Guest Post: The Best Time, Surface, and Distance to Run (According to Science)

What is the best time to run? What about even the surface or distance?

These are three biggest questions you probably have as a runner. Is it the predawn or afternoon? Grass or sand? 5k or 10k? Setting all personal preferences aside, is there scientific evidence to choose one option above another?

Let’s see what science has to say about it.

1) Best time to run:

It is hard to pinpoint a time that ticks all the right boxes. The optimal time will differ based on your goals or what you are trying to achieve. If you are concerned about performance, running in the evening will be a better option. If you are looking for a healthy lifestyle, running in the morning is what I recommend.

Benefits of running in the evening:

It is not easy to get up early in the morning and go out for a run. If you are not a morning person, you will find it hard to get out of bed, let alone running the miles. It’s relatively easy to keep up a running routine in the evening.

Second, you are more likely to achieve performance-based targets like better speed or distance in the evenings.

Our circadian biological clock has an effect on our energy levels. It decides when we are more alert or sleepy. Most of us have the highest energy levels around 6 PM in the evening. So, running at this time will yield much better results.

Similarly, our body temperature increases as the day goes by. High-temperature results in more blood flow towards lower extremities. Not only that, but our body produces more testosterone in the evening. The lungs are also functioning better at this time.

Keeping all these factors in mind, it is safe to assume that most of us will perform better in physical activities like running, cycling, or swimming in the evening. This is confirmed by several studies. For example, this study observed that swimmers improved their timing as the day progresses. They were significantly faster at 10 PM compared to 6:30 in the morning. Another study found markedly better performance in the evening.

Benefits of running in the morning:

Ever wondered why running is an integral part of military life? Because waking up early and going out to run is the most effective method to cultivate self-discipline. A very recent research suggests that morning people live longer than night owls.

It is not easy but that’s the main point. You must get out of your comfort zone.

A morning run means that you are done with the most important (and probably the hardest) part of your daily routine (i.e. physical exercise) even before others leave the bed. You will start your day with a great sense of achievement.

Waking up early will drag you to sleep early. It means that the relatively unproductive nighttime will be replaced with the more productive time in the morning.

Running in the natural environment is good for your mental health as well. Going out for the run when the sun is rising will help your body produce cortisol. It’s the hormone that keeps you alert. With all this extra time and energy, you will achieve a lot more during the day.

If you are living in some hot and humid region, early morning is usually the coolest time to run. There’s not much traffic and the air is relatively fresh. I couldn’t find a sizable body of research but this one suggests that the air quality is the best between 5 am to 10 am.

You are more likely to choose healthy diet after long bursts of running. So, a morning routine can be an ideal start to a healthy lifestyle.

That doesn’t mean you will have to compromise on performance. Your body will gradually adjust to your exercise routine and you will be able to perform better. Remember, most marathon or half marathon races take place in the morning. Your body will be better prepared.

2) Best Surface to run

Running is a convenient form of exercise because you can do it at any place and at any time. You can run on concrete, find a jogging track, or do it on the beach. Heck, you can run on mountains if you want.

The only concern is the impact or injury risk with different surfaces. Let’s see if you should really be concerned.

Hard surfaces vs. Soft surfaces:

You might think that there’s a greater chance of injury on the harder surface because of the impact.

Right? Actually not.

Our muscles and ligaments are more capable of adjusting than you may have thought. What actually happens is that we alter the stride and force according to the surface. When we are running on a hard surface, we will be gentle with our stride. And when we are running on softer surfaces, we will hit the ground harder.

That resonates with the findings in our meta-analysis of 150+ studies about arch support. It was observed that runners hit the ground harder when wearing shoes with extra cushion. Not only that, but we tend to land on rear-foot while wearing cushioned shoes, which is not the most efficient way of landing.

It means that choosing a soft surface will usually not result in reduced injuries. This is what scientists found when they observed 291 runners. More than half reported overuse injuries or anterior knee pain. However, different types of surfaces didn’t make a considerable difference to injury rates.

It’s not that the surface doesn’t make any difference. A softer surface like the grass is gentle to your feet and less likely to cause feet or ankle injuries. Stiff surfaces can result in a greater load on Achilles tendon. However, the overall injury rate will stay the same. You might avoid injuries in specific regions like ankle or foot but the load will shift to another part.

In fact, running on relatively hard surfaces like road or asphalt have certain advantages.

First, it is smooth and there’s no chance of injuries caused by an irregular surface like an ankle sprain. Second, you will better prepare for long distance races that usually take place on roads. You will also be able to maintain and improve your form over time.

3) Best Distance to run:

They say, too much of a good thing can be bad and running is no different. Question is, how much running can be considered too much?

The answer will differ from one person to another. It also depends on your age and fitness level. Many competitive runners can run more than 50 miles a week. You don’t need to run that much if you are just looking for the health benefits.

Moderation is the best policy:

There are studies that suggest running just 5 miles a week will give considerable health benefits and significantly reduce the risk of death. The same study found that mortality rate starts to increase as the runners go beyond 20 miles a week.

However, this is not conclusive and there are studies refuting this claim. For example, this one found that health benefits do not exhibit a point of diminishing return at less than 50 miles a week.

Truth is that you shouldn’t be too concerned about the miles. If you are just starting, don’t look at anything more than 1 or 2 miles. Don’t push your body too hard and stop before you feel totally exhausted.

Think of increasing the distance after some weeks. It should be a gradual process. Go for longer distance just once or twice a week and see if your body is coping well. If you feel good after the occasional long runs, you can make it a daily routine.

Remember, it’s better to run 5 miles on a consistent basis than trying to run 10 miles and breaking down. There are exceptions of course. You might have to run much longer distances in the peak weeks when preparing for a marathon. It all depends on your objective, fitness, and stamina. The sweet spot is something between 3 – 6 miles for an average person.

Now you know what science tells us about the best time, surface, or distance to run. Even if you can’t get to run at a time or surface of your choice, don’t use it as an excuse to not run.

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