When Is the Best Time to Run?

Paul L. Underwood
by Paul L. Underwood
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When Is the Best Time to Run?

Look on your favorite internet search engine, and you’ll discover lots of people wonder the same thing: When is the best time to run? Some queries are more specific, asking when is the best time to run to lose weight or shake anxiety.

At a time when many of us have a more flexible schedule because we’re you’re fortunate enough to be working from home, you might be able to swap out the time you wasted on a morning commute for a quick run around the neighborhood.

We asked a few experts, including trainers and academics, to get their recommendations. It turns out there isn’t one universal answer. The best time to run varies from person to person, and there’s always the baseline response that “whenever you can” is the best possible answer.

Still, research suggests certain times of day might better benefit some runners — and there is also a range of factors to consider when determining when to run. Here’s the top line of what they told us.

MORNINGS ARE BEST FOR MANY

“Studies have shown that exercising first thing in the morning may have numerous benefits,” says Tom Holland, MS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, who has competed in a number of marathons, ultra-marathons and Ironman triathlons. “Those include burning additional energy from your fat stores, giving you more energy for the rest of the day, conferring numerous psychological benefits (decreased anxiety, better focus) as well as potentially being easier to make a part of your regular routine.” For that last one, it’s a matter of getting that solitary run in before pressures outside your control can interfere. “The longer you wait to get in your run, the more likely external factors like work and family can get in the way of your workout,” Holland says. “There are far fewer distractions at 6 a.m. than there are at 6 p.m.”

Leah Schumacher, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center of The Miriam Hospital and Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, echoes Holland. “Early research suggests there could be an advantage of exercising in the morning for weight management,” Schumacher says. “For example, one supervised exercise study among young adults with obesity found that participants who opted to exercise more often in the morning also tended to lose more weight. Another small study found that people who were randomly assigned to exercise in the morning versus later in the day lost more weight over the course of several weeks. The mechanisms for this are currently unclear.”

LATE AFTERNOON IS PRIME TIME

“From an athletic performance standpoint, research suggests that our bodies tend to perform best in the late afternoon or early evening,” says Schumacher. “This is due to the circadian rhythms of various physiological processes. Many of our body’s biological processes fluctuate in predictable, near 24-hour cycles, or what we call a circadian rhythm. For example, our body temperature, which affects athletic performance, is lowest in the early morning and highest in the late afternoon. The rhythms of several bodily processes are set such that most people will perform better for the same amount of perceived effort in the late afternoon or early evening compared to other times of the day.” In other words, if you’re looking for peak performance, 4 or 5 p.m. is optimal.

That said, as Schumacher notes, 4 or 5 p.m. isn’t optimal for most of us, as we’re typically at work. In summer, that time of day might be too hot to safely run outside; in winter, it might be getting too dark. Which brings us to …

CONSIDER YOUR OWN HABITS AND SCHEDULE

Are you a morning person or a night person? Do you work a standard 9-to-5, do you work overnights, do you set your own hours or do you do something altogether different. Depending on your answer, finding a consistent time to run might be more important than trying to find the best specific time to run for your body or your needs.

“While more research is needed, some of our work suggests exercising at a consistent versus variable time day-to-day relates to more frequent exercise,” Schumacher says. “Exercising at a consistent time each day might be helpful because it simplifies the exercise planning process. Rather than having to find a time each day to exercise, a specific time — whether that is 7:30 a.m. or 5 p.m. or whenever — is designated as ‘exercise time.’ Consistent exercise timing might also be helpful from a habit-formation perspective. Through performing exercise at a similar time each day, it can become a regular part of our daily routine and something that we do a bit more automatically.” She echoes Holland in saying mornings might be the easiest time for habit formation, both for the reasons he mentions and because of “fatigue, stress, waning motivation.”

YOU KNOW YOUR BODY — AND GOALS — BEST

“For most people the answer is ‘whenever it best fits into your schedule,’” says Sandra Gallagher-Mohler, the run coach and CEO of iRunTons. “For some people that means an early wake up, a lunch break session or an evening post-workday run.”

More than scheduling, however, Gallagher-Mohler points out you should also consider the reason you’re running in the first place. “To get the most out of your workout time it’s best to first determine your ‘why’ for running,” she says. “Is it because you love the freedom, the companionship, the physical sensations of running? Is it because you have racing goals you’d like to accomplish? Is it to lose weight or build your physique? The answer to your ‘why’ should then dictate the best time of day to run. And that’s because it all has to do with hormones.

“If you’re not recovering well with adequate sleep and nutrition, but your goals are performance- and or physique-based, then training first thing in the early morning may actually be counterproductive to your goals,” she says. “Doing so may drive stress hormones, such as cortisol, higher than your body can process it, which may initially lead to positive results — but over time can lead to burnout, injuries and weight gain. In this case, sleeping a little longer and doing a shorter run or waiting until midday or evening is best.”

Extra rest is always appreciated, but if you’re already a morning person, fret not. “If, however, you’re sleeping well and wake up each day giddy to just feel the road beneath your feet, then a morning workout won’t have the same stress hormone effect,” she says.

Find a time that works for you, and for your hormones, and stick with it. As Holland says, “Consistency is key when it comes to seeing results, regardless of your specific goals.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

Rest. Consistency. A regular schedule. Listening to your body and its needs. This is the recipe for establishing a consistent running schedule, whenever you choose to do it.

Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.

About the Author

Paul L. Underwood
Paul L. Underwood

Paul is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He tweets here, he Instagrams there and he posts the occasional deep thought at plunderwood.com. He’s probably working on a run mix as you read this.

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