Ron Marinucci: November, 2014 Column
by Ron Marinucci, Nov. 6, 2014
“Paper or plastic?” “Soup or salad?” “To stay or to go?” “Tastes great—Less Filling?” “Morning or afternoon?” It seems we are continuously bombarded with choices to make. I don’t drink coffee, but consider what used to be a simple task, buying a cup of coffee. Now it’s “capp or latte” (and, no, I don’t know the difference), “flavored or plain,” “small or medium or large or grande,” and more.
One choice runners must make is what time of the day to run. “Morning or afternoon/evening?” For many of us, when we run is determined not by personal preference, but by factors such as family responsibilities, the weather, work schedules, and other commitments. But if we have a choice, when do we prefer to get in our run?
Recent research suggests that the best time to run or engage in aerobic exercise may be the late afternoon or early evening. Tests performed on (what else?) laboratory rats showed that was the optimal time for peak performance. And it seems that translates well to what we know about the human body and how it functions.
Without going into the physiological details behind this, running performance is better in the afternoon or early evening. Physically, this seems to make sense.
Later in the day, with some meals or snacks under our belts, our energy levels are higher than first thing in the morning. Body temperature also peaks from about 4:00 to 7:00 PM and higher body temperature is associated with better running, both in training and racing. This is likely because the warmer muscles are more flexible and supple. And afternoon and evening running maximally draws upon the positive effects of Circadian rhythms, a sort of internal body clock.
Many runners report that, with similar effort, they run faster at the same distance with later running, even just daily jogs. That may be because they don’t have to overcome the sluggishness that often accompanies the first few miles of a morning run. Regarding races, personal records might be best attained in early evening races.
Morning runners shouldn’t despair, though. There are many benefits to AM exercise. Some studies have indicated that motivation is improved with morning running. That is, morning runners are more consistent with their training and maybe even build greater mental toughness. Running earlier in the day may help with higher quality sleep.
There is also some evidence that the body can adapt to morning running, perhaps lessening the advantages of later workouts. Training might well be most effective if it is habitual, done at the same time each day.
Personally, my daily runs are done almost exclusively in the morning, the very early hours, often in the dark. Mostly that’s because of necessity. There’s not much time the rest of the day, not with the kids, classes, projects, and other commitments. Maybe 12 or 15 years ago I’d run after work several days a week, one of the few times I had available time in the late afternoon. Running just before dinner was OK, I guess, but I remember that I sometimes had trouble with motivation. After work, I just felt drained.
Racing, my top five or six 5K times have been set at evening races, those starting at 6:00 or 7:00. I really hadn’t considered the possible significance until now. But I haven’t done many races, maybe a handful, at longer distances at later times. So I don’t think I have a representative sampling to make any judgment with those.
“Morning or afternoon/evening?” When do you run? Is it by choice or by necessity?
By “preference,” Ruth Thelen chooses to run “in the middle of the afternoon.” She said, “I’m retired, so I can run anytime,” adding with a quip, “It takes my old body a few hours to get movin’! I run in the afternoon because it takes me that long to talk myself into getting out the door.”
But she noted that “I am seriously thinking about starting to run in the morning, since that is when most races are held. That may upstart my body into getting it to race faster.” She’s following some science with that. When training for a morning race, results are better if at least some training runs, particularly hard or long ones, are done in the AM. This helps the body get accustomed to running then. And it can help establish a routine that’s required for morning race.
Mike “Flagman” Bowen also prefers the afternoon, “especially in the summer. I run usually around 1:00 to 3:00 PM.” He noted, “I like the challenge of hot, humid days.” And he likes “the results.” But Bowen has other motivations. He still runs “in memory” of the Americans who died or are missing or POWs in Vietnam or who died on 9/11. He explained, “POWs never get the hot or cold days off. So I don’t take them off either.” Keeping that in mind, Bowen added, “In the spring, fall, and winter months, if the forecast is for cold, wind, snow, or rain, I’ll make sure to run in the nastiest part of the day.”
Yet he also acknowledged some of his runs are for “mental health—mine!” he laughed. “Occasionally I run after darkness has set in. It’s beautiful on the golf course and traffic is down. It’s relaxing for me.”
Ultrarunner Stu Allen said, “I run both,” AM and PM, mostly out of necessity. “Sometimes my schedule only allows me to run at one time of day or another. Other times,” when he’s really pinched, “I squeeze in two shorter runs the same day.”
My son Matt lives in Las Vegas. Six months of the year temperatures are very hot, well over 100 degrees most days in the summer and in the 90s overnight. It’s understandable when he said, “On a weekend, if I’m training for something and going on a long run, there’s nothing better than doing it the early morning and getting it out of the way” and out of the heat. “During the week,” though, after teaching, “I usually go right after the gym, before driving home.”
