Strength Training for Cyclists & Triathletes: Morning or Evening Workouts?

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As happens every winter and again in the spring, I get a lot of emails asking about Strength Training for Cycling and Triathlon. Some are from those who have been skeptical but seen friends or fellow riders/triathletes have fantastic years, in some cases their fastest years yet, after having added a well designed strength training program to their year-round training program. Other messages come from those who see huge gains in their riding abilities when lifting, but have noticed those gains decrease when they remove strength training in favor of much more saddle or in-sport training.



Over the last several years I’ve answered the same questions hundreds, if not thousands of times, and this year elected to make some of these commonly asked questions into blog posts. There is a lot that goes into answering these questions and I hope that these blogs will shed light onto how complex and yet simple the human body can be.


Don’t get too lost in the details here though, as most often the simple answer is the best answer.


We’ll start with a common question that comes from you, the reader:

When should I strength train for optimal effects: in the morning, or in the evening?


This is a common question across the fitness world, as many people wonder how to plan their strength training for optimal effects- from increased muscle mass, to improved performance. In fact, I contributed heavily to an article in Men’s Health Magazine in 2018 on exactly this topic. You can read it HERE


Let’s dive into the background info you should know, and then we’ll tie it all together specifically for cyclists and triathletes.

Via Giphy

What are some benefits of working out in the morning if you're trying to build muscle & strength? What are the cons?

First, we must consider the fact that working out regularly at a specific time of day, will allow the athlete to perform at their best at that time (Hill et. al. 1998). So really we must consider what time does the athlete normally workout? For the Triathletes, Runners, and Cyclists I train, the mornings tend to be their best times. Meanwhile the Strength Athletes, and those looking for fitness and general health who workout in the evenings regularly, see their best performances there.


Throughout this piece, keep in mind that in order for our muscles to GROW, we have to RECOVER (Sleep), and ensure that we are supporting the muscles growth with killer nutrition.



MORNING WORKOUTS

PROS:

-In the morning we have much higher pain tolerance (Winget et al 1985), however we also have our highest cortisol levels within 30 minutes of waking (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc3475279/).

-Far fewer disturbances in your morning routine to knock you off the path.

-Huge feeling of accomplishment before starting one's day (this should not be overlooked, as it can have HUGE positive impacts)

-Starting one’s day early can have huge production boosts across your entire day. Check out this video with former Navy Seal, and driven leader, Jocko Willink

https://youtu.be/Xpv-sEKl1B4  (Disclaimer- I am AGAINST burpees! They are a highly advanced exercise given to beginners because of LAZINESS by group fitness coaches, In my opinion, of course).

CONS:

-With cortisol working against you in the morning, if you're not accustomed to training in the morning, it can be fairly tough to workout and try to build muscle. If you add on top of that NOT eating before your workout, you've now stacked the odds against you, as you'll not only have the cortisol actively trying to break down fats and proteins for energy, but you'll also be running on empty for energy, which you'll need to have a quality workouts.

This is incredibly important for women in the second half of their menstrual cycle (called the luteal phase), as the body is already in a catabolic state.

-Already highly active gluconeogenesis (breakdown of fats and proteins), however can counter this a little bit by having EAA's (essential Amino Acids) or BCAA's (more on this later on) and some carbs within your workout, as well as eating a snack/small mean before your workout

Women in the luteal phase can help counter these negative effects in part, by taking 8-10g of BCAA or EAA’s before exercise of any kind, and eating a meal with 15-20g of varied protein sources within 30 minutes of finishing their workout. Aim for a 2:1 Protein to Carbohydrate balance in that meal, along with some healthy fats.



TAKE HOME:

Working out in the morning to build muscle CAN work, but you must be mindful of a few things:

1. Eat before you workout. It doesn't have to be something big. Try something like 200g of yogurt, 2-3 Dates (or a banana), and a 10-12 almonds before heading to the gym (skip the almonds if you’re going to ride/run/swim). These will provide you some energy, and allow you to still have a quality workout, without filling you up.

2. If you regularly workout in the morning, this CAN be a good time to build muscle, as you are free of distractions such as the kids, the telephone, your cell phone ringing, chores needing to be done (what's open at 5am?!?!), and you can focus on YOUR workout.

If anyone tries telling you that working out in the morning makes it impossible to build muscle, just point to guys like Dan John's dad (Who used to workout like clockwork early in the morning in their families garage), and The Rock. I mean, who can argue with those two dudes?!?!

3. Take to heart the point about being CONSISTENT in your lifting & exercise times. The key to success, especially in lifting to build strength, is consistency. Grab some Iron on a regular basis, and make sure to fuel your body, and recover (SLEEP) enough to support those goals.

