Timing Your Training for Optimal Results

Summer is flying along! Depending on where you live the weather may be changing. Here in Montana we’re still enjoying bright sunny days but the nights have been getting cooler, dropping into the high 30’s/low 40’s around our region last evening.

It’s mid-August and I hope you have been enjoying time with family and friends, staying safe and healthy, training hard (on occasion) and crushing goals. In this week’s content, I’ve got a topic to share that I think you may find valuable.

Next Wednesday, August 19 I’ll be conducting another TLA MasterClass. This month’s topic is Complete Athleticism and you can sign up for your slot on the website. This one-hour, interactive Zoom meeting will cover the proprietary system that I use with my coaching clients to identify strengths and weaknesses in their physical capacities, and adjust training to hone the assets and shore up the liabilities. The class lasts from noon to 1:00pm, MDT, and it can provide the pearls of peak performance wisdom that can help you to unlock your full athletic, and health, potential.

Circadian function and training time have a unique relationship. This subject is quite popular and it has come up in several conversations lately. As diurnal mammals, humans are primates whose sleep and activity patterns are tied to the sun. We move in the day and sleep at night. Captain Obvious. That stated, we tend to have two major functional spikes during the day…the first few hours of daylight and the last couple before sunset. We’re wired to rev up, idle, rev up again, and then shut off as we go from dawn to dusk. 

Here’s where things get interesting. Those spikes in cognitive and physical potential vary a bit for each individual, and in their makeup. They actually look more like ramps or mounds than definitive spikes. However, if we leave the cognitive stuff out of the picture in this discussion, we can be fairly descriptive of the states of physical readiness our bodies experience each day. The a.m. spike can be thought of as the body’s willingness to get going, get rolling, and limber up for the day. The p.m. spike can be considered the second round of activity possibility, particularly for the more vigorous options. Research shows that strength, speed, reaction time, and mobility are all increased in the late afternoon when compared to the morning. 

It’s for this reason that I like to encourage my clients to go easy in the morning, and go big in the late afternoon with respect to training. In an ideal world, I might recommend some light cardio and mobility work in the morning to set the stage for the day, and then pile on the heavy loads and high intensity work in the afternoon. This approach can both increase performance and decrease injury risk. One of the reasons is that saving the big stuff for the p.m. when the body is most receptive is easier on the system. Trying to go hard in the morning when you have stiff muscles, joints, and blood vessels (yes, this is true) is not as productive or safe. You can come up against your tissue limits with no degrees of freedom. 

Now, let’s look at some exceptions. If you are doing mainly low-intensity aerobic training, the morning is fine for such behavior. And if you have no other option (there is some truth to the statement which says the best time to train is when you can fit it in) but to do your hard workouts in the morning, try these tips:

  • Wear extra layers to increase body temperature.
  • Take an extra long, progressive warmup.
  • Back your target intensity off a few percentage points.
  • Slightly lower your performance expectations for the workout.

Making the adjustments listed above will make your morning training experience more pleasant and easier on your body. For most arduous workouts, it’s probably true that a 9/10 performance in the a.m. equates to your being capable of a 9.5/10 output in the p.m. It’s good to keep this in mind so you don’t beat yourself up. I’ll bring this up sometimes with a coaching client as we review workout data. If a big sesh occurred in the morning, I’ll compare that data to the same or similar workout which was done in the evening, and we can usually identify that trend. This gives the athlete confidence that their a.m. numbers would look a little higher in the p.m., just due to their training the body in a circadian-optimized state.

The last point I want to share is the timing swing, or seasonal shift in the optimal circadian state. As we go from summer to winter, in most places, the days get shorter, the temperatures cool, and the angle of the sun is altered. This means that our times of readiness for training shrink a bit. Whereas in the summer, you might do a morning mobility session at 7:00 a.m., it may not be light enough — or you feel ready enough — until 8:30 a.m. in the winter. And that 6:00-7:00pm start time for big summer workouts (which is ideal) might move to 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. You’ll have to experiment.

I was gonna close but it just occurred to me that a tiny bit more explanation might be valuable in recommending the evening workout for athletes in summer. While I recognize differences across the animal kingdom, you just don’t see a lot of animals moving about from noon to 6:00pm or so. Everybody is on siesta…resting, idling, working at reduced capacity (unless you are a lumberjack). It’s fairly unwise to force your body to train at 2:00p.m. in the heat of the day. To do so is unnatural…and this is even true if you are inside of an air conditioned box. Your biology knows…you can’t fool it. But as evening rolls around, you start to feel your energy come up, and this is a powerful, natural signal. Wait patiently, and let the workout come to you…it pays huge dividends when you behave like a natural beast.

Train hard (sometimes). Train smart. Become a Lifetime Athlete. Get Hard to Kill. And Kick Ass at, in, and for…LIFE!

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