You might have read different articles that claimed that morning workouts are the best to lose weight, that your performance is better during the afternoon or that an evening workout is the best remedy to a good night’s sleep. While these are not incorrect, they forget an important point that has to do with training humans: the personal condition.
As a Personal Trainer, my job is to take the scientific and methodological approached of training and applying these to the individuals. The same concept exists in workout plans, as even the best plan cannot be done by all – depending on the personal abilities and goals.
That is why I believe following blindly the existing studies is not the best approach. Especially since some are small or have not reviewed all possible variables (which is normal and acceptable, as their goal is sometimes different than giving an absolute answer to the point we are reviewing!). This being said, I suggest that instead, you focus on the following questions:
1. What are your fitness and health goals?
Although this point alone will not give you a definitive answer, it might give you a starting point.
If your main goal is to gain muscle or increase strength, then your workout routine will for sure be all about weights. In this case, you need to make sure you are giving your best in your workouts; thus your energy levels are something to consider with care. Most people feel a bit weaker upon wake up and might not perform as well.
In case your workout consists of mostly cardio, both mornings and evenings are a good choice.
In case you want to improve your sleep and reduce stress, evenings are the best option. As long as you give your body enough time to return to a calm state before bedtime, working out later in the day should relax you and give you better sleep.
2. How are your activities scattered throughout the day?
We sometimes forget the obvious and make big plans without considering what is already on our plate.
The best workout time is the one you can maintain consistently. There is not much way around this one. If you cannot commit to evening workouts, the benefits do not matter. Same for mornings.
Now, even if you know your schedule by heart, and even if it is the same every day, I suggest you take a pen and paper or an Excel spreadsheet to review it. Just make a column with the hours of the day (by 30 minutes intervals is even better) and note the ones that are currently occupied with recurrent (or frequent) activities. Note down everything: sleep, work, study, meals, getting ready, leisure, social activities, etc. If your schedule depends on the days of the week make a table including it. You can include weekends as well for a broader review.
Now look back at the schedule and see if there is any flexibility or if those activities are not possible to change. Make sure to mark a different color the ones that are “set in stone”.
Let us continue to the next point.
3. Are you willing to wake up earlier?
Probably one of the activities that you can control is your sleep schedule.
Before we consider anything else: are you getting enough sleep? I spent years not giving enough value to sleep, and I can assure you that even if you “feel fine” you will feel so, so much better once you sleep more. If you do not believe me, just give it a try, and sleep just one week for 8h a day and prove me wrong.
Now make sure your schedule has at least 7h30 hours of sleep to make sure you get 7h minimum each day. The 30 extra minutes are for those days when you are finishing an episode, reading just a bit more, or just to account for the time you take to fall asleep.
Now, if you have time in the mornings, great. Go to the next step.
If not, consider if you would move your bedtime to a bit earlier than what it is currently to make time for exercise. And if so, how much time would you need. Do you absolutely need to eat upon wake up, or coffee is fine? You would get a better workout if you ate, waited at least an hour, and then exercised. But let’s face it: most of us would be happy to find 30 minutes to work out, let alone counting an extra hour for the food to move out of the stomach.
Working out on an empty stomach can be ok, especially if you are not focusing on strength (and even if you are, it can be done with proper warm-up). But it is not the easier option and will require some willpower. Take that into account.
4. How stable are your evenings?
During these pandemic months, social life might not be a major stopper for an evening workout, but there are other factors to take into consideration. In case you are reading this on a future date, take into account your usual social activities and make sure that you will be comfortable in canceling some plans to stick to your plan. You can always say that you have “a commitment [with yourself]”.
First, of all: does your job finishes on time? If you are adding stress to your life by not knowing when you will finish work, worrying about skipping a training session, or avoiding them all together because “work…”, then probably mornings are a safer bet, even if other factors say otherwise.
Will you need to give attention to your kids during this time of the day? Can you agree with your significant other that this will be a time you take to yourself some days of the week
The worse problem of evening workouts is the number of things that can get in the way – including being stressed (although exercising reduces stress levels) and/or tired. If that might be your case, review again point 3.
5. What have you tried already?
It is easy to end up in “analysis paralysis” and simply do nothing because we are not selecting the “perfect option”. I am here to tell you: there is no right answer, and the difference will mostly be about:
(1) How you feel
(2) What you can maintain long term.
Mostly what you can maintain (though you can only maintain if you feel good about it, so, yeah, both).
So, I finish this by making you a challenge. Select a time of the day, select the days, and try it for a week. See how it goes, how it feels. Confirm if it is a realistic option.
And next week, change it. Do it at a different time and see the difference. Even if you felt fine the week before: you might be surprised.