What's the right time for your workout?

Knowing the best time to exercise

Knowing when your optimum time for exercise is can seriously improve your health and fitness workouts. Recent scientific research shows that the time you exercise can play a big part in how useful it is to your body. Here's our guide to finding the exercise time of day that's suitable for you.

Time for your workout … or is it? Does the time of day at which you exercise matter? And more importantly, can you improve your performance by picking the right time for a workout? There is certainly evidence to suggest that the body is more geared up for physical activity at some times more than others. This is due to our ‘circadian rhythms’ – 24-hour biological rhythms that influence everything from body temperature to heart rate, muscle strength to hormone levels and enzyme activity.

As far as most physiological variables are concerned, it seems that late afternoon to early evening is prime time for a workout. ‘In the morning, body temperature is low, the nervous system sluggish and joints, ligaments and tendons stiff,’ explains Professor Tom Reilly, a renowned expert on circadian rhythms at the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moores University.

A study by Professor Reilly and colleagues published in the journal Chronobiology International found that subjects given a set exercise workload at 5am, 11am, 5pm and 11pm, rated their perception of effort highest at 5am. ‘So running at, say, 10kph will feel harder in the morning than it does in the evening,’ says Reilly.

Other physiological variables that are at rock bottom in the morning include minute ventilation – meaning more breaths are required to get the same amount of oxygen into the body – and cardiac output; the amount of oxygenated blood pumped around the body by the heart each minute. What’s more, a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (2002) found that early morning exercise left swimmers’ immune systems compromised.

However, sport isn’t all about brawn – you need brains too! And research shows that people learn new motor skills more readily in the morning than in the evening. In one study, subjects improved most in a newly learned task at 9am. Short-term memory and fine motor control (the ability to do precise or fiddly tasks) are also superior in the morning compared to later in the day – which may play a part in overall performance.

And, of course, what happens in the real world isn’t just dictated by what the scientists say. If you are a self-professed early riser, then despite physiology being against you, you may perform better in the morning, simply because you prefer to exercise then. Research also suggests that the over 50s are less detrimentally affected by early morning workouts than younger people.

The idea that you should do what feels right for you is backed up by a study published in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, which found that people who always trained either in the morning or evening and were then asked to perform a high intensity workout to exhaustion, did better at the time of day to which they were used to training.

So what’s the bottom line? If you can schedule it, try to do the bulk of your workouts – particularly the tough stuff – between 4 and 7pm. (It’s no coincidence that this is the time window in which most Olympic records have been set.) You may just find yourself breaking that PB. If not, then carry on being an early bird. Even the chronobiologists agree that a morning workout is far better than no workout at all.

Comments (3)

  • suelesley 'Found this intresting, I am a lark, so will still do my work out very early in the morning before work, as in the evening have no energy left after working all day, and know that more often than not I would give the gym a miss in the evening.'

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  • badgerdave 'Recently attended a conference where circadian rythyms was one of the topics. Sadly though, my work doesn't allow me to put this in to practice.'

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  • sonis 'I feel if I wok out first thing then it doesn't play on my mind all day that I need to work out, getting out of the way first thing sets me up for the rest of the day '

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