Maybe you buy in to the reasons to move your running running to the predawn. And you have your strategies for overcoming that first key hurdle of the morning – your snooze button. You know how to get your pre-workout routine down to an art form, to cut down on wasted time. But oh, it can be so hard to actually get your body to cooperate some (or, eventually, maybe most) days. You may find yourself staring into a potential “zombie shuffle,” no matter what your intentions for the workout might be.
This is where some helpful techniques on getting the most out of your early morning workouts can come in handy. Depending on what you are trying to achieve, you may need to consider one of the following approaches:
- Implementing an effective warm-up routine
- Finding an early groove through being mindful in the first mile
- Modifying your workout structure or expectations to recognize the challenges of running early
- Employing mental tricks to get through rough patches
- Developing fueling strategies to successfully run before breakfast
This post explores each of these topics, and with the right mix you are likely to find the tools that help you achieve morning glory.
While helpful and usually recommended for running any time of day, an effective warm-up may be essential for being able to hit the ground running in the morning. A good warm-up gets your tendons and ligaments loose and starts raising your heart rate, improving blood flow to your limbs. Potential routines, which may be used in various combinations, include:
- The Myrtl routine from Jay Johnson, focused on loosening up your hips (5 minutes). A longer and more advanced routine is the Cannonball, which Jay generally recommends as a cool-down (10 minutes).
- The Lunge Matrix, also from Jay, focused on balance and hip flexor strength and flexibility (5 minutes), and gets you moving in all three planes of motion.
- Jason Fitzgerald’s Standard Warm-Up, which combines walking single-leg deadlifts, four floor exercises, leg swings, and the lunge matrix, providing some stretching of the hamstrings in addition to the hip mobility of Jay’s routines (10 minutes). A slightly abbreviated version without the floor exercises can also serve as an adequate routine if time or space is limited.
Getting in a Groove
The first mile of your run will usually continue your warm-up process, and there are tricks you can employ to get physically and mentally ready for the work ahead:
- Count your cadence – most experts recommend a cadence (stride rate) of 170-180 steps per minute. By concentrating on this early in the run, you can both shorten your stride to potentially improve your running economy while mentally engaging in your run.
- Strides or surges – throwing in a few short speed bursts, like 4 x 50-100 meters or 10-15 seconds of controlled “sprints”, can also help get your legs and mind alert to what is coming.
- Running by feel – on days that are prescribed as “easy”, where the goal can vary widely, getting tuned in to your breathing rate or perceived effort early can help you find your natural rhythm for the day, and make you feel less like you are “fighting” with yourself.
Adjusting Your Workout
Despite your best effort, you may find it tough to be fully awake and alert for a key workout. There are ways to adjust for this to still extract maximum value from the effort.
- Lengthen your warm-up – on days where you have a tempo or intervals tucked into a total time or mileage number (like a 4-mile tempo within a 10-mile run), you may wish to “unbalance” the warm-up and cool-down. In this example you may run a 4-mile warm-up instead of 3 miles, allowing just 2 miles for the cool-down.
- Do a “faux” first interval or set up a progressive workout – a good interval or tempo workout should be done progressively (i.e., later miles/km’s or repeats faster than the early ones). Use this to your advantage by focusing on taking e first one or two a bit slower than goal pace, to help your body and brain ease into the workout.
- Adjust your expectations – no matter how much you try, you may well find that an early-morning workout just won’t be as fast as something later in the day. This doesn’t mean that it won’t have the same physiological value. However, if the workout performance is really critical to you – say as a benchmark for your progress versus an earlier version of the workout – consider saving it for later in the day.
Getting Through Rough Patches
If you run early often enough, it is almost inevitable that sometimes your mind will be reminding you how much better staying in bed would have felt, particularly if you are on a longer run and have some ways to go. It’s time to pull out the heavy guns.
- Visualize the rewards – whether you are motivated by a hearty breakfast, a successfully executed race, or just the endorphins that linger for the rest of your morning, picture in your mind the results that come from completing your workout as planned. Or, alternatively, try bailing out a few times and becoming familiar with the sense of regret you might feel for having done so. While positive motivation is generally better, sometimes a bit of negative is necessary in desperate times.
- Vary your routes – while routine is good when it comes to fitness, things can get boring if it is taken to the extreme. While you may not need to vary your route every day, it can be motivating to take advantage of the lighter morning traffic to see different parts of your town or see familiar parts in a whole new light (or more specifically, the lack thereof).
- Think of your competitors snug in their beds – if you are motivated by competing with other runners, gain inspiration by picturing them asleep while you are accumulating valuable aerobic capacity.
While running before breakfast, in a semi-fasted state, can provide for better teaching your body to preserve critical glycogen and better utilize fat stores, some workouts are best done with fuller energy reserves. Predawn running gives you the opportunity to find which strategies work best for you, including:
- Fueling the night before – a carbohydrate-rich snack in the 250-500 calorie range like popcorn, pretzels, or, yes, even beer, can help provide a “few miles” worth of glycogen for your morning workout without loading you down.
- Hydrate well – this isn’t just a run-time strategy – it’s an all-day essential that far too many runners (hand raised) neglect. Having water nearby throughout the day can do as much as any other more complicated technique for leaving you ready to workout at a moment’s notice. Avoiding excessive alcohol the night before a workout, which can dehydrate you, is also helpful.
- Use caffeine – if your stomach and clock allow, caffeine can provide a boost to your performance. While it’s unclear if coffee provides the same boost as straight caffeine, it probably doesn’t hurt if you believe it will help.
- Take along gels or sports drinks – no matter how efficient you get at utilizing glycogen, no amount of carbo-loading will get you through a run of >20 miles without some bonk-like symptoms (and one usually doesn’t carbo-load as optimally for a long run as they would for a marathon). Thus, learn which gels or sports drinks work better for you ( and ideally try out the ones they will have at an upcoming race) and take them along. When conditions are such that extra hydration or fuel may be necessary, such as in the heat of summer, tuck some cash in your hydration belt or stash a sports drink refill (frozen in advance) the night before in a hidden spot around 16 miles into your route.
Like any adjustment to your training routine, finding a formula that works for you may require some experimentation, so give it some time and expect some hard lessons learned along the way. But if you are in this for the long run, a few months of trial-and-error may provide a capability that yields returns like extra training time for years to come, and that can be a priceless advantage in the life of the already-busy runner.