5 Tips to Finding The Perfect Time of Day To Train

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There are two times of year when we get the most questions about the best time of day to work out: the weeks surrounding the start and end of Daylight Savings Time. In the spring (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), the hours of daylight reach the point where either early morning or late afternoon/evening training are 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. In the fall the opposite is happening and athletes are trying to figure out how to adjust their training now that finding the daylight and warmth to train is getting more difficult. 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. These rides sometimes transition into cyclocross practices in the fall, and maybe indoor cycling classes in the winter. Regardless of the time of year or even the weather conditions 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 weekends.

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). 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.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach

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Comments 22

  1. Great article but in relation to: “…To get more of an impact from caffeine in competition, it helps to somewhat limit your caffeine intake outside of competition….”, last studies don´t say so.
    here´s one example

    Luís Caliço, Portugal,
    ex Olympic Athelete and Professional windsurfer , last 6 years into bikes.

  2. Pingback: 13 Easy Wake Up Tips For Early Morning Workouts - CTS

  3. Pingback: 4 Ways to Maximize Your Workouts With Limited Training Time - CTS

  4. Possum Powered Coaching
    Many good points but we should all be open minded rather than defensive about other people’s ideas of training and eating strategies. I think for the most part everyone is throwing out productive ideas that we can consider or disregard if they simply do not fit our lifestyle.
    I work 5:00 to 5:30 be it a.m to p.m or vice versa so I do not have a lot of sympathy when someone gets upset about trying to squeeze in a workout after a “tough 8 hour day”. Many days I do not get off of work on time and I am just too haggard to work out, period. Commuting to work at 3.30 -4:00 a.m is tough but I am always happier when I can get up and do it. I always eat a light breakfast of egg and tortilla with coffee pretty much regardless of what the day holds. If I can’t commute I force in an after work painful endurance -tempo trainer ride at least once or an evening ride with lights. Hit a group ride any time once a week if I can, do a solo ride whatever pace or distance I feel like (fast, slow, short, long, intense, at, hilly whatever makes me smile and relax) once a week, or whatever the heck fits between work, home, 3 kids, multiple competative sports and finding a dull moment to crack open a frosty beverage. I consider myself a professional at my real job working in a warehouse, aren’t you all professionals at whatever you do for a living? That’s why they pay us right? I am also a parent, have been a competative coach for sports like soccer, softball, currently coach some MTB, road cycling and I am very time crunched! So in short, be happy, ride whenever you can that makes you feel good about it! Share the fun with your friends and family and keep the rubber side down!

  5. Are there any more specific details if your job is more physical demanding than just working at an office? And what about nutrition for post-work workouts in this case. I guess you need something extra to cope after 8 hours of work (with only a good breakfast in the morning).

  6. Are you for real? Do you think there are a substantial number of people who have the luxury of being able to work out in the middle of the day??? Most people work for a living, which means they get up in the morning, they go to work at 8 or 9, they get an hour perhaps for lunch and go back to work until 5 or 6. Work out in the middle of the day….get real

    1. Kevin – keep in mind a lot of executives ‘middle of the day’ is infact 4 or 5 then they go back to work for a further 6 hours.

  7. I find that “the best time” is whenever I can squeeze in a workout. For me that means getting up at 430-445am, hop on the rollers or the trainer (depending on type of workout) and get going. My stomach won’t take any food and very limited amount of drinks at that time of day, so I end up drinking water for my 90-120min workout or a watered down sports drink.

    For trainers/rollers I find a bunch of cycling videos on YouTube to keep me entertained or Sufferfest videos.

  8. Advice to any soon to be moms and dads, remain flexible in your plans! No shocker – kids change a lot in your schedule. You will have (many) nights when sleep schedule doesn’t go according to plan because somebody was up, sick, bad dreams, etc. 🙂 Adjust and try to get something in and enjoy the parenthood ride! Might have to change your focus to quality, not quantity. Chris – this would be a great subject for a future article, as I bet a lot of folks struggle at this point in their lives with the keeping to fitness schedule/commitment while enjoying becoming a parent. I know I sure did!

  9. I ride early in the morning and will switch to trainer workouts probably in mid November. I have found that I can’t eat that early. I’m up at 4:30 and just get dressed and roll out the door. I’ll bring a gel so if I feel like I need an energy boost once I get going but I usually don’t need it. It’s a hard group ride that’s 25 miles, lasting about an hour and fifteen minutes. I suppose if it went longer I’d need to eat first.

  10. Schedule wise for me, the time that works in the winter is after the kids go to bed so starting roughly 8:30 or 9. I’ve found that coming home from work an then hoping on the trainer or going out for a ride does not go over well to the rest of the household, and I would see the kids for 30 minutes. Plus, there is generally something going on or that needs to be taken care of between 6 & 8 PM.

    I’ve tried morning, and like some others have noted could never get it in gear hard enough that early. The downsides of later at night are it takes a lot of motivation to get going, the most I can go is 1.5 hours, and of course I’m wired & tired come 11:00 PM so by Friday i’m usually roached at work. I’m usually able to start work at 8:30 AM, so in general I’m still getting 7 hours a night, but def do better with 9. After it warms enough & the snow is melted (I’m in Buffalo) I will usually bring my bike with me & stop on the way home for a 1 hour PI type ride…many times I am riding within a mile of my house. But if I go home I’m not getting out on the bike!

