confessions of a mid-day swimmer

As I ran around Encinitas in the dark last night like some kind of ridiculous fugitive clad in cycling shorts, I got to thinking about time of day and training. With a new morning 30-minute run on my training plan, I didn’t really have a choice: My trainer workout and transition run were going to have to happen after my 5:30 pm conference call.

I think about this kind of thing a lot. Are morning workouts more effective? What burns more fat? Am I somehow better when I make it to 6 am Masters instead of putting it off until noon? Call me curious, or call me obsessed. I can take it.

A common mantra preaches that the best time of day to workout is whenever you can do it. And while there’s truth to that, an article today on The Atlantic titled Just Get it Over With shed new light on the topic for me. The article summarizes a recent study that applied theories of delayed gratification to delayed pain instead. It turns out that while the ability to delay pleasure tends to be associated with success, when it comes to pain, most people prefer to get it over with.

It’s human to want to avoid punishment, but as athletes, training’s unique brand of “punishment” seems like more of a grey area. Though it is often painful, we choose and value it. It’s not like getting an electric shock, going to the doctor, or paying bills. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite. So why do I put training off until later in the day, if I can? If a) I don’t have two or three workouts to cram in, b) am training alone rather than with a group, and c) if the mornings are cold as they have been lately, I’ll choose a later workout over a morning one 8 times out of 10. (I admit that it sometimes feels really good to get them done early.) Why? Does the answer lie in my psychology or my genetics?

what time of day is best for exercise?

As I read on, I discovered that a key point in the study is the concept of dread, and how it tends to increase exponentially as the thing you’re dreading draws closer. Apparently, participants felt more negatively toward pain that came farther in the future than they did towards imminent pain. Hmm, maybe the simple act of putting things off was causing feelings of dread to take over the positive feelings I have about training. Maybe I’m dreading when I should be anticipating.

Then further down in the article, a startling turn: “But if the thing you’re dreading is performance-based, like, say, taking the SATs, rushing to get it over with could lead to worse results than you were hoping for.” Ah ha! By its very nature, training is just this, performance-based. We’re clocking splits, trying to hit markers, keep up with our lane mates.

Justification for noon Masters, I rest my case. Maybe I just need to relax and let go of the should’s and the ought’s of training. As long as I do the work, it doesn’t matter whether it’s before dawn, post-coffee, or wedged awkwardly between everything else competing for my attention, wherever it might happen to fit.

Until the weather warms up again, on swim-only days, I’ll see you at the pool at noon.

Do you tend to put off workouts or get them over with, and why?

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