What is the most productive time of day to train?
I get asked this question often and I always manage to avoid giving a definitive answer. The reason? There is no universally perfect time to train because it depends on a host of personal variables. Even so, there are factors worth considering that may help you optimize your productivity -- whether for weight training, cardio or anything in between.
Apart from the time constraints in our daily lives, one primary consideration is how your "body clock" functions, and how this affects your hormones and other purposeful body chemicals over the spectrum of daily activities.
Most of us have jobs to go to 9 to 5 and we work our training times around that schedule. Some people instinctively like to exercise in the morning, while others feel more comfortable exercising in the afternoon or evening. In this respect, weight training and bodybuilding are not too much different from other strenuous activities, so much of what I write here applies to physical activity in general as well as to weight training specifically.
Understand Your Body ClockYou’ve probably heard the expression: “I’m a morning person,” or perhaps more often: “I’m not a morning person.” Even though it seems possible to train the body to operate efficiently in different daytime zones, many of us seem to have an instinctive comfort at a particular time of the day, and this seems related to the natural cycle of sleeping and waking that your body and brain control.
This body clock is known as the “circadian” clock and is an actual group of cells in the brain that emits hormones and electrical impulses according to a timing that seems to be genetically set, that is, you’re born with it. The hormone melatonin is the principle hormone that regulates this body clock. Melatonin and the circadian cycle are affected by light and darkness.
When Does Training Performance Peak?Now that you have some background, the question is: how does this affect your training? It seems that you can reset your body clock by manipulating waking and sleeping hours to a degree. This means that you can teach yourself to get up early and go to gym or for a run -- if you need to -- and still do a great workout. It may take some time, however, to reset your body clock to this program if you are not used to being active early in the morning.
Sports scientists say that exercise performance is closely related to body temperature, which peaks for most people in the early evening. You may be different. And even so, the response to exercise is cyclical during the day with the early afternoon a “down” time for many people. Further, the optimum time for exercise for you is not just determined by your body clock, but by the type of exercise, your age and health, environmental conditions such as light and heat, and social activities like meals and work patterns.
If it’s cooler in the morning this may outweigh any extra bounce you extract in the warm early evening.
Soccer players peak at night
Researchers looked at the performance of soccer players for skills such as grip strength, reaction times, flexibility, juggling and dribbling tasks, and the wall-volley test. The players were tested at 8AM, 12PM, 4PM, and 8PM. None of the tests was superior at 8AM or 12PM and for several tests, players performed better at 8PM. The researchers concluded that soccer players "perform at an optimum between 16:00 (4PM) and 20:00 (8PM) when not only football [soccer]-specific skills but also measures of physical performance are at their peak.”
Age, health and gender
In another study, athletes over 50 years of age tended to be “morning people,” regularly doing more and harder training in the morning when compared to young athletes. This may be because as people age they tend to rise earlier. This would tend to reset the body clock.
Jet lag and menstruation may also affect your body clock. And researchers of circadian rhythms and exercise nominate certain times of the day when special care may be necessary.
- Early morning -- increased risk of heart attack and stroke, and a greater risk of damage to the spine.
- Late in the day -- increased risk of respiratory difficulties.
These risks are probably not as great for fit, athletic people, but may be worth noting if you are undertaking a rehabilitation program or just starting out with exercise.
Exercise Hormones -- Cortisol and TestosteroneWeight training in the evening may be superior for building muscle according, to research on the hormones cortisol and testosterone in weight trainers. Cortisol is a hormone that, among other functions, helps regulate blood sugar by breaking down muscle tissue when necessary. This is called “catabolism.” Testosterone does the opposite: it helps to build muscle by utilizing proteins. This is called “anabolism.”
As it turns out, cortisol is usually highest in the early morning and lowest in the evening. Testosterone is also highest in the morning -- as most men will attest. However, what this study showed was that the ratio of testosterone to cortisol was highest in the evening because cortisol, the muscle-breaking hormone, dropped more over the day than testosterone did, providing a more anabolic, muscle-building state in the evening.