Andy Muchow is a past Michigan Runner Runner-of-the-Year, but admitted, “I haven’t been getting too many miles in lately.” He lamented, “Life has just gotten in the way for me in 2014.” If given a choice, though, “I prefer running in the morning. Unfortunately, that really only happens when the schedule allows, usually on weekends or on a day off. Mornings are my favorite time to get out and enjoy the miles. They provide better quiet and solitude. At the park, it just seems to be a more relaxed time to run. During the week, my runs are almost always after work and often feel squeezed in and rushed. If I’m tired or my head is spinning from things that happened that day, it distracts from the fun of the run.”
Former Michigan Runner editor Dave Foley remembers before his retirement. “For almost thirty years while I was a teacher, I did my first run (and in my later years my last run!) starting at 6:40 AM. Living in the woods meant I ran in darkness seven months of the year. Running in blackness meant I literally felt my way those first minutes until my eyes adjusted to the lack of light. I wore reflective clothing, never ran fast, and never had a serious fall.”
He went on, “Now, retired, I tend to run mid-morning, after I’ve done my writing for the day and to get it over with so I can live the rest of the day without guilt.” He added, “Yes, my daily run is a happy addiction.”
“I am definitely more of a morning runner,” joined in Anthony Targan, “although I sometimes run at noon on work days when my schedule allows. I prefer the morning because I have more energy early in the day. It jump starts my day and I feel energized for hours afterward.” He added, “I run better in cooler temperatures.”
Liz Bailey not only runs, but competes in triathlons. “During the week,” she said she runs in “the PM.” But she prefers “the AM on weekends for long runs.” She explained, “After twenty years of running very early before the kids got up and as I age, I prefer to run after work rather than so early. But,” she added with a smile, “I still love my early morning long runs on the weekend.”
Bruce Kittle spends his year running in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—and Alaska and Washington state, among other places. He said, “When I was still teaching, I always tried to run right when I got home from work. Running had a huge impact in getting all of the day’s frustrations to disappear and making the rest of the evening relaxed and enjoyable. It really cleared my brain.” But, now retired, he noted, “I run the first thing in the morning whenever possible. It gets my body going for the day and I have more energy and ambition throughout the day when I run first thing. It also seems that the world is quieter and more relaxed in the early morning. I enjoy it more.” Then he quipped, “Of course, now that I have retired, ‘first thing in the morning’ is usually 9:00 or 10:00.” He closed with, “Time to go run,” at 9:15 AM.
“I run in the morning,” said Bill Khan, “but I don’t consider myself a morning person. I usually run around 10:00 AM. I work until 11:00, 11:00 PM, so you won’t see me out there at 5:00 AM like some of my more dedicated running friends.”
“Even when I don’t have to work, I prefer to run in the morning. The run is out of the way, not hanging over my head. Plus, I prefer to run on a near-empty stomach. If I ran in the late afternoon or early evening, I’d have already had breakfast and lunch. My runs don’t go as well if I’ve had a full meal at some point in the day.”
Scott Sullivan is the current editor of Michigan Runner. Injuries have curtailed his running, but “I was pretty fanatical (50+ miles per week) before the injuries.” He preferred later runs. “Some of that was by necessity. Commuting to work through the years would have meant getting up super early to run six to eight miles, then shower, especially during Michigan winters.” But there were others reasons, “psychological and physical,” he liked running after work. “I liked unwinding, after the day’s tasks were behind me, venting my pent-up body, showering, eating late, and sleeping soundly.”
Former Michigan runner Lauren Hubbell now runs in Colorado. Armed with a Masters degree in acupuncture, “I have the flexibility to run any time of the day, but it is absolutely my preference to run in the morning. I love to run mid-morning. It’s usually sunny here in Boulder in the morning and it’s not too hot or too cold at that point. The pathways have cleared from the morning bike commuters and the mountains look insane against the blue sky backdrop. Occasionally I will run my daughter to daycare in her stroller with the dog in tow. You pretty much feel like the strongest and best mom in the world when you do that.”
But she doesn’t like running later in the day. “Running after lunch creates too much hunger for a properly-sized dinner. And running at night can alter sleep patterns which are essential for recovery and good health.”
Tracey Cohen runs in the morning, “by preference and necessity,” but would run any time “because I love it.” To her, “The advantage of running in the morning besides ensuring that I get in my run, is the quiet solitude. It energizes me for my day, makes me feel alive.” She spoke for many of us when she said, “It’s good to start the day with my very favorite thing to do in life.”
So, then, what is the best time of day to run? It seems to me the answer is any time you can find to get out there.