Do you often feel on a morning run that every step feels like you’re running in cement shoes? Or, on a lunch time run with co-workers, does it feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders as you plod along ever so slowly? But after work, you often feel like you’re flying during a workout. What’s up with that?
What’s up with that is most runners just run better at different times of the day. Some, are morning runners who feel that the absolute best way to start each day is with an invigorating run. Others, prefer running at noon to break up the workday. Still, others opt for a post-work run—usually right before dinner.
Certainly, there are logistical reasons for preferring a particular time of the day to run, but there are also psychological factors as well. Some runners simply feel better in the morning, while others feel sluggish soon after arising.
But the most likely reason why runners run better at different times of the day (or, in a few instances, night) is something called the circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are fluctuations in how the body functions on a 24-hour cycle. Nearly every bodily function is subjected to circadian rhythms.
How that pertains to a runner is you can improve your running performance by selecting the right time to run, based on your own circadian rhythm—or biological clock.
Finding this sweet spot isn’t tough because many of the bodily functions that are important to a runner peak at about the same time every day. A good example of this is something as simple as body temperature which changes slightly during the day. With most people, the body temperature is lowest in the wee hours of the morning and peaks in mid to late afternoon. Nearly all athletes perform better when their body temperature is higher which only makes sense as the furnace is blasting away at peak efficiency.
All of this would suggest that the best time for running is most definitely not first thing in the morning. This may not come as a shock to early-morning runners who are used to slowly warming up for a run. The reason why early-morning runners must warm up slowly is because virtually all their bodily functions perform at their absolute worst first thing in the morning.
Our body temperature is at its lowest—meaning: stiff, cold muscles—which is the main reason why it’s a tough time to get moving quickly. In addition, lung function isn’t great at this time of day and since we haven’t eaten much in the last eight or nine hours, our energy stores are low which means we don’t have as much fuel for energy.
Translation: It’s hard to run right after waking up as compared with later in the day.
But, as most dedicated early-morning runners will say, running first thing provides a tremendous psychological boost for the rest of the day. It may be harder to run, but that also contributes to mental strength and tenacity.
However, if you can wait a while before running, lung performance and body temperature will quickly improve as the morning goes on. In addition, you will also probably have eaten something so your energy stores will be replenished.
But very few of us can run in the middle of the morning because work, school and other daily responsibilities take precedent over a run. But on the weekends, a mid-morning run is certainly better than an early-morning run. And if you choose to run in mid-morning on the weekends, some exercise scientists postulate that this is the best time of the day to build muscular strength. They believe this because testosterone—the hormone responsible for building muscle—is the highest in mid-morning.
Nevertheless, if your bodily functions are improved in mid-morning as opposed to early morning, they still aren’t as optimal as they will be later in the day.
You might think then that a mid-day run is best. You would think wrong. A mid-day run is a great way to break up the day, get outside and inhale gobs of oxygen. It perks you up for the rest of the day and rather than slamming down a high-fat meal, you’re exercising.
But physiologically, your body goes through a mid-day drop off. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run at lunch, but just be aware that your body temperature has dropped again and so has your lung function.
Fortunately, your body rebounds in a big way in the mid to late afternoon. This is the time of day when running is also optimal from the body’s perspective. This is the time when the body temperature is at its highest (which means the muscles are warm and loose) and lung function is as much as six percent better in the afternoon than at other times of the day.
This means your runs should be at their best during the mid to late afternoons because your body is functioning better.
If this is true, why don’t all runners train in the afternoons? Logistics, habits, other responsibilities get in the way. In addition, many runners find running after work or school to be especially hard. After a hard day of work or school, many runners simply can’t get their mojo revved up for a run.
Mentally and logistically, it may be difficult to run late, but physically the body is at its daily peak. This is the time of day when the circadian rhythms suggest is the best for exercising.
That’s why many runners who struggle to run in the late afternoon, soon find themselves flying down the road after just a couple of miles. This is when the body peaks on a daily basis.
Bottom line: Convenience trumps all. If the only time you can run is first thing in the morning, go for it. If you aren’t a morning person and have a flexible schedule, go when you feel best.