What's the best time to train ?
We all want to know the best training program, the best diet, the best supplements. But few people understand the value of training at the best time to maximize their results.
A lot of people like to say, “the best time to train is when you can do it”. Or they even think that it doesn’t matter.
Well, it does, big time.
When you are a natural trainee, cortisol can be your no.1 enemy when it comes to gaining muscle and losing fat. More specifically having a cortisol cycle that is out of whack can ruin your progress, or hinder it significantly.
What does that have to do with the best time to train? Well, training can have a strong impact on cortisol and training at the wrong time could mess up the cortisol rhythm which could have destructive effects on your progress.
First some important info
Here are some important points to understand about cortisol before we go further with my optimal training time recommendations:
- Cortisol’s main function is to mobilize stored energy when facing a stressful situation. This is part of the “fight or flight” response: allowing you to have the energy to either fight or run away. When you need to use a lot of fuel, cortisol will be elevated more.
- Cortisol levels also increase when your level of anxiety increases. That’s why mental stress can increase cortisol levels as much as physical stress.
- Cortisol, testosterone and estrogen (among other hormones) are fabricated from the mother hormone “pregnenolone”. The more cortisol you need to produce, the less testosterone (or estrogen) you can produce due to a lack of “raw material”.
- While acute (short term) cortisol increases can help you lose fat (by mobilizing stored energy) if cortisol levels are constantly elevated the conversion of the T4 (inactive thyroid hormone) to T3 (active thyroid hormone) is decreased. Meaning that if cortisol is constantly elevated, it can slow down metabolic rate making it harder to lose fat and build muscle.
- Low levels of T3 are also associated with low energy, muscle weakness and an increase in muscle aches, among other things.
- Cortisol also increases the production of the anti-diuretic hormone. This will increase water retention, making you look fatter than you really are.
- Constantly elevated cortisol levels make it very hard to replenish muscle glycogen and build muscle. As such if your cortisol levels are always high you will have “flat” muscles, have a hard time recovering from workouts and building muscle will be a very slow and arduous process.
- The natural/normal cortisol circadian rhythm should have your cortisol levels high in the morning (when you can wake up without an alarm clock, it is the cortisol spike that does it) and low in the evening/night. The morning elevation of cortisol is like the ignition that gets the car starting. Having lower cortisol levels at night allows you to recover properly.
- If cortisol levels are high at night and when you go to bed, it is much harder to fall asleep and even if you do, the sleep is much less restorative.
- If you constantly function with high cortisol before going to bed you eventually mess up your cortisol circadian rhythm: it becomes impossible to spike cortisol in the morning; as a result, it’s hard for you to get started in the morning. You often require 30-45 minutes to feel like yourself and often use coffee as a crutch.
So, when is the best time to train?
The best time to train is as close as possible to the natural spike in cortisol. This means in the morning. Remember that the natural cortisol circadian rhythm has cortisol high in the morning and low in the evening. And training spikes cortisol. So, if you train in the morning and get a cortisol spike from your workout at least it is at a moment when you should have elevated cortisol.
If you train in the evening you are spiking cortisol when they should be getting lower. And over time this could spell disaster for your testosterone and thyroid levels. Not to mention that it will make it much harder to recover from your workouts and will negatively affect your energy throughout the day.
Understand that it’s not the act of training late that is a problem, it is the cortisol elevation that comes with it. And happens at the wrong time of day.
It has also been found that the best times to train when it comes to performance, are 3 and 11 hours after waking up. How did they find that out? It was a study performed in Russia with Olympic lifters. They tested grip strength at every hour to see the fluctuations. And they found that they had a peak at both 3 and 11 hours after waking up. I’ve done the test myself and it is accurate (my results were the highest at 2 and 10 hours after waking up).
If we consider the above information about cortisol rhythm it means that the best time to train, the one that combines the best hormonal and neurological response, is 2-3 hours after waking up.
I personally wake up at 4:00 am and train at 6:30 am. Yes, it was hard to do at first, it required changing many habits. But after about 20 days it felt great and natural. Of course, I go to bed at around 9:00 pm to get a proper night of sleep.
You could also wake up at 5:00 am and train at 7:30 for example.
