Some of us are early birds, while others are night owls. Whether you feel more productive in the morning or do your best work after the sun has set, we all tend to question when we should work out.
With health advice that runs the gamut and is as polarizing as it is helpful, it’s hard to pin down a “best time.”
At the end of the day, the answer is: it depends. What’s good for you might not be good for your neighbor, and it all depends on goals, schedules, and your personal preferences.
Whether you’re up with the sun or can’t be bothered to get up before noon, there are still factors you should consider for squeezing in a morning run. This article will walk you through everything you need to be ready to tackle that first early sweat sesh.
Should You Run in the Morning?
For most people, running in the morning is perfectly fine. You just need to understand what you’re asking from your body and prepare accordingly. (As with all health advice, though, if you are starting a new exercise program or have medical problems that may impact your ability to be active, consult a health professional.)
For a subset of the population, though, running in the morning isn’t a wise choice. If you have lower back pain due to any sort of disc issue or have a history of disc problems, stick to afternoon or evening runs.
During the night, your discs fill with fluid and increase pressure on parts of the spine. Having more fluid in the discs creates an increased risk of injury and pain from compression. You’ll be more comfortable (and safer) waiting until some of this fluid has been redistributed by the natural movement of the day.
What’s Different About Running in the Morning?
The main difference with running in the morning is warmth, both literally and metaphorically.
When you first wake up, your body temperature is at the lowest point of the day. You have decreased circulation and a lower heart rate, and your joints and muscles have been relatively still for a long period of time. Even if you’re sedentary during the day, your muscles are doing more to maintain posture and your skeleton is under different stress than when you’re lying down.
All these factors come together to create, for lack of better wording, a state of temporary weakness. Your muscles are “cold” from inactivity, even if you’re physically cozy under your blankets.
When you go through the process of starting your day, you have to wake up and kick start a number of internal systems. Your body temperature will rise and your heart rate will increase. You’ll take in food to create an immediate energy source. Moving your body will activate your muscles and replenish the lubricating fluid in your joints.
Rushing this process can create an increased risk for health complications or injury. Raising your heart rate too quickly can cause cardiac complications, and asking your muscles to perform before they’re warm can trigger strains or tears. At the very least, your performance won’t be at its peak going from complete rest to exertion in a short period of time without adequate warm up.
Should You Eat Before a Morning Run?
Then there’s the question of fuel — should you wake even earlier to sneak a pre-run meal in? When you head out later in the day, it’s simple to grab a quick snack before you go. You can also draw on the food you’ve consumed throughout the day.
For morning runners, though, eating translates to getting up even earlier to fuel up, stealing precious minutes of sleep or defeating the purpose of sneaking a workout before the day begins.
So, when people ask if they can run first thing in the morning, what they’re often asking is whether or not they can run on an empty stomach.
There is certainly a metabolic benefit to running on an empty stomach. Without immediate fuel sources (glycogen) to draw on, the body will turn to existing stored fuel — fat. If your goal in running is weight loss, there’s evidence to support fasted cardio as an effective tactic.
However, if your primary goals in running are performance based, morning may not be the best time to train. If you’re running without additional fuel sources, once your body burns through the available glycogen stores and switches to fat, your efficiency drops. For distance runners, this can feel like “hitting the wall.”
Some runners purport that doing an occasional fasted training run helps the body to learn to use fat better as a fuel source, making that wall a little less intimidating come race day. It can also serve as psychological training to get used to pushing through when it’s uncomfortable. Regardless, you likely won’t be putting up any PRs in a fasted state.
So, if you’re setting out to improve your times with speed work or add serious miles to your base with a long run, fasted cardio probably isn’t your best bet. High intensity workouts are better approached with fuel in the tank. Save fasted runs for slow, easy days or just adding miles to your base.
Is Morning Running Healthy?
“Healthy” can be approached from a few different standpoints in this case. Generally speaking, running is better than not running. Getting active minutes in each day is important to overall health and well-being, and if morning is the only undisturbed time you have, then that’s when you move.
From a productivity metric of health, as in, “will this help me reach my goal?”, it becomes more subjective. Understand what you are trying to accomplish. Setting out to increase mental fortitude or warm up the body with an easy recovery run falls in line with fasted cardio. So does weight loss. However, if you’re chasing PRs and speed, you shouldn’t rely solely on fasted cardio for your training.
From an objective standpoint, there is a higher risk of injury, so you need to make sure you warm up adequately before putting your body under the stress of running. Allow your heart rate to gradually increase and your muscles to start moving more fluidly by going through a dynamic warm up series. Otherwise, you’ll spend the first few miles of your run struggling to warm up, and your form may suffer as a result.
There are a hundred different exercises you could do, but the bottom line is that before you start running, you should already be breaking a sweat. Your body will thank you and your run will be more productive.
Is It Better to Run in the Morning or Evening?
While there are some biological considerations to when you run, it often comes down to personal preference. Ask 20 runners the best time to run, and you may get 20 different answers. It’s as much a matter of what you like as anything else (the brain is a powerful tool for performance).
