“Josef, what is the best time of day to exercise?” is one of the top 20 most frequently asked questions I get at parties. The real answer to this question occurs on two levels: practicality and physiology. Practicality is about what you can do – do today, do tomorrow and continue doing. Physiology is about what works best for your body. They don’t always agree.
The excellent fitness coach Alwyn Cosgrove likes to say, “psychology trumps physiology,” and for this answer I will change that to, “practicality trumps physiology.” The most important things is picking a time of day that you can actually get your workouts done because if you can’t get them done any talk about optimizing them doesn’t matter because they’re not getting done. With that in mind, let’s start with the practical and then move on to the physiological.
Just pick a time you can get it done, and if that doesn’t work, then try another time. If the second attempted time doesn’t work, try something else. However, once you’ve changed your mind three times you have to start looking in the mirror. Adapting to reality is a good thing, but there is a fine line between adapting to reality and just making excuses so that you don’t do anything.
You may very well need to become a morning person if you find your evenings being thwarted by a lack of energy, family urgency, or work spilling over. If your plate is full, then you need to do something to expand the size of the plate – increase your capacity and energy levels.
What you’ve got – your energy levels – are already spoken for, and you won’t have any left over at the end of the day, so you need to bite the bullet at do it before everything else. Most morning exercisers aren’t morning people by nature, but by necessity and by choice. Investing something in yourself – time for exercise, before the day starts will allow you to do everything else better and if it is done first, nothing else can eat up your gym time because you already took it.
Getting the most out of your workouts no matter what time of day
1. Have a recovery shake no matter what time of day you workout: recovery shakes helps you be less sore, get fitter faster, have more energy, and get faster improvements in body composition (less fat and maintain/add muscle). If fat-loss is anywhere on your list of priorities, then drink a protein-only shake, not a protein and carbohydrate shake will help you the most. Most of the time, a scoop or two of whey protein (in a flavor you like) with water does the job and is easy.
2. Have a pre-workout shake if you are a morning exerciser: you need to have enough energy to do a workout that is going to get some results. If you are exercising early, working out with breakfast in your tummy is not going to be fun. A shake will do the trick here because it’s quickly digested. The most practical way for most people is to just make one big shake (50 percent bigger than the post workout recovery shake), and drink half of it pre-workout, and then finish the rest afterwards.
3. Make sure you can sleep: like they say on “MTV Cribs,” the bedroom is where the magic happens – the recovery magic. If you are an evening exerciser, usually your body needs at least two hours to slow down enough to actually sleep. You may need more or less.
4. Resistance before “cardio”: resistance training will yield the highest return for energy invested when it comes to pretty much anything, especially for fat loss (weight loss). So you should do what matters most when you have the most energy to give it. First things first, second things second, and other things not at all.
5. Frequency trumps duration: shorter workouts done more often will yield better fat-loss and muscle-building results. So, if you’re at the gym for two hours, do less today and repeat tomorrow.
6. Have a plan: preferably a plan that has a proven track record for delivering safe results for a person like you. That is, if you are a mom with a full-time job, the workout plan that a professional beach volleyball player uses probably isn’t going to work for you. She’s got 20 hours per week, exercise is her job, and you’ve got two to three hours per week. Look for someone who delivers results for people with lives that are as full (bursting?) as yours. Unless you have a ton of free time, you should probably take the short cut and get one from an expert.
Josef Brandenburg is a Washington, D.C.-area certified fitness expert with 11 years of experience.