How to Optimize Your Internal Clock for Better Workouts

How to Optimize Your Internal Clock for Better Workouts

Ever wonder if there’s an “ideal” time to work out? There is, but it’s unique to everyone. The time that you’re primed to push through an extra couple miles with ease or lift a few pounds heavier on your deadlift 1-rep max could be different from your partner’s or your favorite Spartan Pro’s. 

The reason has to do with your chronotype, which refers to your internal clock (a.k.a. your circadian rhythm), says Nada Milosavljevic, founder and director of the Integrative Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and host of the Spartan Health podcast. “This internal clock tells us when is the best time for us to sleep, wake up, eat, do exercise, learn, and a number of other things,” adds W. Christopher Winter, MD, a sleep specialist and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It. He’s also a Spartan athlete himself.

Like height (you're either tall, short, or somewhere in the middle), you can be a night owl, morning lark, or somewhere in between,” says Winter. Here’s how he breaks down the nuances: 

  • Definite Evening (night owl)
  • Moderate Evening 
  • Intermediate 
  • Moderate Morning 
  • Definite Morning (morning lark)

What’s Your Chronotype?

During quarantine, many people may have discovered their true chronotype. That’s because days when you can go to bed and wake up on your own, not based on a schedule (read: commuting to work, getting kids to school) is the best indicator. 

If you’re the athlete that likes to have concrete answers, take this quiz from Winter. 

When "Should" You Work Out?

Best Time to Exercise

“Generally, we tend to athletically peak when our body temperature levels are at their highest for the day,” says Winter. That’s around 4pm for the “intermediate” type, slightly earlier for larks and later for owls. You can find out exactly when your peak is by plotting your own body temperature curve using a Withings automatic thermometer, Winter says. “Seeing the curve can help you personally understand your own rhythm.” 

But what if you’re naturally a night owl and your job requires you to get your workout in first thing in the morning—or vice versa? Because you can take a quiz that tells you you’re a night owl, and then track your temperature to determine your ideal workout time, but none of that matters if you can only exercise at 6 a.m. thanks to your schedule. The good news: “We were never intended to be locked into our rhythm,” says Winter. Over time, you can train your body to make adjustments and be at peak performance when you want to be. 

The key: Make sure you’re getting seven to nine hours of sleep, no matter the time you go to bed,  so your body can recharge, reset, and engage in the needed regenerative processes, says Milosavljevic. Eating on a schedule can help too. “Like a mile marker on a marathon course might instruct the runner to push harder or ease up, meals can function as markers that allow your brain to prepare for all kinds of things,” Winter says. 

Related: Power Down: The Optimal Bedtime Routine for High-Performance Athletes

Best Time to Exercise? Try These Tips to Optimize Your Work Outs Any Time of Day

Best Time to Exercise

Here, four ways to boost your energy for better workouts—no matter when you actually pound the pavement or hit the gym: 

1. Use essential oils.

“Being in tune with your sensory system can carry you a long way to getting your game face on,” says Milosavljevic. “Your sense of smell, also known as olfaction, offers one of the most direct sensory connections to the brain.” 

Grapefruit oil, or its essence, up-regulates your CNS (central nervous system) and stimulates your brain, waking you up. Alternatively, inhaling the scents of rosemary and basil also has a stimulatory effect and can be uplifting. Milosavljevic says to inhale the essential oil (not synthetic mimics) for 1 to 2 minutes for a quick boost pre-workout. 

2. Swap your coffee for green tea. 

“This wonderful plant is chock full of healthy nutrients and antioxidants,” Milosavljevic says. 

It contains 40mg of caffeine per cup but that’s not why it’s so powerful. “You get the boost without the jitters thanks to l-theanine, an amino acid found naturally in tea that acts synergistically with caffeine.” For an extra punch, combine it with panax ginseng, which can improve focus. 

Related: Top Post-Workout Power Meals to Fuel Up & Recover Faster

3. Stretch your hip flexors pre-workout. 

Stretching this often-forgotten muscle group will not only energize the body, but will also prevent injury and improve your balance. “If you’re sitting for extended time, they get shortened and tightened,” says Milosavljevic, noting that you should stand up every hour to prevent this. Doing a few sets of lunges or bridges, though, is an easy way to infuse the body with energy at any time of day.  

4. Take your workout outdoors.

Light is one of the biggest factors when it comes to resetting your sleep-wake cycle. “Exercising in lots of light is helpful,” says Winter. “Like the meal, light is a zeitgeber (or time marker) for your brain. That burst of light in the morning (when we have spent the night in dark) is another clue as to what time it is. It tends to make us feel awake and energized because light suppresses melatonin secretion.”

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