Up with the lark or out with the night owls: what’s the best time of day to run? Martin Yelling explains
“Oh no, I never run in the morning.” How many times do we hear runners utter these words? I do sympathise. If I roll out of bed for my morning run before 7am, I don’t get into my rhythm before I’m back home. On the other hand, a few hours and a cup of coffee later, I’m positively raring to go.
But is this just talk or is there ‘good’ time of day to run? Are there segments of a day when it’s best to train? And can you improve your ability to do something by selecting the right time of day to do it?
Much of it comes down to your circadian rhythm – your body’s natural clock that determines your sleeping and waking. This is an internal clock that governs physical biology and physiological response: it tells us when to wake and when to feel sleepy.
The circadian body clock suggests we’re at our most alert at 10am; that we have our best co-ordination at 2:30pm; that we have our fastest reaction time at 3:30pm; and that we have our greatest cardiovascular efficiency and muscle strength at 5pm. This would suggest that there are, indeed, optimum times to run.
Of course, you may not be able to train at the optimum time due to work, family and other commitments, so do your own research with the time you have available. And take comfort in this fact: finding any time to run, whether you’re up with the early birds or out with the night owls, is a whole better than not finding time to run at all.
Early morning workouts are done between 5am and 7am. For many of us with regular 9-to-5 jobs and busy home lives, training needs to be done as the lark rises.
Benefits • Feels great in the summer when the mornings are light and warm • There are physiological benefits to training in a fasted state • Feels good knowing you’ve got your run out of the way • Builds mental strength: if you can do it first thing in the morning, you can do it anytime • Limited traffic, pedestrians and other road/path users
Drawbacks • Hard to do in the winter when it’s cold and dark • Can be pushed for time fitting it into a tight window • Requires an early night beforehand • Body functions are typically at their worst first thing in the morning
Workouts that work • Easy paced runs / base miles (40mins slow effort) • Progressive paced runs (40mins, picking up the pace each 10mins)
This is between 1pm and 2pm. For many of us, a lunchtime run is a great opportunity to take a break from the office, get some fresh air and bank some miles.
Benefits • Gets your run done away from home so can relax after work • Provides opportunities to run with others if you can generate some enthusiasm at work • Helps you to feel more energised, focused and invigorated for your afternoon at work • Research has shown those who exercise at lunchtime concentrate more and can be more productive at work in the afternoon
Drawbacks • Limits you time-wise as lunch typically lasts an hour • Means you have to rush your lunch, and could risk skipping it • If you workplace doesn’t have a decent shower, you could quickly become very unpopular with your workmates • Body functions experience a lull in the middle of the day, especially body temperature, so keep a lid on top-end sessions.
Workouts that work • 5mins warm-up; 1 x 30mins tempo; 5mins warm-down • 5mins warm-up; 30mins fartlek; 5mins warm-down
This is between 10am and 11.30am. Although we may be at our most alert mid-morning, it may not be realistic for many of us to schedule a run at this time.
Benefits • By this time, your body has fully woken up and you feel more ready and prepared • Your muscles function and lung performance is up to speed • You’ve had breakfast so are fuelled and hydrated • Testosterone levels are at their highest mid-morning so if it’s strength-based workouts you’re after, hit them at this time • You’re psychologically at your daily peak
Drawbacks • Difficult to fit into a normal work schedule. Unless you’ve got a very understanding boss or are self-employed, you can’t simply down tools and clear off for a quick run
Workouts that work • Mid-morning is a great time for harder workouts when you need to feel at your best. For some, this might be weekends only • Threshold running (eg. 1 x 15mins threshold, 2 x 5mins threshold with 4mins recovery) or interval sessions (eg. 6 x 4mins with 2mins recovery or 8 x 3mins with 90secs recovery)
This time covers 5pm to 8pm. Evening running works for many people. Could this be the golden hours for nailing your training?
Benefits • It’s been scientifically shown that athletes perform better when body temperature is higher. This typically peaks early evening • Your muscles are warmed up, supple and in a much better state of readiness • Lung function has been shown to be better in the afternoon than at other times of the day • It feels physically easier to run faster, meaning your workout quality is improved • Your work day has finished, meaning you have focused time to spend on training • This is a common time to train meaning you can reap the social and motivation benefits of running with others/in groups.
Drawbacks • It can be a struggle to find the motivation. It’s easy to bail and miss it if work runs over, kids need picking up or life generally gets in the way. Once the window of running opportunity has gone, it’s gone • If you live in built up or urban areas, roads/paths can be busy with traffic and pedestrians • If you’ve neglected lunch, feeling tired could be an issue
Workouts that work • Event-specific time trials • Track sessions – 15mins warm-up; 4-6 x 1K repeats; 10mins cool-down
This is between 9pm and 11pm. For those working shifts or with very busy work and family commitments, this may be the only time possible to schedule a run.
Benefits • If this is the only time you can run, it’s better than not running at all • Roads more likely to be quiet
Drawbacks • Your body might be tired, meaning you are not as receptive to training or potentially as adaptive to the benefits • You’re not sure when to eat: before your run or afterwards? If after, this can mean that you’re heading to bed late on a full stomach • You’re wired at night after running, meaning sleep can be difficult • Visibility will become a factor
Workouts that work • Steady 30-40mins run • Treadmill session – 2mins at 70%, 2mins at 75% effort, 2mins easy • Repeat x 4