For time-strapped athletes getting a workout done bright and early is sometimes the only way to get one in. Morning workouts aren’t the easiest for everyone but they’re often a great alternative to skipping the workout altogether.
My week days are dominated by responsibilities that often make it either extremely difficult or impossible to get a workout in during the daylight hours. With two kids to shuttle around to school, practices, doctor’s appointments; full time work as a physical therapist, performing bike fits, meeting with clients for training programs, managing multiple websites, etc most of my days are planned out to the minute.
I’m lucky to always having been an early riser, so I often get up around 5:15 am and hit the dirt 5 minutes down the road for a sunrise trail run.
I could just as easily do a mountain bike ride, but my preference is to run when I’m short on time and ride when I have a little more flexibility. Not to mention that in the early morning I generally have about an hour to get in a workout, maybe 75 minutes. For much of my training year, a run is more efficient for me — I’ll get more bang for my buck from a training standpoint.
I could still get a phenomenal workout done on the bike, but I would opt for an indoor ride in this case rather than hitting the trail. It’s much easier to control the effort on the indoor trainer by using some well crafted high intensity intervals. (Learn more about how to do this with some free indoor cycling workouts I wrote up). I opt for outdoor runs most of the time because when I don’t have a specific race I’m working toward, my workouts are as much about the mental boost I get from being outdoors exercising as the training effect from the run itself. So riding indoors often doesn’t scratch that itch for me.
Even if you’ve never been a morning person, here are some ways to get you out the door at zero-dark-thirty.
Have a plan
Planning is truly ground zero for getting an early AM workout in. Considering both work and family, figure out what mornings are most likely candidates for an early wake-up call.
For many people Monday’s are tough — maybe you have an early conference call every Monday or your spouse needs you to get the kids up and to school that morning — so if a day like Monday is especially hectic in the AM you want to look elsewhere.
But having a predetermined plan will remove a major barrier most people have to completing a training program. Remove as many variables as possible that would get in your way and prevent you from getting a workout. Having mornings set aside a week or more ahead of time is the first step.
Just like with any training plan, work on consistency first. Start with baby steps and begin to work the days into your schedule with short workouts. Pick one or two mornings at first and have only a 20 or 30 minute workout planned. These first days are less about the length of the effort, and more about building the habit. The idea is that the more you do these early workouts, the easier it will be to plan them and actually get up early to do them. It’s a positive feedback loop.
Be Consistent with Sleep Patterns
Another thing to consider is how long you sleep every other morning, especially the weekends. If you’re goal is to be able to get up at 5:15 am three weekdays each week, sleeping until 11 am on the weekends is likely to work against you. It’ll make getting up at 5:15 pretty difficult.
Get to bed early
File this one under the “Duh” column. I know it seems pretty obvious when reading this, but you’d be surprised how many people fail to get up early and not figure out they failed because they were up later than they should have been. When you’re used to a certain number of hours sleep per night and you’re trying to get up an hour or two earlier, you’re going to have to get to sleep earlier. Period.
Limit your TV watching and get your dinner at a reasonable hour. On your first couple of short workout mornings, use the baby-steps principle again and try to get to bed 30 minutes earlier than normal. If you normally go to bed at midnight this probably won’t translate into you feeling rested for a 5:00 AM wake up, but it’s a start. If you can then ratchet back your bed-time a half-hour each week or so, you’ll be much more likely to make that earlier bed-time a habit. You’ll have more success approaching it this way rather than going to be at midnight one night and then at 9:00 PM the next to prepare for an early workout. Not saying that method can’t work, but it’s just not as likely.
Get clothes and equipment ready the night before
Make sure you have all clothes and equipment ready the night before. If you’re running outdoors, don’t forget the head lamp (see below) and if you’re cycling indoors make sure your bike is set up on the trainer, tires at the right pressure, and your towel and fan are ready.
This is the main purpose of planning ahead — remember we’re removing barriers. I guarantee that if you are planning to wake up at 5:00 am with the intention of riding the indoor trainer, but when the alarm goes off you remember that you didn’t get your bike out of the garage and set up on the trainer, and you’re not sure if you left your cycling shoes in the car or if they made it back into the house, you’re much more likely to hit the snooze button and fall back to sleep.
The right tool for the job
Owning the right clothes and equipment can be all about removing more of those barriers. Working out in the early AM hours is often about dealing with the weather. Summers are fairly predictable and simpler — if you’re running outdoors, a long sleeve shirt is often all you need to manage the cooler air, and even cycling outdoors perhaps a light wind-breaker will do the trick.
In the winter months, morning workouts get trickier, and having a few nice pieces of the right type of clothes will go a long way. Knowing that you have comfortable gloves and a nice base layer shirt will make it that much easier to get up and get out the door. When the rain or snow is coming down and you don’t have the right jacket to keep you warm and dry it might make you balk at getting up and at it.
There will be an entire article about specific equipment choices, but here’s a quick breakdown of some options to make any inclement weather less of a hurdle
- Invest in some winter shoes, maybe windproof socks, or just use a vapor barrier (plastic bag between two layers of thin socks)
- Running cramp-ons (Yak Traks or similar) if it’s icy
- A nice headlamp is a must. There are many good LED options these days.
- One good wind proof jacket or pullover
- Gloves or mittens. Mittens are warmer and you don’t usually need anything terribly heavy, just something that might be water resistant and of moderate weight
- Feet: Get some neoprene booties that go over your shoes or if you can splurge, winter cycling shoes are extremely warm and a wonderful extravagance.
- Head: Sometimes a simple polypro balaclava or scull cap works great, but the colder it gets a lined neoprene version will keep you toastier longer.
- Hands: These are key because nothing is worse than painfully frozen fingertips from a ride. I like lobster gloves because they provide enough dexterity and are warmer than gloves. If you have a mountain bike (**see below for more on this), pogies are fantastic at keeping your hands warm. They are lined nylon sleeves that fit over the ends of your mountain handlebars and are warm enough that when I use mine I generally need to use only thin gloves or none at all.
- Lights: Riding in the dark is a different sport. Having a couple good lights is absolutely essential. You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a 3000 lumen system, but a good handlebar and helmet mount lights will make your adventures on the trail much more enjoyable and safer.
**I generally recommend using a mountain bike even on the road in the winter since it handles the grit on the road better, and they run slower which cuts down on the wind chill. With a 30 degree air temperature, riding at 18 mph is like riding with an 18 mph wind which drops the temperature by at least 10 degrees.
- Get a nice trainer. The quieter the better.
- A Towel to keep from sweating a mess all over your bike
- A fan to circulate some air
As mentioned before, have all these set up with your bike ready to ride so all you have to do is roll out of bed, change into your riding clothes (that are laid out and ready for you) and jump on the bike.
Not to beat a dead horse, but get planning. If you have a plan in place it’ll make everything else go smoothly. So get going, follow that plan and watch the sun come up on your next morning workouts.
He lives with his wife and two kids and runs multiple businesses in Grand Junction, Colorado.