Tempted to wake up early and run first thing? There are many benefits to running in the morning.
If you don’t consider yourself a morning person, the good news is that you can turn yourself into one, says Dr James Mojica, a sleep physician.
‘The body is malleable,’ says Dr Mojica, who runs first thing four times a week. Address these points before you reset your alarm.
MAKE THE CHANGE:
- Weigh the pros and cons
If you’re on the fence about converting to early workouts, draft a checklist of pluses and minuses. On the plus side, jot down all the benefits of running first thing: getting the workout out of the way, great start to the morning, extra time during the day, and so on. The minus side might include having to go to bed earlier, being unsure about running in the dark. ‘Hopefully the runner will see that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and that some of the drawbacks, like going to bed earlier, may in fact be beneficial or at least good habits,’ he says.
- Get your family on board
As a teacher, Joanie Templeton, 36, is used to leaving her house by 7am. But when she decided in 2005 it was time to slim down her 100kg frame, she knew the only time she’d ever be able to exercise was if she got out of bed at 4:30. ‘I couldn’t do this without my husband,’ she explains. ‘He gets our daughters (6 and 10) ready for school. He sees the difference in me when I don’t get my workouts in. I am sluggish, and I get very irritable.’ Let your family know your goals so your training becomes a project they can all get excited about.
- Enlist help
Meghan Ridgley, 32, moved up her morning runs by three hours – to 5am – when her daughter was born. She initially relied on friends to help her adapt. ‘Having people to meet during those first few weeks really helped and got me in the habit of getting up at 4:30,’ she says, but now she mostly runs alone.
- Find the right route
Getting out of bed isn’t the only obstacle early morning runners face. Sometimes paths that are idyllic at noon or 6pm are downright dangerous at dawn. Before your first early run, give your usual paths a second look, paying special attention to the lighting, shoulder width, road conditions, and traffic patterns. Think about scouting around for some new scenery, and make sure family members or a friend have a list of your planned running routes.‘I had to eliminate one of my routes when I started running in the mornings,’ says Nick Bigney, a 33 year-old lawyer. ‘There’s a park near my home that I love. However, there are no lights, and even with a headlamp it’s dark. I nearly tripped over a vagrant once – I don’t know who got the biggest fright! For the sake of safety, I found new routes.’
- Wear the right gear
What you wear is also a safety issue, and dark-coloured clothing is better left at home. Instead, ‘dress like a Christmas tree,’ says race director Felicia Hubber. That means bright colours from head to toe with plenty of reflective accents. Clip-on lights that flash red and reflective vests will also make you more visible to motorists. To be super-smart, wear a headlamp or carry a flashlight if you’re out before dawn. In 2010, Runner’s World conducted a field-test study that found drivers can spot headlamps from 800 metres away; reflective details on clothes and shoes can be seen at only 90 metres; and a plain white shirt is visible from just 15 metres away.
- Create a mantra
Having an early morning power phrase that will get your butt out of bed is crucial for those first few transition weeks, says Raglin.Try: If I run now, I can feel good about it all day. If I skip it now, I’ll feel guilty all day; or A few moments of discomfort now, a day’s worth of elation later.
Very few people are able to just wake up and run. Instead, our bodies rely on morning rituals just as much as evening ones to tell it what to do.
Consider starting your day with the following routines:
THE NIGHT BEFORE
Research suggests that seven to eight hours of sleep is optimal for most people. So if you want to run at 5:30am, you’ll need to be tucked in by at least 10pm, or even earlier if you want to give yourself a few minutes to really wake up. These tips will help make the transition easier.
- Have a hearty dinner – early
Food is directly related to running performance, says dietician Nancy Clark, author of The Sports Nutrition Guidebook: A Food Guide for Marathoners and New Runners. A meal the night before should be an easily digestible one with carbohydrates and protein, like stir-fried rice with vegetables and tofu.
- Get your gear ready
‘Being ready beforehand means I have no excuses not to go, and it also eliminates the need to remember everything when I’m still in a morning fog,’ says Kim Burie, 42, who two years ago decided to run at the crack of dawn so she could get in longer workouts. Once she’s showered after each morning run, she lays out her gear for the next day. Before bed, she preps her water bottle and recharges her phone.
- Dim the lights
Darkness helps to stimulate the release of melatonin, which is the hormone that signals night and makes you sleepy, says Dr Mojica. Thirty minutes before going to bed, dim room lights and turn off all electronics: The screen glare will trick your brain into thinking it should still be alert.
