When You Train and What It Might Mean About You and Your Exercise
Back in the day, I used to come home from the boxing gym after sparring and then go on a night run at nine or ten o’clock. After sparring, it takes a while to come down from all of that adrenaline and energy. But there was another reason I would do it - my body likes the night. While I am not a true night owl, I do hit my stride at around 5:00pm and my peak window doesn’t shut down until 10:00 or 11:00pm. I’d way rather go on a run at night then at 5:00am. Despite being a fitness junkie, I’d rather do pretty much anything at 5:00am other than exercise.
But not everyone fits into a box as either a morning or evening person so definitively. For those on the fence or in the middle, an interesting way to evaluate your exercise effectiveness in terms of time of day may be to take the Morning-Evening Questionnaire (MEQ). The MEQ corroborated what my body has told me for years. That is, if it were up to me, I’d stay up each day to about midnight and sleep until about 9:00am. I am a “moderate” evening type and my exercise patterns fit right into this equation. Taking the MEQ is food for thought at the very least, and it may give you some insight as to what time of day may be optimal for you to train. Establishing where you fall on the morning-evening continuum will help you to determine your body’s circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm influences everything from heart rate to body temperature and in turn the effectiveness of our exercise.
Isn’t the Best Time to Exercise Simply Whenever You Can Exercise?
Certainly, the first goal of exercise is to show up and get your work done. Better to show up at any time than not, and many people have to do what their schedules allow. But the second goal of every exerciser is to make the work count. How we exercise, changing up our exercise routine, and when we exercise are important considerations to maximizing our results. That being the case, the question stands: is there an optimal time of day to exercise? According to CNN, the experts largely disagree that there is a best time of day. The best time of day is ultimately a function of you - your habits, your physiology, and your energy.
Outside of optimizing results, time of day also seems to correlate to some interesting patterns and habits in the gym. I’ve been in fitness for many years and see people workout at all times of day. Each group seems to have its own idiosyncrasies. Here are some of my observations from years in the fitness biz and some of the science behind working out at various times:
The Early Birds - 5:00-8:00am
I like you morning people, as you are intense like me, but you also frighten me. My first job in fitness was at a YMCA. I used to open the joint at 5:00am and every day there was a line of five or six die-hards ready to beat down the door to get on their favorite treadmill. It’s the same where I coach and manage now. The morning people show up ready to go with an intensity that a professional athlete would admire.
In my experience, morning people don’t smile, don’t chat, don’t warm up, and don’t play games. They get right down to business. According to US News and World Report, there are studies that show that those who wake up first thing in the morning to exercise are more consistent exercisers than those who exercise later in the evening. Seems to go hand in hand with being type A, I guess. There is also the premise that exercising right out of the gate helps to jump start your metabolism. However, no conclusive evidence supports this claim.
Social Hour - 8:00-11:00am
If most people could choose any time of day to workout, my guess is they would choose this one. Why is that my contention? I have observed countless retirees and those not constrained by a traditional work schedule flocking to the gym in droves during this timeframe. Perhaps people want to start their mornings with breakfast, reading the paper, or a couple of errands, and then hit the gym. Makes sense to me. However, what seems odd about this logic is that a lot of other people are doing the same thing and therefore the gym tends to be pretty crowded at this time. If you could choose to go to the gym at any time, why choose to go when it’s crowded?
I’d say that is precisely the reason mid-morning gym goers choose go at that time - to interact with others. In my exercise classes, I never have to quiet down the early birds, never. But I frequently have to remind the mid-morning classes that they are in my class to exercise, not chitchat. The social construct of exercise is certainly part of why we do it, but as it relates to results, chatting can also be a hindrance. If you can hold a conversation the entire time you train, you most definitely aren’t training anearobically and therefore not optimally. If you love to train during social hour, try putting your nose to the grindstone for an hour, and then perhaps meet your friends for coffee or lunch afterward.
This group is on a tight schedule and needs to squeeze every minute of exercise in, but somehow, they are also a fairly jovial group. Perhaps this is the highlight of their otherwise busy and stressful days. Personally, I always struggled with the lunch workout, as I always felt constrained to fit a workout in. With commuting to and from the gym, changing, training, showering, and getting back to work, I always felt I couldn’t maximize my workout. If you’re a lunch exerciser, try 45 minutes of interval training to make the most out of a tight timeframe. Save the longer duration strength and cardio days for when you have the time. The benefits to joining the lunch bunch include giving you that second wind for the next half of your workday and burning off some of that mid-day work stress.
Trainer Hour - 2:00-5:00pm
At this time, the gym is often a ghost town. You could shoot a cannon through the gym right around 2:30pm and hit exactly no one - except me perhaps. Trainer hour is the mid-afternoon because of the lack of clients and group classes booked at that time. Therefore, this is often when trainers and coaches get their workout on. For non-trainers, the benefits to trainer hour include having space to maneuver and perhaps you can get some free tips or coaching from an expert as well.
The After-Work Crew - 5:00-8:00pm
I get why people hate this time. It’s like Grand Central Station right around 5:00pm at most gyms and it doesn’t typically die down until around 7:30pm. The after-work crew shows up seemingly more out of choice than necessity. They also seem to go at it more socially then the early birds. For the rest of us, the problem with exercising at the gym after work is the crowds. Be prepared to wait for that treadmill, especially during busy times of the year.
The Night Owls - 8:00pm-Closing
This is by far the most eclectic people at the gym. Night owls seem to be all over the map - young and old, intense and mellow, creative types and otherwise. The night owls seem to be perhaps more introverted, in that they like the privacy of the gym in the evenings. It always appealed to me in that way. At night, I have free reign and thanks to gyms that are open late and even 24 hours, us night owls have many late night options. That said, be sure not to train to close to bedtime. Always do a proper cool down and some stretching to get your body relaxed and able to rest later.
The Bottom Line in When You Train
Many of us train and exercise at the time we do so by necessity. Work, family obligations, sleep patterns, and other commitments often dictate the window we have available. There also is no conclusive scientific evidence to suggest there is absolutely one best time of the day in which to train. However, all of us make choices each day, and when it comes to our health and wellness, we should seek to make the best choices and maximize the results of our exercise. When we train is a factor in those results.
To get the most out of your training you should train at the time of day that suits you best. With that in mind, here are a few tips of when to train:
- You shouldn’t train to get it of the way, but rather at a time of day that allows you to be present and get the most out of your exercise.
- You should train at a time of day that is going to allow you the best results in your training regimen, keep you alert, and injury free.
- Try different modalities of exercise at your off-peak and peak times. For instance, as an evening guy, I save the intense stuff like power training and boxing for nighttime. In the morning, I am more apt to do a nice lower key cardio session or perhaps some yoga.
- Wear a heart rate monitor. One of the interesting things I have come to note is the disparity of results for an individual training at different times of day. I have seen countless examples of individual exercisers performing the same workout but getting different heart rate results based on time of day. Wear one and see for yourself where you get your best results.
- As is always the case, the key in optimizing results in and out of the gym is to listen to your body. Our body tells us when it wants to exercise. We simply need to listen.
1. “Experts disagree on ideal time of day to exercise,” CNN.com, January 13, 2004.
2. “6 Benefits to Being a Morning Exerciser,” US News and World Report, September 23, 2013.
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