Perhaps the question about training that’s nearly as common as “how should I exercise” is “when should I exercise.” The question of the best time for training is something every trainee ponders at some point in their training life.
And while you’re probably learning that “it depends” is a common answer to your training questions (and a reasonable one, at that), we’re going to provide you with a little more detail (and some science) so you can decide what the best time for training is for you.
It’s All About the Circadian Rhythm
Whether we are naturally “night owls” or “early birds,” one thing we all have in common is that our bodies work on a 24-hour cycle known as the circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is controlled by our hypothalamus, but also impacted by things like darkness and daylight. In turn, our body’s circadian rhythm influences our blood pressure, hormones, heart rate, oxygen consumption, and body temperature. And, things like not getting enough sleep, jet lag, and stress can throw your circadian rhythm out of whack.
All of this is important because the things our circadian rhythm influences also influence our training and the effectiveness of our training. So, let’s look at the different times of day and how our body’s natural cycle coincides with the different forms of exercise we may be pursuing.
Pros and Cons of Training in the Morning
Morning may be better for weight loss, but not because we workout before eating. In fact, both a 2013 study and a 2014 study demonstrated no difference between fasted and non-fasted morning workouts when it came to making a change in body composition.
But it has been shown that those who exercise in the morning have lower blood pressure and experience improved sleep. This better-quality sleep leads to lower stress levels and more balanced hormone levels, which is all likely linked to better weight control.
But perhaps more than anything, exercising in the morning can set a mental tone for your day that begins a cascade of good choices. A 2012 study conducted at Brigham Young University found that 45 minutes of morning exercise caused women to have a lower response to food cues and to be more active throughout the rest of the day.
If you decide to switch to morning exercise, keep in mind that because of where you are in your circadian rhythm, your body temperature will be lower in the morning, which means you may need more time to properly warm up.
Pros and Cons of Training in the Afternoon
One big thing you have going for you in the afternoon is that this is when we tend to have our lowest cortisol levels, and therefore, our testosterone (in both men and women) has the best shot at doing us some good. Yes, our testosterone is actually highest in the morning, but it has to compete with our highest cortisol then, too. Research shows we have a higher “exercise-induced T response” in the afternoons. Meaning, we produce more testosterone during afternoon exercise than morning exercise.
Other things to consider when it comes to afternoon workouts:
All this to say, if you’re hitting big weights, working on skill development, or doing your best to avoid injury, afternoon might be prime time for you.
One important benefit to a late-afternoon, after-work workout is the potential stress relief. If your workouts help you let off steam and allow you to reset for the remainder of your evening and sleep time, then an evening training session can be a great idea.
Exercise Times to Avoid
One thing to avoid, if you plan to compete, is training at a completely different time of day then when you expect to compete. Your body will organize its cycle around your consistent training times. So, while afternoon might be the best time for strength training, if you plan on participating in a morning weightlifting meet, then you’ll want to consistently train in the mornings.
According to research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, very early or very late workouts should be avoided by most people. That said, research shows the notion of working out late and disrupting your sleep is likely to be a myth. This belief is based on the fact exercise can raise your body temperature at a time it should be naturally cooling. But one study found that resistance exercise improved sleep no matter what time the subjects trained, and evening exercisers in the study actually experienced the best sleep.
So, What Is the Best Time for Training?
If you’re already exercising regularly, and you want to squeeze more out of your training and elevate your performance, then optimizing your schedule for the best training results may be something to examine. That optimization may be based on whether you have endurance or strength goals, or if you’re trying to train for a specific event start time.
But, for most people, the short answer to the question of when to work out is “when you actually will.” And if you’re new to regular training, then scheduling your exercise at the same time every day, no matter what time that is, will help you create and stick to your new habit. So, if you’re a night owl or an early bird naturally, let that help you decide when to exercise.
And if you are trying to boost your performance, and feeling a little sad about afternoons being so prime for training, you should know the research also shows morning exercisers tend to be the most consistent, and that consistency could still put you ahead of those athletes working out at the “ideal” afternoon times.