Coach Tip Tuesday: Are Morning or Evening Workouts Better?‍

Posted On:
Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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When it comes to endurance sports training, there are seemingly endless opinions about just about every aspect of training out there, and a lot of these pieces of advice end up contradicting each other.  This can make it very, very confusing for athletes of all abilities and experience levels, but especially for those who are new to endurance sports training or who are just not as experienced or educated about what it takes to successfully train for races and goals.

Are Morning or Evening Workouts Better?

A topic that has been pretty hotly debated over the years is whether workouts are best done in the morning or the evening.  (I actually prefer to refer to this as “start of day” and “end of day” since many people work non-traditional schedules and sleep at non-traditional hours; the time of day relative to when someone is regularly sleeping is what we’re really referring to versus the actual time of day.)  Ask one person, and they’ll swear that morning/start of day workouts are the only way to go.  Others will say that evening/end of day workouts are best.

As I often tell athletes, “the best” is actually subjective.  We want a quick and easy answer to the question “What is the best?” (clickbait articles, social media influencers, and others really capitalize on this desire), but the truth is that the real answer is rarely definitive and is often much more nuanced.  For instance, the best training plan is the one that you will stick to consistently.  That may very well mean that the best training plan for you looks significantly different than the best training plan for your best friend, brother, colleague, or mentor.

Along those same lines, the best time of day to train is also relatively subjective.  When athletes (and particularly non-elite age-group athletes) ask me about what the best time of day is to train, I default to advising them to look at their personal schedules and to plan to do their workouts at the time of day that is most practical for them.  The more workouts fit into their life (versus trying to fit their life in around training/workouts), the easier it is (mentally and logistically) to do workouts, and therefore the more likely athletes are to actually do them.  The most practical time of day might be at the start of the day before the kids get up or before you head in for a 12-hour shift, or it might be later in the day after the kids go to bed or when you get home from your day.  Each person is going to have a schedule that works best for them and their family.

As Always, Consistency is Everything

Yes, it is true that there are very real and valid reasons for training at specific times of day, especially when it comes to specific preparation for your race day itself.  But nothing - and I mean nothing (not even race day specifics) - matters more than consistency in training, which means that getting in the highest percentage of your planned workouts possible is really important.  

Consequently, when athletes ask me whether it’s “best” to train in the morning or the evening, I advise them to choose a time of day that works consistently for them and that actually fits into their life.  This doesn't mean that it’s automatically “easy” to do workouts and to carve the time for them in the day (after all, all behaviors take time to develop into actual habits), but starting here - where it’s most practical - is the best advice I’ve come up with after all of these years.

Start of Day Workouts Might Actually Reign Supreme

All of this being said, I have coached hundreds of athletes over my 10+ year career as an endurance coach.  Over that time, I have observed an interesting pattern: 

The athletes who I coach who plan to do their workouts at the start of their day (aka before work, before their other commitments in the day, etc.) and actually do complete their workouts at the start of their day (there’s an important difference between thinking or planning and doing) complete a higher percentage of the workouts that are planned on their training schedule than the athletes who plan to do their workouts later in the day.  Taking that one step further, I have observed that those athletes also tend to have better performance outcomes and end results from their training.  

This is less about the actual time of day that these athletes are doing their workouts and much more about the fact that they’re being consistent and putting in the work a higher percentage of the time.  Basically, their consistency habit snowballs, they adapt to training better, they get stronger, which encourages and motivates them to keep the habit going, and they are able to reap the reward of their hard work when race day comes.

Why Are Start of Day Workouts So Impactful?

I think that this happens for a few reasons.  First and foremost, athletes who plan to complete workouts at the start of their day are giving workouts their first fruits in terms of their time, mental energy, and physical energy, not their “what’s left”.  They are intentionally carving time in the day and they are prioritizing their workouts above other things they could be doing in a day.  Remember: There are an infinite number of things you could possibly be doing in a given day.  You need to choose what you are going to spend your limited time on.  Time is a finite resource; how you spend your time is, in fact, how you are spending your life.  My humble opinion is that we should intentionally prioritize how we are spending our time.  If we don’t and if we play a passive role in our own life (to quote Kate Winslet in The Holiday, “You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for God’s sake!”), the time will pass by and we may find that we’ve spent our time on something that didn’t actually matter that much to us.