Pros and Cons of Morning Running
When you run first thing, you eliminate the chance of something coming up that could derail you from your evening workout — getting stuck at the office, an unexpected errand, or just lack of motivation. This way, you can literally start your day off on the right foot and focus on whatever needs your attention for the remainder. Plus, you get to kick off with a win! Start the day with endorphins from exercise and being able to cross a task off your to-do list.
On the other hand, if you’re new to running, you might find yourself fatigued as you go about your day. While for some, that residual burn in your legs can feel like accomplishment, for others, it might be a deterrent to getting other things done. It can also lead to overindulgence, or the idea that you’ve “earned” an extra treat because you’ve worked out. While it’s certainly important to treat yourself occasionally, allowing yourself extras every day can be detrimental to your weight loss or training goals.
Finally, to reiterate the previous section, you’re going to spend the first half of your run warming up. This can feel like a great way to ease into your day, but if you’re looking for a high-intensity run and an efficient workout, you’re out of luck.
Pros and Cons of Evening Running
Depending on the location and the time of year, temperature might dictate when you can run. If it’s not overwhelmingly hot by the time you get home from work, an evening run can be a great way to unwind and let go of the stress you accumulated. Plus, no matter how your day went, you can top it off with an accomplishment.
Heading out in the evening also means you’ll be fed — your body will be in a better position to perform at peak capacity based on lung efficiency, body temperature, and overall fluidity of the joints.
Leaving your workout til the end of the day creates plentiful opportunity to miss it for one reason or another. If you get stuck at work or simply lose your motivation, you might miss out on your workout for the day. You also have to pay attention to how you’re eating — it’s hard to go for a run after an indulgent lunch, or if something doesn’t sit well with you.
Factors to Consider for Morning Runs
If, after all the above information, you’re ready to give morning running a try, there are a few factors to consider. The next section covers strategies for working morning runs into your schedule.
We discussed fasted cardio extensively earlier in the article. If you choose to run in the morning, you’ll need to decide whether you want to run fasted or fed, and what impact this will have on your training. If you’re choosing to run fasted, avoid speed work and don’t expect PR performance; instead, focus on recovery runs or easier paced runs.
Even if you’re running fasted, you definitely need to be hydrated. Wake up early enough to get some water in your system before you head out the door. Aim for 10-16 oz before and consider bringing a water bottle with you — even if you’re not going far, your body will thank you for the extra water supply as it wakes up.
Make sure you’re getting adequate sleep. If your sleep schedule is already strained, getting up even earlier to squeeze in a run isn’t going to do much good. Your body performs better when it’s rested, and you need sleep in order to recover properly.
You need to allow enough time to thoroughly warm up before setting out in the morning. Because your body is stiff and cold, your body temperature is at its lowest, and your joints haven’t been carrying you through your day, you’re at greater risk for injury and you’ll be fighting the body’s natural wake up pattern. Incorporate a gentle, dynamic warm up including glute activation, hip and leg range of motion, and core activation.
Tips to Start Running in the Morning
If you’re ready to try morning running, but not sure you can resist the call of the snooze button, here are some tips for effectively turning yourself into a morning runner:
- Set out your clothes the night before. Some articles will tell you to sleep in your clothes, but we don’t advise that. Given the need to warm up and get ready for activity, the simple act of changing your clothes will start the ball rolling with easy, familiar movements. It also signals to your brain that it’s time to wake up. Changing your physical state can change your mental state and get your mind ready to exercise — you wouldn’t attend an important work meeting in your pajamas, would you?
- Have water (and a snack) ready to go. Keep water by your bed so you can start sipping as soon as your alarm goes off. If you’re going to eat before heading out, get your breakfast ready the night before. 5 minutes may not seem like a lot, but the perceived effort of preparing food can be yet another obstacle to actually making it out the door.
- Pre-plan your route. With a path already set, you’ll have one less mental obstacle to making it out the door. Plus, you’ll be less likely to cut your run short or spend the whole time looking at your watch to see if you’ve reached the “and back” portion of your out-and-back yet.
- Eliminate other morning tasks that might take up your time, even after your run. If you know you have to pack your lunch or complete chores, do it the night before to give yourself as much time as possible.
- Make time and set a plan to warm up adequately. This one can’t be said enough; warm up, warm up, warm up. You should be slightly sweating before you head out on your run, otherwise, you’re at higher risk for injury and you’ll be fighting your body for the first couple miles.
- Make sure to stay safe! This applies as much to evening runs as mornings. If it will be dark, wear reflective clothing and a headlamp. If you’re running in a neighborhood without sidewalks, run against the flow of traffic; you’ll be more aware of approaching cars. Be aware of any wildlife that might be common in your area, and tell someone that you plan to be running (and don’t forget to alert them when you’ve made it home safe).
If you’re still not sure, try it for a few weeks and see how it goes. You can even add it in once or twice a week at first, though it may be harder to get in a routine if you’re bouncing back and forth.
If after 3 weeks to a month you still dread your morning run and hate lacing up your sneakers in the morning, see if you have another time in your day that you can utilize. Not every run will be easy, but you should still get some enjoyment from it.