We’ve arrived at a critical junction in the training season for endurance athletes in the US, and perhaps much of the Northern Hemisphere. The hours of daylight have reached the point where either early morning or late afternoon/evening training sessions possible without the need for lights, and temperatures have warmed to the point where most riders can do a significant portion of their training outdoors! Two of the big limiting factors for time-crunched athletes have been eliminated (or are soon to be eliminated) and it’s time for full-throttle spring training. Every year at this time, we get the same questions about the best time of day to work out. Here are some guidelines to help you schedule your training sessions:
There is no specific time that yields performance benefits
Time of day has little to no physiological impact on your training. Every few years someone comes out with a study that says you’ll burn more fat or get a boost from this hormone or another by training first thing in the morning, in the middle of the day, or late at night. But when you look over the long haul none of those claims has really changed the way athletes or coaches – even at the elite level – approach training. If there was a significant and measurable benefit to training at a certain time of day, elite athletes looking for even the tiniest of gains would reschedule their lives to take advantage of it. Rather, it’s more important that the time you choose fits seamlessly into your lifestyle so it doesn’t cause more stress in your schedule, with your family, or with your career. Even if there were incremental benefits from training at a particular time of day, those benefits pale in comparison to the positive impact that a less stressful schedule has on an athlete’s training and overall well being.
During the Workday vs. Before
For a long time I’ve suggested that career professionals should consider training first thing in the morning so you can start your day off on a good foot and get your workout done before your day gets hijacked by some unanticipated demand. But now I want to go one step further and split career professionals into two groups. The Creatives (graphic designers, writers, media producers, people who work on projects that are difficult to interrupt once they’re started) should really consider training before going to work. Many times, our coaches who work with Creatives hear about skipped workouts because they just couldn’t tear themselves away from a project when they were on a hot streak. The Managers (executives, people who can segment their days into distinct time blocks like meetings and phone conferences) can also benefit from training in the morning before work, but they are more likely than the Creatives to be able to schedule mid-day training sessions and actually accomplish them.
What About Training After Work?
Some people are great at training after work, and others struggle to be effective during workouts after a full day at the office. Spring/Summer evening group rides and training criteriums are great options because the group atmosphere can often shake off the haze of the workday and refresh a tired athlete long enough to get in a great workout. I’ve seen athletes struggle more with motivation when they’re trying to go out solo and complete a hard interval workout after working 8+ hours at the office. If that’s a struggle for you, I’d suggest scheduling hard interval workouts for mornings before work, and reserving longer endurance rides for your evenings. As the days get longer, you might be able to get some great long rides in this way!
Nutrition for early-morning workouts
If you’re going to get out of bed early and get work out with the rising sun, you’re going to need some food before you go. This is especially true if your intention is to complete a high-quality interval workout. Overnight you’ve burned through most of your liver glycogen, and although you have full muscle glycogen stores, you’ll quickly run low on blood sugar and start feeling hungry, weak, and unfocused. When you get out of bed – before you get into your gear – fuel up on a light meal/snack that’s rich in carbohydrate and contains a bit of protein/fat to keep you from feeling hungry again soon. Suggestions include: A banana and half a bagel with peanut butter. Granola with almond milk (maybe heated in the microwave). Personally I reach for a Mixed Berry ProBar Bite, which is a 190-calorie all-natural bar that satisfies just about everyone’s nutritional needs and restrictions (it’s vegan, non-GMO, certified organic, and Kosher, but it does contain tree nuts if you’re allergic to those). A cup of coffee or a shot of espresso is probably a necessity for some of you, and that’s fine too. The point is, you want something relatively small that will digest and settle quickly.
Nutrition for after-work training sessions
For many athletes, working out after working all day means your training session is going to start 4+ hours after you ate lunch. Therefore, an afternoon snack is in order, not because it’s going to add to your muscle glycogen levels, but because no one performs at their best when they’re excessively hungry. Unlike your early-morning snack, however, you’re not trying to overcome the impact of a 7+ hour overnight fast. As a result, you don’t need much in the way of calories. A 100-200 calorie snack of nuts or another Probar Bite about 30-60 minutes beforehand will get the job done. When I’m getting ready for a high-intensity post-work interval session I include a Carb Boom Energy Gel within 5-10 minutes of heading out the door. And if caffeine will help you focus on your workout better then have at it, within moderation. Just remember that if you chronically rely on caffeine to help you focus and push yourself in training, it will gradually become less effective as you develop a tolerance to it. To get more of an impact from caffeine in competition, it helps to somewhat limit your caffeine intake outside of competition.
Hydration is another consideration, no matter what time of day you’re training. Before morning workouts you want to take in some fluids, but many athletes find that they feel bloated or too full when they consume 16-20 ounces of fluids between waking up and getting on the bike. Instead, try sipping on fluids as you get your gear ready and aim for at least 8 ounces prior to getting out the door. For late afternoon and evening workouts, hydration is critically important. If you’re good at staying hydrated during the workday (visit the bathroom 3+ times in 8 hours), then you should be good to go for an after work training session. If you’re one of those folks who barely drinks water during the workday, that’s a habit you really need to work on changing if you want to have effective afternoon and evening workouts.