Secondly, things rarely go exactly the way we want or expect; this is true on a macro level (aka over the course of a year) and on a micro level (aka over the course of a week or even a single day).  We can have the best of intentions, but if (really, when) unexpected things happen over the course of a day, that will snowball and impact the rest of the day and what we are able to do later in the day.  So perhaps your car breaks down, you end up having to stay later at work than you planned or were scheduled to, your kid gets sick, a friend calls you and asks you to pick them up, you feel tired after the cumulative effects of what happened in your day, you don’t feel motivated to do the workout, or something else that you didn’t anticipate happens.  No matter the exact unexpected happening, workouts often become the first casualty when unexpected happenings occur.

Finally, some athletes who plan to complete workouts later in the day are procrastinators by nature.  This isn’t true for all athletes who plan to complete workouts later in the day; some athletes may have very real and legitimate scheduling and life reasons for planning to complete workouts later in the day.  But my experience has shown me that a decent percentage of athletes who plan to complete workouts later in the day are procrastinators (aka people whose busiest day of the week is tomorrow).  As anyone who is or who loves a procrastinator knows: procrastinators often have the very best of intentions, but they sometimes overload themselves and fall short on completing everything they want to do well, including workouts.  Furthermore, procrastination depletes willpower, which has obvious impacts for athletes who are procrastinators who want to get their workouts done.

It’s Not Either Or

All of this being said, after so many years working with so many individual athletes, I’ve come to believe that both things I’ve outlined are true:

  1. That the best time of day to plan to complete workouts is the time of day that is most practical for an individual athlete.
  2. That athletes are more consistent and more successful overall when they plan to (and do) complete workouts at the start of their day.

As I’ve talked about before, I believe that the ability to simultaneously hold two seemingly conflicting ideas as true is a sign of maturity.  It’s not either or; both of these things that might appear to be in conflict with each other can be true.  Perhaps it’s a paradox, but in my experience, these two things are true.

Athletes who want to plan to complete workouts at the end of their day and who want to consistently complete a high percentage of the workouts that are planned in their schedule need to be very organized and disciplined in terms of their ability to stick to a self-imposed schedule in order for this plan to work.  That being said, even the most organized and disciplined athletes will have days when things do not go as planned and their workouts will be the thing that gets sacrificed when that happens.  As a result, even organized and disciplined athletes who plan to complete workouts at the end of their day do not complete the same percentage of workouts overall as athletes who complete workouts at the start of their day.

When is it Best for YOU to Plan Workouts?

If you recognize that you that you struggle with consistently getting workouts completed, that you are not that organized, that you struggle with adhering to a self-imposed schedule, and/or that you are a procrastinator, it might be worth considering reevaluating what time of day really will work best for you to complete workouts.  Could you benefit from planning to do (and then actually doing) your workouts before the main commitments of any given day begin?  What things need to be true for this to happen in your life?  What changes might you be able to make to carve this space for your workouts?

My observations are not just of the athletes I coach.  While I am a night owl by nature (a description that my five-year old cousin Everly is fascinated with and adores) and staying up late comes much easier to me than getting up early, I’ve personally come to see the tremendous value in getting workouts completed at the start of my day.  Not only does it ensure that something I care about is actually getting done, but it starts my day on such a positive note.  

Yes, this can be attributed to the chemical changes that happen in the body after a workout (most notably the surge of positive mood-boosting endorphins).  But there’s also a sense of accomplishment, peace, and contentment that comes over me, which impacts the rest of my day - and therefore all of the people I interact with for the rest of the day - in a positive manner, too.  Not only do I benefit athletically from this and from the consistency I am able to maintain over time, but I’ve noticed that the quality of my work is higher, my interactions with people I care about are better, and I am calmer and more level-headed.  There are so many positive benefits to this choice, both short- and long-term.

The Bottom Line

The debate will likely go on forever among coaches and athletes alike about whether start of day or end of day workouts are actually best.  That being said, my experience has shown me that there’s a lot of value in developing a schedule that is most practical for an athlete (which encourages more consistency with workout adherence and completion over time) and to considering scheduling workouts at the start of one’s day (which allows an athlete to get their workouts completed before other things have a chance to disrupt their day and their ability to do workouts).  

If you’ve struggled with consistency in completing your workouts, I’d encourage you to consider reevaluating your approach to scheduling workouts in your daily life.  Are there changes you can make that will enable you to be more consistent?  Perhaps a shift to a different time in your day is just the change you need in order to accelerate your path toward achieving your goals.

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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