In our ongoing effort to help self-coached triathletes, this column is dedicated to questions concerning workout coordination and placement. When athletes are following a training plan, the most often asked questions regarding workout placement within a day and within a week include:
- What is the best time of the day to do a workout?
- If there are two workouts shown in a day, is it best to run or swim first?
- If there is more than one workout scheduled on a single day, is it best to do them one right after the other or separated by several hours of rest?
- I noticed on your long-distance training plans that the long run and the long bike ride are planned for the weekend. My work schedule has me working on one day of the weekend and I don't have two days off in a row, does splitting the long workouts make the training plan ineffective?
All are good questions. Let me address each one.
What is the best time of day to work out?
Hands down, the absolute best time of day to work out is the time when you are most likely to actually do the workout. It doesn't matter what part of the day research shows is most effective if your personal motivation or life schedule makes that particular workout time difficult to fit into your schedule.
When looking at research by experts, the experts disagree. One research study on untrained subjects revealed that workouts requiring strength and power are better done in the afternoon when body temperature is higher. Another study done on trained subjects showed that recovery time for repeated intervals was better in the morning than later in the day.
Additionally, some of us are larks (morning chronotypes) and others are owls (evening chronotypes). One study showed that larks and owls were different on several measures. Peak times of the cortisol and temperature rhythms occurred earlier in the lark group. The amplitude of the cortisol rhythm was lower in the owl group than in the lark group. Study subject groups differed on all indices of habitual and preferred timing of sleep, and work weekdays and weekends.
The best time for you to workout depends on if you are a lark or an owl and it depends on your personal work and family schedule.
If I'm scheduled to do both a run and a swim workout in a single day, which should I do first?
Is either workout intended to be a key workout, designed to bring your fitness to a new level? This includes fast or long workouts. The key workout should be completed when you will be most rested and can give the workout your best effort. The second workout of the day, and workouts in the days on either side of this one, should be scheduled after making the key decision on the first one.
Some athletes are involved in a Masters swim program that meets early in the morning. In this case, the workout time and order has been set. Doing an easy swim in the morning and a fast run in the afternoon can work just fine.
If you are not restricted by scheduled practices and you have a fast run and an easy swim, one option I like to use is run first and swim second to aid recovery. (See the next bullet.)
If there is more than one workout scheduled on a single day, is it best to do them one right after the other, or separated by several hours of rest?
If you have some time restrictions and you must do the two workouts back-to-back, I like to see the fast or quality workout be done first. If the first session is very high intensity, in most cases I prefer the athlete has some food and recovers before doing the second session later in the day.
In some cases, I like to see the workouts done back-to-back, or close to it. One situation is for athletes adapting to swim-bike or bike-run sessions. Another reason I like back-to-back sessions is that cardiovascular endurance can be built while minimizing injury. For example, rather than running for two hours straight to build endurance, there are cases where I have the athlete run one hour and bike for an hour right after the run.