to eat close to your workout.
- Try to avoid training at the wrong times.
Besides when you first wake to within a few hours before sleeping at night, the most important period to avoid occurs during the early-to-middle afternoon, or a bit before the middle of your day, which starts at about 6-8 hours after you wake up from sleeping at night.
The siesta, a part of day for napping built into many cultures, occurs here. Without at least a short nap then, most people will resort to caffeine or at least slow down. Those who are well-rested will get through this period more easily, though everyone feels a dip then. Some trainees do manage to use this time to exercise precisely to stay alert, usually before a lunch, and manage to somehow make it work.
This time is well-suited for naps. Even a mere 15-30 minutes of rest can have you feel great and productive into the evening. A nap that lasts too long, such as lasting much longer than an hour, or one taken too late, may delay sleeping at night. It can make you feel groggy until you recover from sleep inertia.
- Aim for consistency.
Many train inconsistently, such as by training after work during the weekdays and then early or in the afternoon on the weekends. Decide to train either in the morning or at night, or even every afternoon if you have no choice. We are creatures of habit that thrive on routines, and our bodies’ circadian rhythms reflect this fact.
Follow good sleep hygiene to have reliable times for alertness. Beyond this, remain stimulated during the day. Stay active and work hard. This will lead to a whole process geared toward feeling alert and sleepy at the right times.
Your body also regulates sleep through a sleep-wake homeostasis, which monitors how many hours you have stayed awake. The same cues that help to form your internal clock will arouse you by themselves. Heat, social activity, exercise, food, stress, and so forth, and anything else associated with activity, will augment your systems to create synergy, having you feel as desired.
The Best Times to Train
An old story from India tells us of a group of blind men working together to describe an elephant. They each touch a different part, such as the trunk, tusks, or tail. As they make comparisons, they each assume that their portion represents the whole animal. They each are correct yet incomplete.
Like many matters in life, examining just a single piece of the whole can mislead you. In our case, looking at just circadian rhythms is insufficient. You may understand the difference between morning and evening types, and assume you exist within one of these categories, yet ignore the power to shift your clock or even just your will to make it so. In the end, you need to know yourself, being disciplined, honest, and practical enough to do what works best for you.
Some do not have time to rise early enough to feel their best in the morning. Others want to spend time with their families in the evenings, so will rise early to make it work. Even modern Olympians, some of the best athletes in the world, have adapted. Many must conform to early training schedules that would seem suboptimal, yet they set world records.
Habits are more important than motivation in the long run. If you give yourself a month or two to settle into a routine, you will feel better and also maintain it more easily. It will feel unsettling not to continue as the routine persists. The chemicals released during exercise will foster a natural addiction.
Many will delay the day they should train time after time again, hoping to feel better on a day that never arrives. They end up skipping workouts and lose progress from detraining. They should have just trained even if they felt off that day. This explains why developing an exercise habit, by training at the same time each day, though not hard for every workout, can help you to perform and feel better. You may surprise yourself by setting a personal record when you least expect it.
Nonetheless, the best times to train are the middle through late morning and the late afternoon through early evening. With consistency though, another time can come to work well for you. If you are within the extremes of morningness or eveningness, you may suffer in some way if you go against what your genes dictate. Consider the advice here, know yourself, and use this knowledge to decide on the best time to train for you.