  11. There are those words again….”career professionals”. I have read several CTS emails and watched the videos contained in some of the emails and every single time, “career” and or “professionals” are referred to when it comes to CTS services. In fact, in one of the videos where Chris is talking about his bucket list rides, he says “these rides are geared towards “professionals” such as doctors, lawyers, CEO’s, executives, etc”. Really? What the heck does a persons profession and yearly income have to with wether or not that person is an athlete or can do a bucket list ride? Just because a person is not a “professional” at something does not mean they don’t have the financial ability and the physical fitness to do CTS training or do a bucket list ride even though it appears to me that those are the only kind of individuals that CTS wants.

    1. Post

      You make some good points. The reason you see “career professional” and “working parent” in many places throughout CTS content is that for years the leading misconception was that we only work with professional/elite athletes and/or really hard-core athletes. The truth is that the majority of the athletes we coach are time-crunched men and women who have full-time jobs and often have families. The irony of your comment is that we include phrases like “time-crunched”, “career professional”, and “working parent” to be more inclusive of athletes at all levels of ability and time commitment, not more exclusive to a particular career or income demographic. You raise a good point, though, and we can certainly take another look at the words and phrases we use to be as inclusive as possible.

      Jim Rutberg
      Pro Coach and Media Director

  12. I understand the rationale of a snack ahead of an afternoon workout. But leaving the office at 5pm, getting home 5:30pm, out the door 6pm, returning home 7pm, what sort of dinner do you recommend at 7:30pm?

  13. I’m a 47 year old cat 3 physician and I definitely have more power at midday. My two times to train are 5 am and 11:30 am. My field tests and interval work outs are so far superior at noon compared to my 5 am efforts that I only do endurance rides early anymore. I’m just tired and sore in the early am and need to eat, walk around and sip coffee between patients before a quality ride can happen. Rip it on the lunch break! BTW CTS nutrition advice is spot on.

  14. One thing that is tough for some of us is those who use mass transit for commuting. Now that it is getting warmer and lighter I can start doing a bike commute that will take me about 1.5 hours each way (including prep time) but in the winter the ice on the bike paths and the darkness made it unlikely so since a pre-work workout would mean getting up at 3:30 to get an hour in on the trainer, and after work meant missing time with family (and with an 8:30 – 9:00 bed time there still wasn’t much) it really meant working out at work. The key here is availability and making it part of your day. Yes you have to bring lunch and don’t expect to be able to workout and then go grab something, you just won’t have time. Next is optimizing your workout. 45 minutes is about the best you can get between getting ready to workout and showering and dressing after so your workouts can’t include a lot of ‘lounging’ time. Still, if you make it part of your schedule and people expect you to be gone during that time you can be pretty good at keeping that mid-day workout a regular part of your day, even if you work in a job like mine that means critical issues come up that have to take priority. Some days you may need to move the workout an hour or two, other times you might just move it and take ‘lunch’ to end your day. But the key is to not just blow it off if you miss it. Try to fit it in, even if it means doing a conference call from a spin bike (thank goodness for mute buttons).

  15. Another option, if possible… commute by bike and use one leg of the commute for a workout. I am spoiled in that I have a 30 mile Class A bike path that goes by my house and work.

  16. I’m sure this thread will become an interesting look into what compulsive athletes do to get in their workouts, and there will probably be as many different replies as there are athletes.

    I suppose I would fit into the “Creative” category. I’m a physician with a work day that starts at 7 AM. I don’t have any free time during the day and I’m pretty toasted by the time I’m done at work which is 5PM or later depending on the day and the schedule. So my workouts start before work, in the dark.

    I hate the trainer, but use it as a last resort. Fortunately for me, one of our large city parks has a 24 hour lighted 1.2 mile loop that is closed to traffic where I do my interval workouts during the week. I’m usually on the bike at 4 AM for 1.5 to 2 hours depending on the workout. That means getting up at 3 AM to get ready and get there. Needless to say, I don’t get in the prescribed amount of sleep, but over the years I gotten accustomed to that.

    If I had the opportunity, I would think about training a little later in the morning after more sleep as I “feel” as if I have more power, but the numbers don’t really change that much when I do get to do that. Right now though, if I’m not out there by my usual time, I feel like I’m already behind (I’m off today , it’s 6AM and I feel like I’m playing hookey).

    One advantage of starting so early is that I usually get my high power intervals in without having to worry about slowing for other cyclists, who usually don’t start showing up until after 5 AM. The only things to contend with are rabbits, squirrels, possums and the occaisional coyote.

    1. I personally don’t think food is needed first thing in the morning before you ride, especially if your only doing 1.5-2hrs. You have enough stored fuel, Also for the afternoon. If I’m doing a 5 or 6pm ride eating lunch just a tad later will do just fine. Especially if your eating enough fats and less carbs.

      1. Post

        Thomas, you may be right, especially if the rides are moderate-intensity endurance rides before breakfast. You – and many others – may also find some food helpful for improving workout quality if you’re doing high-intensity work in the morning during that 1.5-2hr ride. On the other hand, there’s a lot of individual variability in fueling strategies, so if less fuel has been working for you, stick with it! – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

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