When is the worst time to train?
The worst time to train is the time that doesn’t respect the natural cortisol circadian rhythm. We should have low cortisol levels in the evening, so training in the evening is the worst time to do it. Especially if you go to bed within 2-3 hours.
If we look at the best neurological times to train (3 and 11 hours after waking up) and you wake up at 7:00 am it means that you can still have a good performance at 6:00 pm. But that still doesn’t respect the optimal cortisol rhythm, but at least you can perform well.
So, when it comes to bad times to train I would say that…
Anything past 6:00 pm is really bad
The closer your workout is from your bedtime, the worst it is (you don’t want elevated cortisol when going to bed)
Afternoon training, up to 6:00 pm, is suboptimal. But you can get decent results if you use strategies to lower cortisol levels after your training.
Who will get the biggest negative impact of training late?
Remember that it is not the act of training late that is a problem: it’s the elevation of cortisol at the wrong time that can mess up your circadian rhythm.
Considering this some people might actually be able to get away with late training while others might see their body composition regress.
The better someone is at handling stress, the more they will be able to handle late training and still feel okay and get acceptable results. It might not be optimal but they can do it and be happy.
Those who are more naturally anxious when faced with stress will have an enhanced response to any form of stress. So, they will likely come into a late workout with already elevated cortisol levels from their day and then overproduce cortisol even more during the session. Furthermore, it will be hard for these people to bring cortisol level back down when they go back home. These people are your typical hard gainers: those who have a very hard time building muscle. They also tend to be more introverted and of a more anxious/worrisome nature.
Simply put these later guys cannot get away with training late. It will kill their progression and rob them of a lot of energy to get through their day.
Other benefits of morning training
Training early, once you get used to it, is also great for neurological performance. The right amount of training will increase dopamine levels which will make you feel more positive, confident, focused and motivated. It will really have a positive impact on the rest of your day. It also increases adrenalin which will give you energy and drive.
The right amount of training in the morning can do wonders for mental and physical performance for the rest of the day and can also be a mood enhancer. I personally feel like crap the days I don’t get my morning session in.
I also believe that morning training has an enhanced effect on body composition; mostly on increasing the rate of fat loss.
What if I just can’t train early, am I doomed?
Yes, you are.
Okay I’m kidding, but not really.
Training late will never be optimal. Especially if you are more of the anxious type of if you have a stressful job that elevates cortisol throughout the day. Some can get away with it better than others. But “getting away with it” is still far from “optimal”.
You might able to not see any negative impact for a while, especially if you are young. But it will always come back to haunt you.
“But because of my work schedule I just can’t train in the morning”
That is true for some people. If that is your case you should still try to train as far from your bed time as possible. And you should also use nutritional and supplement strategies to help decrease the cortisol response to training.
Here are some of the strategies you can use:
- Having a source of rapid energy pre-workout. This would be either easily absorbed carbohydrates (liquid carbs tend to be better) or MCT oil. Remember that the function of cortisol when training is to mobilize stored energy. If you have energy readily available then you don’t need to mobilize as much and thus cortisol doesn’t increase as much.
- Using phosphatidylserine (600-800mg). I personally use PPS pre-workout and in the evening. I even use it when giving seminars and noticed a drastic difference in water retention a fullness, indicating a lower cortisol level.
- Using glycine (5-10g) post-workout and before bed. Glycine is a “neural inhibitor” that helps you relax and thus lower the cortisol response. It will also help you get to sleep after a later workout.
- Having carbs in the evening. This will help raise serotonin which will help you relax and lower the cortisol level.
Training early will always be superior to training later, at least once you get used to it. It will give you a healthier, more normal, hormonal cycle and will help you feel better for the rest of your day.
Training in the evening is not the best time to train. The closer to your bedtime, the worst it is. You can use strategies to decrease the negative impact but it can never replace an optimal workout time.
I KNOW that some of you who simply do not want to train early will find dozens of arguments against morning training but physiologically speaking there is zero doubt that training as far from your bedtime as possible is better. You can make up all the excuses you want, it will not change the truth.
I’m not saying that you can’t progress while training late. But you are starting with one strike against you.