4. Keep the moves more "Whole body" or “Compound movements” for the first few weeks if you decide to change to morning workouts, as these can be enhanced through your adrenal glands being more active due to elevated melatonin. Save the quickness and accuracy style workouts for later in the day, if you have a choice. (http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2014/09000/Epinephrine_Preworkout_Elevation_May_Offset_Early.25.aspx)


BONUSES:

-Your vertebral discs fill up with water/ fluids over night, so they are a bit more "full" than normal first thing in the morning, which can increase your risk for hernias (thus the name "rowers disease"). Add in 1 set of 10 repetitions of the “Cow-Camel” Exercise to your pre-lift warm up, as this super simple move can literally save you some major pains by pushing some of the extra fluid out of the discs. (This has been researched by Dr. Stuart McGill)


-If you are going to do a strength training workout in the morning, look into Glutamine as a pre-breakfast supplement, and EAA** (Essential Amino Acids) for consumption during your workout, to help spare your muscles from being broken down.


**While current practice is BCAA's, Recent Research suggests that EAA's consumed with Carbs may be more effective/ best practice… Even better?  REAL FOOD. I personally have 200g of Greek Yogurt+ either a piece of toast, or biscotti.
(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?Db=pubmed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&TermToSearch=18056791)

Are Morning Workout Best? Photo: Shutterstock

Are Morning Workout Best? Photo: Shutterstock


What are some benefits of working out in the EVENING if you're trying to build muscle & strength? What are the cons?

Working out in the evening, while having more pro's when it comes to hormones and the bodies systems, offers its own set of challenges. Particularly for Cyclists and Triathletes, I’ve found that for the vast majority, Morning in-sport workouts and evening Strength Training sessions allows us to see the best results possible.


While this isn’t true for everyone, most of us do not have 2-3 hours in the morning to workout, let alone shower, eat, and commute to work.


EVENING WORKOUTS

PRO:

- the bodies neuromuscular system has had time to "warm-up" and is ready for strength efforts (winget et al 1985).

-Hill (et al 1998) showed that evening athletic performance bested morning performance. This could be due to a number of things, however, if we take a big 30,000ft view of strength training, we're really training the nervous system, so that makes sense, as the nervous system has had all day to warm-up!

-Less cortisol, and as Borer points out in "Advanced Exercise Endocrinology"(Human Kinetics (2013):215), "Optimal adaptations to resistance training occur when an athlete performs training in the late afternoon. At that time exercise-induced increases in testosterone concentration coincide with a circadian DECLINE in concentrations of the catabolic hormone cortisol."

-Greater testosterone response to resistance exercise (Hayes et al 2010 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20560706)

CONS:

-More distractions and likelihood of less quality of your workout due to these distractions (Work, Kids, Life)

-Busy gym, means less optimized rest periods for muscle building.

-Mental Fatigue due to work/life

-If you've failed to fuel properly, or have had a crappy day, you may be more apt to skip your evening workout.



Do hormones or circadian rhythm play a role in whether or not morning or evening workouts would be more or less beneficial when you're trying to build muscle?

Absolutely! Circadian rhythm plays a huge role in this, especially the ebb and flow of Cortisol and Adrenaline. See answers and references above, or look for Chan & Debono "Replication of Cortisol Circadian Rhythm: New Advances in Hydrocortisone Replacement Therapy" as I believe they have a chart of the changes in cortisol levels through the day". While Testosterone is high in the morning, it's offset by other hormones,  such as cortisol, and their negative effects (when it comes to building muscle).


Another great book to read about hormonal changes in the body as it affects metabolic functions in the body is “Maimonides on Metabolism”.


Hormones play a huge role in all this for women, as in the second half of their menstrual cycle called the luteal phase, we see significant changes in the EStrogen and Progesterone levels, which leads to a much more catabolic state, as well as a number of other performance- altering changes, including but not limited to:

-Decreased blood plasma level

-Temperature regulation issues

-Increased perceived exertion

-Trouble holding high intensities

-and more


For these reasons, and more, I am a fan of shifting my female athletes in-sport activities to be tempo effort or lower in-sport, and utilizing more strength training during this phase of the cycle. While each athlete responds differently, strength training in this phase has historically worked very well, especially when some changes are made to the pre- para- and post- workout nutritional strategies.



How does what and when you're eating play a role in am vs. pm workouts being more beneficial for building muscle?

As discussed above, fueling for men and women will be different (based off the woman’s menstrual cycle and hormonal changes during the luteal phase) which is a consideration that MUST be heavily taken into account.



Overall, endurance athletes as a whole have over weighted their plates carbohydrates, while neglecting an important macronutrient: Proteins.

Partially because of the myth that simply EATING more protein will lead to big, bulky muscles (LOLZZZ), when in fact, proteins offer the endurance athletes a bevy of positive benefits including helping to stabilize blood sugar.(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12566475 Side note: HOORAY! A study done specifically on women!), and to supply the building blocks necessary to repair the muscle damage done by intensive exercise.

Proteins need to be consumed mid-activity by endurance athletes as well, but should be done via eating REAL, WHOLE foods, as opposed to supplements. In fact, use of supplements in-sport should be significantly limited to when they are needed, and even then one needs to be a very intelligent consumer, electing to read labels, do some research to determine what actually works (SPOILER ALERT meme)....... Spoiler alert, claims on labels are usually poorly supported by actual independent research!


