The benefits of a morning workout are well documented. You get your fitness routine out of the way before a tiring day at work or incessant errands take a toll on your body’s energy. (And cities like New York are better before everyone else gets up, anyway.) Running is one of the more popular ways of getting a quick workout in in the wee hours of the morning. You don’t have to make a trip to the gym; all you need is a pair of good shoes and a banging playlist. At least, that’s how it feels at first.
But running most mornings can get monotonous and even exhausting at times, which can hinder performance. Here are some steps you can take to make sure you consistently finish strong by the time the sun is up.
It might be tempting to rush out the door without grabbing a snack, but Dr. Lewis Maharam, former president of the New York chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine, says that is a no-no. “You have to eat something. You can’t just roll out of bed and drink a glass of water and go, you need carbohydrates on board.” Maharam suggests eating 45 minutes before exercising. His favorite before a long run? Bananas and peanut butter on a bagel. For a lighter run, just the banana or half a Cliff bar will do. Other options include fig cookies, yogurt with fruit, and pretzels with hummus.
Taking off running with cold muscles isn’t going to help maximize your potential. Maharam recommends jumping jacks or a light jog to raise your body temperature by half a degree, which should help you get through your run without needing breaks, he said. Aside from the physical benefits that a warm-up provides by increasing blood flow to your muscles, studies show that warming up can help a runner mentally ease into the workout. One study suggests that dynamic stretching—stretching while in motion—worked better than static stretching when enhancing leg muscle performance (paywall).
Dress the part
Depending on whether you’re running for speed, training, or just general fitness, wearing the right shoes is crucial to avoiding biomechanical flaws in your set-up and maximizing your experience. If you’re running for speed, try lightweight racing flats to help you go faster. If you’re training for a race, a good structured running shoe with support and control is your best bet. The right pair of running shoes depends on how often and how long you run, your running style, and where you run, in addition to your arch size and other foot measurements. It’s also important to make sure you aren’t running in shoes that are due for retirement after hitting peak mileage.
Set a goal
Experts say that setting a goal, no matter how small, can improve your performance. Whether it’s getting through 12 songs as fast as possible or running at a steady pace for 30 minutes, knowing you’re working toward something can help you get through it. Maharam says that no matter what sport you’re in, visualizing your activity beforehand can help your performance.
Drinking water is critical to your performance and can prevent headaches, muscle cramping, and fatigue that occur when your muscles dry out. For morning runs, experts recommend you drink 6 oz. to 8 oz. of water when you wake up. And while there is equipment to help you lug water on your run, just stopping at a water fountain when you’re thirsty will do.
Change it up
If you’re running for pure enjoyment, try varying your runs in terms of length, terrain, pace, intervals, and location to create a more enjoyable experience. For speed and fitness, interval training, which involves running in short bursts at a high intensity, has been proven to help build stamina and speed. One study showed that just two weeks of high-intensity intervals improves aerobic capacity as much as six to eight weeks of endurance training. If you’re looking for more comfort, try running on softer terrain like grass, Maharam says. Switching your route also can help make your run more pleasant by providing a different aesthetic backdrop.
Doing alternative forms of exercise is not only a great boredom buster, but essential for building fitness. When you only do one activity, you only work one set of muscles. Running exclusively can leave you with legs of steel but a flimsy upper body. It’s important to give your leg muscles a break and incorporate things like weight-training or swimming for an alternative workout before hitting the trails again. It gives you an easier cardio workout, balances out your muscle groups, and helps prevent injuries.
Have a post-run ritual
It might be tempting to skip the stretches after a run, but if you have the time to stretch, you should do it. “Being more flexible makes for a happier experience,” Maharam says. It’s also important to cool down your muscles after working them during a long run. Maharam suggests a quick, cold shower before work or icepacks to relieve inflammation. More importantly, eating and hydrating within 30 minutes of your run are essential for recovery. ”You need to have protein to replenish any smaller, microscopic tears [in your muscles] so you don’t have any post soreness, and carbohydrates to replenish all the carbohydrates you burned off,” Maharam says. His post-run snack of choice is chocolate milk. “It has sugar, carbs, protein, fluid, everything.”
Use a jetpack
If all else fails, try this jetpack. It helps soldiers run four-minute miles.
But even jetpack-propelled runners can’t just roll out of bed, run out the door, and expect meaningful results. If you don’t start out having had enough sleep, it will be tough to maintain the energy you’ll need throughout your run. Sleep is how your body recovers from a physically demanding workout; it’s also when your brain processes details of your run, cataloging how you used your muscles and turning your run into a learning experience, Dr. Matthew Edlund, director of the Center for Circadian Medicine in Florida, told Runners World in a recent article on how to get better rest.
Experts recommend around seven to eight hours of sleep, but some even suggest as much as 10 to improve athletic performance. This might mean skipping out on drinks to go to bed early. It’s a sacrifice, but being a consistent morning runner takes discipline. In return, you’ll get a great workout and a chance to take your mind off the pressures of work and family life. And harnessing this stress-relieving effect in the morning can help you stay in a positive mood for the rest of the day, while giving you you one less thing to worry about doing after work.