Do we perform better in the morning or at night? Ask your girlfriend. Sorry, couldn’t resist. If it’s cycle training we’re talking, perhaps I can help. I experimented recently to answer that age old question, what time of day is best for training? The answer was pretty clear cut.
A little background. I’m not a morning person so immediately I should tell you that cycling later in the day is best. Yet living in London, nothing is so simple. Cycling very early in morning has the advantage of traffic free roads, plus all of the lovely things like sun rises, riding through the early morning mist, the morning chorus of bird song. I’m a huge fan of cycling in the morning, as I’ve blogged about previously. It may be more enjoyable but is it the best time of day for you physically?
Finding the time to ride
I didn’t set out to test this theory. The constraints of life and having the time to cycle forced me to train both early in the morning and in the evening after work. Often we have little choice of when to ride. We ride simply when we have time.
This has certainly been true for me. Having recently bought a turbo trainer and started a structured two month cycle training programme, I’ve been trying to find ways to fit even more cycling in my life. It’s not easy.
I’m not training like a pro here, far from it, I’m simply trying to squeeze in a few hours here and there. I don’t even have enough time to commit to a plan recommended by Chris Carmichael in his popular training book, The Time Crunched Cyclist. This plan comes in at under ten hours a week and is supposedly the answer to improving on the bike even if you are time poor.
Yet cycling ten hours a week is difficult. I’ve adapted the plan to ride three structured training sessions a week. The plan recommends four interval sessions plus what it calls easy Endurance Miles (zone two riding), for which I’ve substituted with my daily commute.
The plan also includes rest days so I’ve spread the three interval sessions out over the week which means I need to find the time for an interval session on a Tuesday and Thursday, with the final session at the weekend.
Working five days a week, usually from 8 in the morning to 6 at night, leaves little time for the bike. You have two options. Ride before work or ride immediately after work. There can be no late night riding after your evening meal because intervals and full bellies don’t mix too well.
Neither of these options is all too appealing. Get up and snooze on the turbo? Or get home from work and slump on the turbo? I tried both this week, the same interval session in the morning and in the evening. Here’s what happened.
Training in the morning
Eugh. I am soft pedalling on my turbo in the cold darkness of the morning, the buzz of the alarm still ringing in my ears. It is 6:03 am. Three minutes earlier I was asleep. My legs still snoozing, I turn the pedals as if I’ve never ridden a bike before. My body is in shock and must be wondering what the hell is happening.
A long warm-up is required, one requiring a return to bed and more sleep. Regardless, off I go, mind battling body. Long story short, the session was horrible. My legs struggled to reach the required cadence and my heart rate headed for the skies. Given I’m training by heart rate alone, my speed was much slower than previous sessions despite pushing the same heart rate.
Training before or after breakfast?
Interval done, I felt sick. Riding early in the morning without breakfast is actually a recommended training technique by some (and debated by others). Why? Well the theory is that training before breakfast means you have depleted energy levels (I can vouch for that!), or low glycogen levels, which forces the body to burn fat instead. So in theory, training before breakfast will help you lose weight. A counter theory believes the body will compensate throughout the day and hence it makes little difference.
Not that I care for the debate. I’m not trying to lose weight and even if I was, I’m a believer in the simple logic that a less calorific input combined with more exercise over a long period of time will help you lose weight. All other weight loss theories are either temporary or b*llshit. Besides, my only alternative to training before breakfast is to eat breakfast and then train immediately afterwards and then puke up said breakfast as a result!
Recovering after a morning ride
So, the morning interval hadn’t gone too well. I felt sick and I’d potentially not worked so hard due to my higher heart rate. What about the rest of the day and my recovery? I had breakfast. A few hours later and I was hungry again. So I ate more. Hmmm. I rode to work, which was great because I used this as my warm down. Yet my legs ached all day and all night. Hmmm. Mentally I struggled to concentrate all day and I felt tired, spaced out. Hmmm.
Training in the afternoon
Two days later I tried the same interval session again, this time when I got home after work. Jumping on the turbo after a day at the office is hard work. I actually questioned my sanity as I climbed out of my commuter clothes and into my turbo Lycra.
How did it go? My legs were already warmed up thanks to my commute. Better yet, my body and mind were warmed up thanks to having been awake for 12 hours as opposed to the three minutes prior to my morning session.
My heart rate was lower at the same speeds as the morning ride which meant I could up the tempo. Sure, I spent longer warming down but I climbed off the turbo mentally and physically happy, a vast contrast to my morning interval.
Recovering after an evening ride
Here’s the clincher. My recovery food was a full meal, nothing special, just what I would normally eat. This is certainly more carbs and protein than my breakfast. What’s more, my evening recovery consisted of relaxing on the couch rather than going to work. Even better, sleep was only a matter of hours away.
So in conclusion, for interval training at least, riding in the evening is best. Sure, I should repeat this test a few more times but in all honesty, I don’t want to feel as bad as I did after the morning intervals. I could probably offset some of the ill morning feeling by eating better but, with little time on my side, this is all extra effort and I want cycling to fit into my normal life as much as possible.
The real science
My own experience aside, here’s what the world’s best researchers have to say about the best time to train on the bike. “We’re not sure.” That’s right, for all the research that exists, none can agree on the best time of day to cycle.
About the only thing they can agree on is that your body has a natural daily cycle and so there will be differences in your metabolism and hormones. Some studies suggest your glucose levels are 11 percent (rather precise!) lower in the morning. This might be good for losing weight. Might be. Folk disagree on whether you should ride at low or high intensities or even if the theory has any truth at all. Others say riding with low glucose is bad as your energy levels are low and so your performance will suffer accordingly.
Larks and owls
The main consideration is your natural body clock, or circadian rhythm. Different people have different body clocks, hence the age old question of whether you are a morning person or not. Are you a morning lark or a late night owl or somewhere in between?
One study has shown that performance levels can be as much as 26 percent lower in the morning and that your peak performance will vary depending on your natural body clock. Morning larks peak around noon, intermediate people peak around 16:00 whilst late night owls peak around 20:00. Just one more factor to plan into your next Strava segment attempt!
Ride when you have the time
So that was a lot of words to conclude that all our bodies are different and what feels great one day, may not feel so great the next day. Experiment, listen to your body. Me? I’ll continue to enjoy long early morning rides so I can beat the traffic but my intervals will be strictly afternoon affairs.
What about you? Are you an owl or a lark? Do you have the luxury of riding when you feel like it or do you have to force yourself to squeeze in rides whenever the opportunity presents itself?
Lead image courtesy of Philipp Schmidly, who spent four months waiting for this shot. Amazing, check out his work.