My weekend runs were easy. If I missed the morning, I'd have all afternoon. But my weekday runs? Not so simple. I've done seven marathons, with a 3:17 PR, and I'd like to get to an even 10 in the somewhat near future. But long hours at work, two young kids, and a wife who also deserves time to work out make serious training more challenging.
Like most Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor's 2009 American Time Use Survey, I prefer to lace up in the early evening. But also like many Americans, I find it tough to make that happen most days.
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Even if I get home in time, my choices are (A) ignore my family and my hunger and take off; (B) scarf dinner and go before it digests; (C) nuke leftovers, play with my kids, crash on the sofa.
Looking for more options, I found studies that show people who work out early in the day are more committed to exercising regularly. Running first thing also will make you more efficient and alert at work, and will help you sleep better at night. (Search: What are the body benefits of running?)
Knowing I had to do something differently if I was going to toe my eighth starting line, last year I set out to become an early morning runner. My friend Dan agreed to tag along. The only catch was that we had to finish by 6:30 when his kids get up. (Mine sleep later. Damn!) That meant we had to meet at 5:45. That meant I had to be up by, gulp, 5:15? 5:30? 5:44?
The Beauty of the Morning Run
Twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, we were pretty consistent. But our three-to six-mile runs were slow. Usually when one of us couldn't make it, neither of us went. We joked that we thought it was going to get easier each time, yet it never did (okay, maybe it got a little easier, but we still whined about it).
And then life got in the way. We were both preparing to move. The New England winter dropped record snowfall on us. As it warmed up, I did manage to head out alone a few mornings, but missed Dan. Clearly, I needed a new strategy. This year, I sought the advice of true converts. What I learned was eye-opening and has helped me become race-ready for this fall's BAA Half-Marathon in Boston, setting me up for a solid winter and Number 8 next spring. Here's how you can get out early, too.
How to Overcome Common Runner’s Roadblocks
Making the Switch
If you don’t consider yourself a morning person, the good news is that you can turn yourself into one, says James Mojica, MD, a sleep physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and medical director of the Sleep Center at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. "The body is malleable," says Dr. Mojica, who runs first thing four times a week. Address these points before you reset your alarm.
Weigh the pros and cons. If you're on the fence about converting to early workouts, John Raglin, PhD, a sports psychologist, suggests drafting a checklist of pluses and minuses. On the plus side, he says, 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 have to go to bed earlier, 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 is used to leaving her house by 7 a.m. But when she decided in 2005 it was time to slim her 220-pound 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," says the 36-year-old from Lincoln, Montana. "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 supercrabby." Let your family know your goals so your training becomes a project they can all get excited about.
Enlist help. Meghan Ridgley, who moved up her morning runs by three hours—to 5 a.m.—when her daughter was born, says she initially relied on friends to help her adapt. "Having people to meet those first few weeks got me in the habit of getting up at 4:30," says the 32-year-old from Vienna, Virginia, who now typically 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 6 p.m. 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. Be open to scouting around for some new scenery, and make sure family members or a friend have a list of your planned routes.
"I did have to eliminate one route when I started running first thing," says Nick Bigney, a 33-year-old attorney from Houston. "There's a park near my home that I love. However, there are no lights, and even with a headlamp it's dark. I almost stepped on a skunk twice and nearly tripped over an armadillo once. And I've scared a number of deer. For my own safety (and in the interest of not being sprayed by a skunk), I found new routes."
Wear the right gear. What you wear also becomes a safety issue. Dark-colored clothing is better left at home. Instead, "dress like a Christmas tree," says Felicia Hubber, race director of the Hood to Coast Relay. That means bright colors 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 supersmart, wear a headlamp or carry a flashlight if you're out before 7 a.m. In 2010, Runner's World conducted a field-test study that found drivers can spot headlamps half a mile away; reflective details on clothes and shoes can be seen at only 100 yards; and a plain white shirt is visible from just 50 feet 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.
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Each of us has an internal rhythm that's set by what's known as our circadian clock. This is influenced by genetics, age, and environmental factors—particularly light exposure, which regulates melatonin. But many of our lifestyle choices—how late we work, our dinnertime, when we socialize—also play a key role. To readjust your sleep-wake cycles, give yourself three weeks to become accustomed to your new bed and wake times. "Your body will naturally make the adjustment," says Dr. Mojica.
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The Night Before
Research suggests that seven to eight hours of sleep is optimal for most people. So if you want to run at 5:30 a.m., you'll need to be tucked in by at least 10 p.m., 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 Nancy Clark, RD, 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 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. The Green Bay, Wisconsin, native says that once she's showered after each a.m. 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 Shelley Tworoger, MD, 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, Bigney 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 the door," says the Houston attorney, who switched to early morning workouts to avoid work interference. If you can't risk waking others, Dr. Mojica, who is also an early morning runner, likes alarms that simulate a sunrise. Vibrating alarms (available on many sports watches) are another good option.
Tips to Help Get the Rest You Need
Don't Expect Magic Overnight
Changing your evening patterns will likely take a few weeks to stick, cautions Dr. Mojica. If you're used to going to bed at 11 p.m., 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."
Before You Go
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.
Turn on lots of lights. "It's tempting to keep the lights low to ease your way into the morning," says Dr. Mojica. Don't. "It's important to quickly expose yourself to bright light to signal your brain that it's time to be awake." Ridgley keeps her gear in the bathroom where the light won't bother her family.
Have a small snack. Your stomach may be grumbling and your energy will be extra low in the wee morning hours. A little morning bite will go a long way to getting you ready to run first thing, says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark. A banana, a bagel with peanut butter, an energy bar, or a hard-boiled egg with a piece of toast will jump-start your blood sugar. "Just 100 to 300 calories is all you need," she says. And don't forget to hydrate: Drink water before you head out.
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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 joe 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 5 a.m., adds, "I check my e-mail 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 body's digestive system time to work. Eating something and having a glass of water will usually speed things along, says Dr. Mojica.
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 on pages like Mommies on the Run. 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 linger beyond 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 excited to get out there.
Practive 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'd 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 mile three. Just tweak things the next day—and the next, if you have to."
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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.
Go old school. As in classic calisthenics. Jumping jacks, squats, and walking lunges all serve to "get the bones moving first thing," says Jordan Metzl, MD, a sports physician in New York City who's completed several marathons and Ironmans. "An active warmup will make that first mile feel a lot better."
Start slow. "I run the first mile slower than I otherwise would to wake up my muscles," says Nick Bigney, who averages 40 miles a week. "On a pace run I'll go the first mile in 8:45 or so and then the remainder at my regular 8:15 pace."
Have a Backup Plan
Inevitably, you’ll wake up one day to a downpour, or maybe a sick spouse requires that you be close at hand. Whatever you do, don't turn off the alarm. Instead, get up and do some strength-training or yoga. If possible, invest in a treadmill for days like this. The point? Keep your body on schedule by doing something active.