Most of us tend to run at the same time of day but should we be changing up our schedules? Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi tried running before, during and after work to see if running at a different time of day could offer better benefits.
Changing your running routine can be hard, especially if you’re used to working out at a particular time. Those of us who run at 6am can’t imagine lacing up at 6pm and vice versa. I’ve always run at the crack of dawn – ever since my dad dragged me out of bed at 5.30am for a canter around the quiet streets before school.
Running in the early morning has always offered me the chance to wake up my body and mind, set an intention for the day, and more importantly, get my exercise out of the way. Who would want to get up, showered, dressed… only to get sweaty again later on? Since working from home, however, I’ve been experimenting with running before, during and after work and have found that there are distinct benefits to all three.
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Running before work
The key to running before work is getting up as soon as you regain consciousness in the morning. You’ve got to throw open the curtains, let the light in and then either go back to bed for a few minutes or get dressed and ready to roll.
My 5-8km runs usually started at about 7.15am, so that I could be in the shower for 8am and not stuck in human traffic (after that, you’re running against shoals of school kids). At that time of the day, I had three main routes: one along the canals and into my local park, another through a cemetery that’s at its best at the crack of dawn with dappled light coming through the trees, and the last to Tesco and back. There’s something brilliant about lacing up your Hoka One Ones to run the supermarket, picking up exactly what you need and running home with it – being your own transport.
I still insist that the benefits of early morning running are huge. I always felt really switched on and ready to start work after a run. On the days when I needed to get groceries, Tesco was really quiet and I had a good workout from running with a heavy backpack. There’s also nothing like getting your dose of vitamin D and nature first thing; I felt calmer, collected and less worried about the day ahead after being nature-bombed on the canals. Oh, and the feeling of having completed your daily workout early on means that you can relax for the rest of the day (including putting on mascara and applying skincare which won’t get washed off in a couple of hours!).
The only thing about running early in the day is I felt quite tired in the afternoons – and if you have a bad night’s sleep, it can be a struggle to get up. My tendons are also at their stiffest and most painful in the morning so it can sometimes take 10 minutes to run pain-free.
Dr Zoe Williams tells Stylist that “running in the morning should be done with a proper warm-up as the joints and muscles may be stiff and inflexible first thing. Also, make sure you hydrate well.” As the summer rolls in, she suggests that morning running can be a good way to avoid the heat while helping you to ”feel energised and ready for your day.”
Running at lunchtime
Pre-pandemic, I used to love a lunchtime gym session. If you’re weight lifting, you can do some serious work in a short space of time and have enough time to shower (or not, depending on your sweat level). But running? You’ve got to battle against time constraints, pedestrians and rising temperatures.
I headed out on my first lunchtime with the intention of doing an interval session – thinking that as I’d had breakfast, there’d be a little more energy than usual. My plan was to do a 1km warm-up, 2km steady, 1km at race pace, 2km steady, 1km race pace. Rather than my usual hobble (as my tendons warm-up), this time, I felt limber almost straight away. I was surprised at how good I felt! For the next few weeks, I earmarked any tempo or interval runs for lunchtimes and noticed that I was able to push myself harder than I would have done earlier on in the day.
As well as having the energy to go faster (which I put down to having had breakfast – my morning runs are done fasted), I felt less achy and stiff at the start of sessions. When you get out of bed, it’s normal to feel stiff because our fascia (the web that holds our bodies together) is just waking up and takes a bit of time to loosen. Having a walk or just moving about the house for a few hours beforehand meant that by the time my warm-up was over, I felt far more ready to work than usual.
Performance aside, lunchtime running had a distinct benefit on the rest of my day. Gone was the 3pm slump; the afternoon sped by and I felt alert for the whole time (no need for an afternoon coffee!). Even my lunch tasted better after a session, even if it was eaten while working back at my desk.
Running at lunchtime, Dr William says, “can be good for more intense training as your body is warmed up and you still have good energy levels.” She suggests making sure that you leave at least an hour in between eating and running, or running before lunch.
The main issue with lunchtime running is the faff factor. I was showering and dressing in the morning (putting my running bra on under my shirt) and then having a second shower five hours later. It also meant needing to be more prepared – from having clothes ready to change into to lunch being ready to eat and a tight route planned.
Running after work
Lots of people run in the evenings and it’s easy to see why: you have endless time on your hands. I’ve commute-run home plenty of times during a marathon cycle as a time-saving strategy (why commute and then do a run, when you can just combine the two?), but the idea of doing a hard day’s work and then going out for a run has never appealed. You’re tired, you’ve had to wait all day to workout, you might be hungry.
My boyfriend and I decided to set ourselves a challenge of running 10km every night for five nights as a way of getting used to working on tired legs (we have a 55km race coming up in July). Every evening at around 6pm, we’d set off – having had a 3pm espresso and snack – for an hour. And you know what? It became the highlight of our days. We used that hour to catch up, to work stuff out that had bothered us over the day, to decompress after umpteen hours at our desks. Those evening runs were warm but not too hot, and rush hour meant us finding new routes to avoid bashing into too many pedestrians.
Once home and showered, we made carb-rich dinners before collapsing into bed – feeling exhausted and ready for sleep. I definitely slept better in that week than I’ve done for ages.
With time being no object, you can run as long or as slow as you like – which I found took a lot of pressure off each session. Evening runs can be a kind of therapy, providing a chance to make sense of the day and put to bed anything that’s been bothering you so that you can have a calm, happy evening.
My sleep improved, my stress levels decreased and my mileage grew without me really having to think much about it.
You’ve got to be pretty committed to making sure that you don’t sack off an evening session in favour of spontaneous drinks or an evening on the sofa. If you like eating early to avoid sleep disruptions, evening running can delay that too; I normally like to finish eating by 8pm but on the week we ran after work, we had to eat and consequently head to bed later.
Interestingly enough, although Dr Williams agrees that evening running can be a good way to de-stress from a hectic day, she warns that it might not be suitable for anyone who has trouble sleeping. “It can re-energise you when your brain needs to be winding down.”
“There are different pros and cons to running at particular times of the day but what is most important is to recognise that we are all different and there are no set rules,” says Dr Williams. “It is important to listen to your body when running at different times to make sure your body is not exhausted by running too hard at a time that doesn’t work for you.”
One of the most important things, she explains, is establishing a routine so that you become consistent with running – whatever time of day it happens. If you do want to change that running routine, “it’s important to ease yourself into the new schedule. Our bodies may respond differently at different times of the day, so go easy on yourself at first and build back up gradually.”
In my experience, I’d have never found out the very real benefits of running later in the day had I just stuck with my morning sessions. After this experiment, I’m going to try to incorporate more evening runs into my routine. Lunchtime sessions are great if you’re organised, but the feeling of total calm I felt after a post-work canter is something that I need to keep in my life.
Calling all runners: hop over to the Strong Women Training Club to try our four-week Strength Training for Runners bodyweight plan, designed to help you run faster, stronger and longer.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.