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The Facts About Early Morning Workouts

Dear Dr. Bell, I think I have to start working out early in the morning due to my new work schedule. I’ve never done 5am workouts before. It sounds painful. Is it easy once you get going? Should I eat breakfast first? Should I be worried about my system crashing mid-day from less sleep? Any tips or suggestions would be great!

I have some really good news for you! While it will take a little while for your body to adjust to you becoming an Early-Riser, you are about to experience better workouts than ever before. Many argue your Endocrine System is the most important system in your body. This is because your hormones control every other system in your body. So…here is the good news: Your Endocrine System LOVES early morning workouts!

The primary hormone that controls your circadian rhythms is cortisol. Cortisol has a bad reputation as a stress hormone, but without cortisol, you would be dead! Cortisol levels begin to rise naturally in the early morning and hit their peak, typically, between 3-6am, in the morning. If you get out of bed and workout at this time, you will benefit from the energizing effect of cortisol.

Cortisol cycles naturally throughout the day. It begins to decrease after 6am and rises again to another smaller peak between 10am to 1pm. It will decrease again and will achieve its final (smaller still) peak between 4-6pm. After this final peak, it will begin to decrease until you get very tired and feel the need to sleep between 9-10pm. When you feel sleepy…GO TO SLEEP! When you obey your body’s natural circadian rhythms you will get better and more restful sleep and experience far more natural energy, alertness, concentration, focus, memory and cognition through your day!

Some people find the supplement: Melatonin helpful when adjusting to sleep cycles or time zone changes. I find your adherence to your regular circadian rhythms most helpful. When you feel you are getting sleepy…go to sleep and that means every day, 7 days/week, without fail. If you are one of those party animals that likes to party hard Friday and Saturday night and sleep-in: Saturday and Sunday morning, you are disrupting your natural circadian rhythms and will pay a price in physical, mental and emotional performance.

The bad reputation of cortisol has earned has to do with stress management. When you are under continuous, unrelenting stress, cortisol levels rise far above normal. This causes an inflammatory response that can damage every system in the body. You can easily see the examples of U.S. Service Men and Women kept in War Zones for a year. The dangers of high cortisol levels for these extended periods, not only are a factor for PTSD, but the many health issues we see in our returning warriors. While the 22 suicides we see every day in our PTSD diagnosed troops gets a lot of headlines, little has been said of the many health issues our Service Members and Vets face.

The high cortisol levels and the inflammatory consequences of continuously, abnormally high levels of cortisol, also cause chronic diseases, disabilities and dysfunctions normally seen in elderly patients. Yet, we routinely see very physically fit Service Members and Vets dying of Heart Disease strokes and developing chronic disorders normally seen in much older, far greater deconditioned populations. So Yes! Cortisol can be your worst enemy, but if you obey Stress Management Protocols, including your natural sleep cycle and obtain 7-8 hours of sleep each night (more if you are in your teens or younger and/or training hard), cortisol is your best friend!

Is it painful changing sleeping patterns? For me and many others…YES! When I was in the U.S. Air Force, we could be tasked with showing up at the Fight-Line at 03:00 (3am) one week and having to be there at 21:00 (9pm) the next. The Air Force assumes all their Fighter Pilots had to be as proficient as flying and fighting in the dark as we could in brood day-light. Obviously that requirement was tough on our bodies.

Having to get up earlier will be difficult initially, but your body will adjust. Most of the research indicate that your body will require one day/hour of time zone change to fully adjust. For example, if you are all used to getting up at 8am for work and now you are getting up at 5am to workout, the 3-hour time difference will require 3 days to feel “normal,” but you will need to go to bed earlier, between 9-10pm to get your required 7-8 hours of sleep/night.

Should you eat breakfast first….NO! The biochemistry is too lengthy for this discussion. Suffice it to say your insulin response, post-breakfast will decrease the efficacy of your workout. You can get away with coffee, Pre-Workout Supplement, 1 serving of a protein supplement, BCAA, Glutamine, etc., 30 minutes prior to your workout.

Will you crash mid-day? After 3 days, you should be feeling more energized throughout the day. As Ben Franklin said: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise!”

Use your schedule change as a benefit! For more information on using your diet to help with the changes. See the IFPA Sports Nutrition Certification Courses.