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You snooze, you lose? Early Bird exercise vs Night Owl workouts

POSTED Wednesday 7 November 2018

Following our Fit Focus Forum around Exercise and Time, we also chatted to Doctors George Balanos and Elise Facer-Childs, academics at the University of Birmingham, whose interests are about sleep, circadian rhythms (our ‘body clock’) and performance. Their research shows how different sleeping patterns could have an impact on your performance during cognitive and physical tasks.

Our Physiologist Tom showed a range of options for the ways to get the best workout dependent on the time of day – for example, if you’re targeting general fitness, he suggests that the ideal sessions are an early morning coffee, followed by weights and an intense circuit in the early evening – read his post here. But does this only work if you are a ‘morning lark’?

George and Elise’s research has shown that people who are ‘night owls’ are sleepier in the morning, with slower reaction times and weaker physical strength. Most of the 40% of us who would prefer to sleep in a little longer have learned to cope with these disadvantages – using coffee to wake us up, etc. But for elite athletes, understanding precisely the hours of the day when performance is likely to be at its peak could mean the difference between becoming a medallist, or ending up with the wooden spoon. This new research at the University of Birmingham illustrates how different performance between ‘early birds’ and ‘night owls’ might be.

Early Bird or Night Owl?

Whether you are an early bird/morning lark or a night owl has proven to be a key contributor in the timing of peak athletic performance. Recent evidence suggests that accounting for these differences, known as one’s ‘chronotype’, results in significantly different performance profiles. Historically, people have been categorised as ‘larks’ or ‘owls’. Elise sums up the difference as:

‘Larks – morning people – rise early, are most active in the morning, and feel awake shortly after they get up. However, they feel tired come late afternoon or early evening. Owls – or evening types – don’t feel fully awake until many hours after they get up. They remain somewhat tired during the morning hours, but become active and switched on in the evenings.’

What did they find?

The Birmingham study team recruited 56 healthy individuals and asked them to perform their best in a series of cognitive tasks and a muscle strength task. The tests were issued at three different times of day between 8am and 8pm to see how their performance varied.

Overall, the results showed peak performance differed significantly between larks and owls. When the team looked more closely at peak performance, they found it was significantly influenced by the time of day the tests were performed.

  • The cognitive performance of the ‘Larks’ peaked at 8am and physical performance at 2pm
  • The cognitive and physical performance of the ‘Owls’ peaked much later on in the evening at 8pm
  • They found peak performance was also related to the time people got up – specifically, the delay between that and competition.

morning larks vs night owls

So, if you’re an early riser, the evidence suggests that the peak performance time for getting the most out of your workout is before midday – whereas if you love that snooze button, you may need a little longer to reach the optimum performance time! These findings may have implications for the wider sports world, e.g. athletes, coaches and teams, who are constantly looking for ways to minimise performance deficits and maximise performance gains – but even in our day to day lives, knowing when our body is able to achieve peak performance could help plan a workout into your routine.

You can read more about the team’s research at:


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