The Morning Is the Worst Time to Run — but I Do It Anyway
Running is one of the most natural ways to exercise — human beings evolved to run after all. Since I’ve taken up running during the pandemic, I’ve been looking for ways to optimise my performance. One of the things I’ve looked into is the optimal time of day for running. I am an early bird, I naturally wake up really early and my best hours of the day are between 6am and 12pm. So, I run straight out of bed — is this advisable? Would I be performing better if I ran in the afternoon or evening? This is a question many new runners are interested in and there is some scientific data to lean on for answers. In this article, I am going to look at the evidence for the best time of day to run and discuss why it ultimately doesn’t matter. Let’s start with my preferred time of day to hit the road, morning.
The morning run
I know I am in the minority when I say my best hours are early in the day. I choose to run in the morning for three main reasons. Firstly, I find it is a great way to start the day. I am at the point with running where I always feel good after completing a run. That sense of accomplishment filters down to all other tasks for the rest of the day for me. Secondly, I have far more control over my mornings compared to any other time of day. Deliveries, meetings, and general fatigue are not something I’m going to deal with at 7am in the morning. This ultimately means there is fewer things to get between me and running during the morning. The final reason I prefer to run in the morning is my route is less crowded during this time. I’ve only ran during the day time a few times and there was far too much swerving around pedestrians for my liking. It disrupts my rhythm which is never a good thing, especially for new runners.
While I will always take my run early in the morning, the science clearly shows this is the least optimal time of day. A review out of Edith Cowan University found that performance in a range of exercises during the latter part of the day was higher compared to the morning. This is linked to a higher body temperature later in the day. The article did not look at running specifically but the evidence is not in favour of running in the morning.
Running at lunch time
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve only ran during the afternoon a few times and it was not the best experience. Physiologically though, the afternoon may be the optimal time to go for a run. Body temperature will have increased from breakfast, and you are not too tired from the day to put in a good performance. Hormone levels will also be working in your favour around lunch time according to a review paper from University of the West of Scotland. You’ll also likely have filled up your energy stores during lunch time. These are all things that can improve your performance while running.
That point on having eaten lunch can be a disadvantage to running in the afternoon. You have to allow your body time to digest the meal before hitting the road. I do not eat anything before running in the morning — this would be harder to do at lunch time. There is also that lunchtime slump most people experience which can work against you while running at lunch time.
I have so far just avoided running in the evening — its dark, colder, and I am generally too tired to do any physical activity. On top of that, working out too close to bedtime can negatively affect your sleep according to a review article from ETH Zurich. Running in the evening can help you destress after a long day at work though. For me that does not outweigh the resistance against evening workouts.
The research that looks at exercise performance during different times of the day generally finds that the afternoon is physiologically optimal. Body temperature is up, and hormone levels are primed for good performance. There is more to consider besides just physiological performance though. Factors like which time of day offers you the least resistance to running, running goals, and other personal preferences all come into play. For me, nothing beats running first thing in the morning. I get some fresh air early in the day and a sense of accomplishment that carries into the rest of my day. Ultimately, I think you have to know yourself when it comes to optimising on running times — if you are a night owl for example, waking up at 7am for a run is probably a no-go. Physiologically, the afternoon is the optimal workout time — in practice only you can know your best time of day. The main thing is you keep on running.