To make it clear, when I use the term “supplements” I am referring to Gels, Chomps, Bars, Chews, Tablets, and anything else that’s been packaged to “aid in performance”. I’d like to go as far as to rain on the parade and tell you that complex carbohydrates are NOT your friend during intensive exercise when you actually need/ want to reach for your back pocket…. The simple sugars of glucose and sucrose are.


For times that you are regularly hitting the weights 2-4 days a week for dedicated 40-60 minutes of strength training, we want to be ingesting 2.2-2.6 grams of protein per kilogram (That’s 1.0-1.2grams of protein per pound)


For times we are looking to maintain lean body mass, we want to be eating 1.75-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram (That’s 0.8-1.0 grams per pound) during ENDURANCE Phases of our training (AKA when you’re not including 3-4 days of strength training in your regimen).


You Read that Right. You need to eat that much protein to maintain your lean, fast body.

These guidelines were once thought of to be bodybuilder amounts of protein, but as any past or current HVT Athlete whose worked with me on their nutrition will tell you, is pretty much around what I’ve been recommending for the last decade +.

That’s a Lot More Protein Than I Eat Now! How Much Protein Can I eat In a Single Meal?

While there still are many preaching no more than 20-25g of protein in a meal “due to the bodies inability to utilize any protein ingested above that amount”, this has actually been shown NOT to be true. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29497353 One should aim for 4 meals a day, with 0.4-0.55g /kg/ meal (Grams of protein, per kilogram, per meal). Obviously this is NOT meant for mid-ride/run/swim, but rather at each of your main meals a day. I do NOT recommend eating that much protein if your meal is less than 2 hours before an endurance workout. Instead it’s better to have a smaller serving of protein (8-12g, dependent on body size and sex) up to 60 min before sport activity of run/bike/swim.

While Meal Timing has been quite popular, it’s actually been found that outside of women in their Luteal phase, meal timing pretty much doesn’t matter, AS LONG AS you are getting adequate protein in your diet (as it pertains to muscle building) (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24299050). Women in the luteal phase MUST eat a mixed-protein meal within 30 minutes of finishing a bout of exercise, in order to help stave off the catabolic effects

What's the most important factor when it comes to building muscle, if not the time of day that you're working out?

1. Consistency- Super underrated. If you want gains, you gotta be consistent!

Strength training for endurance athletes is NOT a “Transition” or “Winter/Base” time of year thing. It is a properly designed year-round endeavour.


2. Nutrition- this MUST be on point to get your body what it needs.

As previously discussed, endurance athletes have a history of shunning the very macronutrient they need to stay strong, lean, and fast. Get your nutrition on point: Food in your pocket (REAL food is better!), Water in your bottle.


3. Recovery- Sleep is a must to allow the body to recover and repair!

Sacrificing an hour of sleep to get another hour in sport is NOT a good long-term solution. If you must get up earlier, get to bed the same amount of time earlier.


4. Ensuring proper training stimulus-  Hit the main pathways for muscular growth/ increase muscle strength of: Metabolic stress, Mechanical Tension, Muscle damage. This include in sport and out of sport work. Examples of in-sport include:
-Big Ring Overgeared work

-Sprints (with proper recovery)

-Hill runs/repeats

-Paddle or Pull-buoy work (within reason!)

-Vasa work


While I numbered these, EACH INDIVIDUAL should take a look at these 4 things, and order them for themselves. Everyone is different. For the busy executives I train, recovery is often number 1, meanwhile for those looking to put on mass, it's the nutrition AND recovery that they miss. Order these for what makes sense for you RIGHT NOW, and reassess every 2 weeks. Be brutally honest, these are your GAINZ at stake!

BOTTOM LINE:

Workout when is best and easiest for YOU to be consistent, and that you feel best. Personally, I've never been a morning person. All the way through my post-college years, I would hit the gym around 3pm, before the afternoon rush, and had fantastic results. Once I started working as a Health & Fitness Engineer for Fitness and Wellness companies, that time is filled with meetings....and so I now workout in the mornings, with great results.

The key is to BE CONSISTENT and allow your body to settle into a rhythm. As we saw with Hill et al study in 1998, once you make it a habit, the body WILL adapt.

Make sure you choose a time that will work for you, and allow you to stay consistent. The Rock works out every morning at 4am, regardless of where he is in the world. meanwhile, my friend Ronny works out at 730pm consistently. Both see great results, and find it works best for them. Choose what works best for you, stick with it, and be consistent!

If you’re looking on HOW to properly build and execute a strength training program for your sport, check out my courses below.




JANUARY 2019 UPDATE:

SCIENCE AGREES WITH OUR STANCE ON THIS:

TRAIN CONSISTENTLY AT A TIME THAT BEST SUITS YOU!

Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, AKA Dr. Gainz posted this on his Instagram feed back in January 2019

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