- Create a sleep ritual
‘Having a nightly routine that serves to wind you down is important,’ says Dr Shelley Tworoger, who conducted a major sleep study in 2003. Being active late at night will override your sleep signals, she says. Instead, take a bath, have a cup of tea, read, or do some stretches.
- Set the right alarm (or two)
Before he goes to bed, lawyer Nick Bigney, who switched to early morning workouts to avoid work interference, sets four ‘obnoxious’-sounding alarms on his iPhone. ‘The first goes off when I want to get up, the second when I should get up, the third when I need to get up, and the final one is when I should be out of the door,’ he explains. If you can’t risk waking others, Dr Mojica, who is also an early morning runner, likes a vibrating alarm (available on many sports watches and phones).
- Turn on lots of lights
‘It’s tempting to keep the lights low to ease your way into waking,’ says Dr Mojica. Don’t. ‘It’s important to quickly expose yourself to bright light to signal to your brain that it’s time to be awake.’ Meghan Ridgley keeps her gear in the bathroom where the light won’t bother her family.
- Find your mojo
When Joanie Templeton’s alarm goes off at 4:30, she grabs her coffee mug and logs onto Facebook, where she looks for quick motivation. Ten minutes later it’s shoes on, earbuds in, and out the door. ‘I really rely on that jolt of motivation,’ she says. (Be careful not to spend more than a few minutes for fear of getting sidetracked.) Nick Bigney gets his energy surge seeing people who are just waking up and turning on their lights and thinking to himself, You’ve already been beating them for an hour. And for Meghan Ridgley, the sunrise waiting for her at the end of each run is all she needs to get out there.
- Have a small snack
Your stomach may be grumbling and your energy will be extra low in the wee morning hours. A small morning bite will go a long way to getting you ready to run first thing, says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark. A banana, crackers with peanut butter, an energy bar, or a hard-boiled egg with a piece of toast will jump-start your blood sugar. ‘Just 400–1 200kJ is all you need,’ she says. And don’t forget to hydrate: Drink water before you head out.
- Make time for coffee
Runners love their coffee. And even if it takes time for the caffeine to work its magic, Clark says a cup of java is about so much more than the stimulant: ‘It’s the reaction your body has to the scent, the warmth, the taste.’ Kim Burie, who’s up at 5am, adds, ‘I check my emails while I have some coffee. It gives me time to really wake up before I’m out the door.’
- Let your system wake up
Another good reason to wake a few minutes early is to give your digestive system time to work. Eating something and having a glass of water will usually speed things along, says Dr Mojica.
- Don’t expect magic overnight
Changing your evening patterns will likely take a few weeks to stick, cautions Dr James Mojica. If you’re used to going to bed at 11pm, for example, try turning in 10 minutes earlier and waking 10 minutes earlier for a week. ‘After a few days of going to bed earlier, I was still having a hard time,’ says runner Meghan Ridgley. ‘But I stuck it out, and one day it was suddenly no big thing.’ The same goes for altering bad evening habits – cut back gradually for a smoother transition. ‘I promise it gets easier,’ says runner Kim Burie. ‘Soon you’ll wake up wanting to go.’
- Practice makes perfect
For your first week or two of early runs, you may find it beneficial to experiment with different types of morning snacks, or varying your wake-up time until you find what works best for you. ‘My stomach is iffy in the morning,’ says runner Kim Burie. ‘But I really didn’t know how much to eat – or not eat – until I had tried a few different things.’ Adds Dr Mojica: ‘Converting is all about trial and error. Don’t give up if on that first or second time out you had to turn back to use the bathroom or found yourself starving at five kays. Just tweak things the next day – and the next, if you have to.’
READY, SET, RUN
Your body tends to be tighter in the morning, and you have a lower core temperature. Here’s how to warm up wisely for better performance:
1. Go old school
As in classic calisthenics. Jumping jacks, squats, and walking lunges all serve to ‘get the bones moving first thing,’ says Dr Jordan Metzl, a sports physician who has completed several marathons and Ironmans. ‘An active warm-up will make that first kay feel a lot better.’
2. Start slow
‘I run the first kay slower than I otherwise would to wake up my muscles,’ says Nick Bigney, who averages 60 kilometres a week. ‘On a pace run I’ll go the first kay in 5:25 or so and then the remainder at my regular 5:05 pace.’