What if I told you there were optimal times to train in the day? That’s probably something you’d be interested in hearing. The truth is, there are times throughout the day that are more optimal than others for training. The short answer, 3 hours and 9 hours after waking are considered more optimal times to exercise. Why? Circadian Rhythm.
Our body, and every cell, operate off internal clocks governed by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN works in tandem with the pineal gland, known for secreting melatonin in the presence of darkness. The SCN communicates its rhythmical signal of night and day (also known as Circadian Rhythm) to the body and brain modulating hormonal production. From a reductionist perspective, as the day begins, the body preferably secretes and utilizes cortisol, our main stress hormone, to drive activity and our wake state. As the day wears on, along with the sun beginning to drop, melatonin begins to steadily rise moving us closer to a state of rest. These two hormones complement each other: when one is high, the other is low. If you look at a daily cortisol curve (see graph below) you’ll see cortisol on the upswing a bit before midday (around 9-10am) and slowly dropping after midday (2-3pm). Which happen to be about 3 and 9 hours after waking for someone who rises at 6am. These become our opportune times to train and utilize cortisol and other sympathetically driven hormones to our advantage.
Why would this be an advantage?
By optimizing the use of cortisol and testosterone, which peaks in the mid-morning, we can utilize natural increases in appropriate hormones to maximize our training response. Additionally, by training when these hormones are on the rise we won’t negatively impact our ability to rest and wind down, working against our circadian rhythm.
Why would this be a potential issue?
If we train too late in the day when our body is transitioning into a rest and recovery state, we can cause an excessive spike in cortisol prolonging our onset to sleep. When the sun is down for the day, the last thing we need to be doing is producing a stress response (training is a stressor). By disrupting our circadian rhythm, we are impairing our ability to rest and recover effectively.
What if I can’t train during those times?
Some people might not be able to train 3 and 9 hours after waking due to their work schedule. If that is the case, there are a few potential options that will still benefit the system without causing a major disruption in rest and recovery. The first would be training upon waking, in the early morning, to utilize our natural rise in cortisol after waking. This can provide people with a natural boost in alertness and energy throughout the day. If that isn’t an option, the second alternative would be a lunch time training session. You’d finish your morning block of work, go train, cool down, chew your lunch (ensuring you are hungry and not sweating), and head back to the office to finish the day. Placing our training in the middle of the day would still honor our circadian rhythm, where cortisol is essentially peaking at midday. If the first two are not viable choices, our last option would be training directly after work, ideally before the sun goes down. I would categorize this as the least beneficial time to train but for some it’s the only time that works. If you do fall into this category, some helpful tips for you are:
- Longer cool down than normal to ensure body is returning to homeostasis in a timely fashion
- Glutamine post workout to help lower cortisol (5- 10g)
- Quality starches, lower inflammatory foods with dinner to facilitate great blood sugar balance and satiety before heading to bed later in the evening
- Remove excessive stimulation, lights, screens, excessive noise sooner than normal to help bring your system down from the sympathetic drive of your training session
- L-theanine in the evening (500mg)
- Magnesium Chelate(s) in the evening (200- 400mg)
- Chamomile Tea – hour or so before bed to help calm the nervous system and further induce a parasympathetic state