Morning workouts, like so many other things in our community, can become almost a religious ritual for some athletes. Many feel that lifting in the morning sets a tone for their entire day, leaving them feeling charged and ready for whatever a case of the Mondays might throw at them. Others train in the early morning simply because it is the only time they can find the time because of school, work, kids, a commute, etc. But, what if there are physiological disadvantages to training in the early morning? Let's take a look at some of the potential drawbacks to early morning lifting, and how to find ways to work around them.
The temperature of the human body tends to be the lowest roughly 1-3 hours before waking, giving the muscles that stiff, sore feeling that most lifters are very familiar with. For me, I feel like there is a brick between my erectors that wont go away for about 90 minutes after I wake up, or until my body gets warmer.Many injuries stem from not being properly warmed up, and this tends to happen in the morning, especially if you are waking up at 5am to rush to your 6am training session. In the afternoon, the body temperature is much higher, more blood has been flowing to the muscles, and unless you are hunched over a desk ALL day, you will probably be more warmed up than if you went to a 6AM practice, half awake.
Cortisol levels tend to be highest in the early morning, which is when a lot of lifting or fitness classes tend to occur for the 9-5 crowd. Cortisol is necessary for morning wakefulness. A study found that lifting heavy things at night, as opposed to in the morning, resulted in a more anabolic (strength and size-building) testosterone/cortisol ratio. This may explain why afternoon or evening training is better for strength and size gains. Testosterone is low in the morning, while cortisol is high, and the opposite is true in the evening. If you are working out with an already elevated level of cortisol, intense training will only raise it more, which can result in diminishing returns for you.
For low impact, do relatively easy exercises such as long runs or walks. Morning tends to be the best time for these exercises because they aren't adversely affected by cortisol and testosterone levels, and are easier to do while still the body is waking up. However, in a recent study, 10 and 11 year old males performed noticeably better in the afternoon than in the morning. They improved 5% on the jump test, 3.5% on the squat jump test, grip strength improved 5.9%, and overall performance increased 5.5%. Now this may not sound like much, but if you are deadlifting 500 pounds, that is a 30lb difference. The study also suggested that the difference in performance levels between morning and afternoon could be made up by a longer warmup in the morning. Although, most of the time (myself included) morning workouts are done as quickly as possible in order to get home and eat/ get ready for work.
This is an aspect of early morning lifting that isn't talked about too often. Basically the discs between each of the spine's vertebrates is made of a jelly-like substance that is designed to fill up or expand in order to absorbs shocks that are put upon the body. These discs also fill up greatly at night while asleep, and this expanded size is maintained for about 60 minutes after waking. The team Chiropractor and I talked about this last week, and discussed how discs that are engorged with fluid can actually negatively affect a deadlift and possibly leave one susceptible to a slipped disc or herniation. One way to correct this is to warm up the spine more than normal in the early morning, to drain some of the fluid out of the area. One of the ways is the cat back/ camel back stretch, a very quick and effective tool for warming up the thoracic spine. Unfortunately, some who lift in the morning because of time constraints choose to skip a lengthy warmup, and that can leave you having a bad time.
My goal here is not to dissuade you from lifting in the morning if that is the only time you can. Instead, it is good to educate yourself on the potential risks of early morning workouts if you don't take the adequate steps to prepare yourself for the rigors that will occur. If time is not an issue for you, try switching your workouts to the afternoon to see if you have noticeable differences in strength, flexibility, and focus. Does this switch work for you? Let us know!