One runner gets up early and cranks out his miles before breakfast. Another prefers to wait until late afternoon or sometimes early evening to get his workout in.
They both swear by their methods and can't imagine how the other does it. Which one is getting the most from his workout? The early riser or the night owl?
“There's been limited research on the topic,” said Kris Berg, director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha clinical exercise physiology lab. “It seems to depend mostly on whether you're naturally a morning person or a night owl.”
For those who hop right out of bed and into their running shoes (or onto a bike), morning exercise can provide an energy boost that makes it easy to face the rest of the day.
Night owls, on the other hand, might take a little longer to wake up, and might do better after being up and moving throughout the day.
The downside is getting that energizing effect late in the day — when it's time to start winding down — can keep you awake.
But for both camps, building and sticking to a routine is the crucial element.
“The common experience is that just doing it is the most important aspect of all,” Berg said.
That's because exercise provides the same benefits no matter when you do it. It helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol, it helps build and maintain bone density and muscle strength. It helps maintain the immune system.
“Exercise is one of the most potent medicines we have,” Berg said. “It may be more potent than even groups of medications.
“It does all of the same things and has many more benefits.”
In terms of scheduling, those who exercise early tend to be likely to complete their workout before the stresses of the day take hold. One rescheduled meeting or an extra errand on the way home can derail even the most dedicated afternoon or evening athlete.
The way you approach fueling for exercise also can make a difference in performance. Those who are active early in the morning for 30 minutes or less can probably get by without eating anything before getting started. Stored energy in the liver and muscles should be able to handle short bouts of exercise without needing additional fuel.
For longer efforts — those approaching an hour or more — a small bite to eat before you get started will help supplement those natural stores.
Afternoon and evening exercisers should schedule their efforts to allow their most recent meal to be broken down and used as fuel. Typically, that's at least 90 minutes — and more like two hours for more intense efforts.
Both groups should be sure to stay hydrated.
According to Berg, nutrition can play its biggest role after exercise.
“There's a two-hour window where the muscles and liver are very responsive to building more glycogen,” he said. “You'll be able to store more carbohydrates in the muscles, and that will help energize you later into the day and into tomorrow.”
For Berg, morning exercise works best.
“I love activity in the morning,” he said. “Getting up and playing tennis is really stimulating for me. But it really doesn't seem to matter in terms of performance.
“Whatever is customary for you is probably the best. If you're a noontime exerciser and that helps you be consistent, that's great.”
Bryan Redemske is a freelance writer from Omaha. He is a regular contributor to LiveWell the Magazine.