Some people run first thing in the morning, while others have to wait until the end of a long day to pull on those running shoes. There are advantages to both. And disadvantages.
When your workday schedule is packed but missing a run is not an option, you may find you simply have to squeeze your training into the outer reaches of the day.
That can mean peeling yourself out of bed and running long before most people’s alarms have even sounded. Or, alternatively, waiting until the kids are in bed or a long day at work is complete, then heading out after 9pm to pound the streets in the dark. But which is best for those who can choose either – and if you can’t what risks might you face by running either very early or late?
‘Some runners choose to train outside normal hours because it suits their natural body clock,’ says running coach Nina Anderson. ‘However, for most people, running at these times is forced on them because they have too much else to do for the rest of the day.’
‘Neither extreme is ideal but your body can adjust as long as you take it slowly and carefully and beware of the risks,’ she adds.
Regular early runners swear by setting their alarm clock for 5.30am and heading out for, say, a ten miler before work. Many find that a before-work run is positive and motivating – setting you up to achieve more in the rest of the day. Meanwhile, others merely heave themselves out of bed, knowing this will be their only chance to exercise. Whatever the motivation, all early starters need to hydrate and fuel their run properly, as well as taking extra care to avoid injury. Your immune system is also at its lowest first thing and a workout can leave you more prone to infection.
Exercise will also feel tougher because your metabolism is lower and there is less circulating adrenaline. And your lungs will also find it harder to take in as much oxygen as they will later in the day because your airways are more constricted after a night’s sleep.
‘Injury is a real risk when you opt for an early run,’ says John Miles, lead physiotherapist for Deep Heat and head of medical science at Cardiff Blues Rugby Team. ‘An adequate warm-up is crucial, especially during the cold months. Warm up at the start, for five minutes, for every 30 minutes you plan to run.’
Your core body temperature will have lowered overnight and your body will be tight. Stretch out fully to warm up all your stiff joints, ligaments and tendons and then jog gently for several minutes to raise your body temperature.
Ideally, practise some yoga stretches as soon as you get out of bed – try cat stretches with the back arching upwards and downwards, and spinal twists.
‘Avoid scheduling your hard sessions first thing – such as efforts,’ advises Anderson. ‘Try to save these for when your body is warmed up, later in the day. However, if early is the only option, better at dawn than not at all – just ensure you warm up properly first.’
Eventually, your body will adjust to running in the morning and it won’t feel quite such an effort – but you will still need to do a thorough warm-up. Early runners need to hydrate properly before they head out. Miles advises drinking a pint of water as soon as you wake up. Ideally, eat breakfast at least a couple of hours before running but don’t worry if you don’t have time.
‘Running without eating is fine, as long as you refuel as soon as you get back,’ he says. ‘Indeed, if you are trying to lose weight, running before breakfast may even be helpful because then your body is likely to burn fat stores quicker. Have one small coffee before you run if you feel you need to kick start your metabolism before running.’
Running late gives you more time to fit in your regular run between the end of a typical working day and bedtime. It also gives you time to digest your evening meal. ‘My wife runs late because she has to settle the children down before she can head out,’ says Miles. ‘This is often the case with women runners who have young families. Sometimes there’s just no way round it and it’s always better to run late than not run at all.’
It may be more convenient, but late running is usually riskier for personal safety than running during the day, so keep visible and stay alert. Avoid running with headphones so you can listen for traffic and even if you are racing against the clock, don’t leap out into the road to cross quickly.
Injury is less likely at this time of day because your body will be warm, but watch your step – you are more likely to stumble in the dark and when you are tired from a long day.
‘After a run you will feel full of energy and your metabolism and body temperature will be elevated. This may make it harder to get to sleep because your body needs to slow and cool before you can nod off,” says Anderson. Have a calming post-run routine to help you get ready for sleep: chill out with music, burn some aromatherapy oils or read.
As soon as possible after your run, have a bath or shower that’s as hot as you can bear. When you step out of the water you will feel chilly instantly and this will cool your body and help prepare you sleep. Help the process by keeping your bedroom as cool as you can bear.