Fit Kit

People Who Wake Up at 4am to Work Out Tell You How They Do It

4am workouts
KieferPix/Shutterstock/Nina Gonzales/Thrillist

My mom still complains about "my daughter, the night owl" -- that devil of a middle child who kept her up at all hours because she would NOT go to sleep.

Yes, that horrible child was me. I'm the person whose resting bitch face is a special kind of scary if you talk to me before noon; the person whose mom used to tell her, "You will never get anyone to marry you if you're such a jerk in the morning."

Thanks, mom. Huge help. Also, joke's on you. I totally bagged a husband, and I'm still a huge jerk in the morning.

Which is why I have a special kind of grudging respect (perhaps tinged with hate?) for those perky sons of bitches who actually want to get up at the asscrack of dawn to break a sweat. Their commitment deserves high praise, but their chipper morning voices and bright, happy smiles can go straight to hell.

I get it, more people should be like them. They're crazy-productive, win lots of prizes, meet every goal, and generally master the universe. If you want to be more like them, whatever. Just follow these tips.

Commit to your "why"

Most people I spoke with said they started exercising in the morning because they're genuinely busy -- they have careers, families, and social commitments that keep their schedules packed. They found if they didn't exercise in the morning, it was too easy to get distracted and pulled away later in the day, and exercise was a priority in their lives.

Take Mina Agnos, for instance. As a business owner, mom, and reformed night owl, she said, "My time is limited. I love the early morning schedule because it makes my day feel longer. I get in my workout, then return home to wake up the kids and get everyone ready for their day. I don't have to worry about trying to get in a workout after a long and stressful day, or when my kids need other kinds of help."

But for Agnos, her "why" reached beyond simply wanting to fit in a workout. She had bigger goals, "At 41, I made the decision to become a bikini fitness competitor." With the type of training required to compete, Agnos couldn't just skip workouts willy-nilly, she had to get serious about a regular routine. And once she committed, early workouts got easier.

As she put it, "The mechanism is the same one that ensures you wake up to take an early morning flight. You just do it." If you have something big to accomplish, and you're determined to meet your goal, you'll put aside the awfulness of the early morning wake-up call and find it in yourself to roll out of bed.

Prioritize sleep

Morning exercisers don't go to bed at midnight. They just don't. Preparation for their morning workouts actually starts the night before.

Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist and behavioral scientist, can't emphasize this fact enough: "When people are amazed at how early I go to work out, I remind them that I'm in bed and often sleeping by 9 to 9:30pm."

In fact, Klapow says he'll ditch his workout if his regular sleep schedule is thrown off track. "If you find yourself up at 10pm or 11pm once or twice, you can still get to the gym the next morning, but as a rule for me, if I'm up that late, I skip the gym. I know that sleep deprivation compromises my immune system and hinders the workout. If I'm up late, I trade the workout for sleep."

In other words, if you're serious about committing to a morning workout routine, you also need to be serious about getting to bed at a reasonable hour.

Prep in advance and set a routine

The less you have to ask your brain to function in the morning, the better off you'll be. That's why pretty much everyone I spoke with said to plan, plan, plan, and do as much prep work as you can the night before.  

Sarah Caro, vice president at Mugsy PR, swears she can't remember how she got into morning exercise, but knows it's a lot harder if she doesn't stick to her routine, "My night-before routine consists of setting out my gym clothes, shoes, heart rate monitor, towel, keys, wallet, and phone in my home office. If I'm planning on taking a group fitness class, I schedule it into my calendar and set a reminder."

Then in the mornings, she always follows the same steps, "I get up without hitting snooze, turn off my alarm, and leave the bedroom, closing the door behind me. I head to the kitchen for some fruit and a big tumbler of water, then go to the office to do some online reading and Facebook perusing while hydrating and eating. That helps me wake up and gives me a little 'me time' before I get dressed and head out."

While morning and evening routines vary based on workouts and goals, everyone I spoke with echoed the same habits:

  • Set out your clothes and anything else you'll need the night before.
  • Set an alarm and refuse to hit "snooze."
  • Get moving immediately -- don't lie in bed or relax on the couch.
  • Know what you plan to do for your workout and have it pre-scheduled into your calendar.
  • Use tools like coffee, lemon water, and a small meal to help kick-start your morning. Have these things ready to go the night before.

Seek out accountability

Accountability comes in many forms: trainers, workout buddies, or a prepaid class you'll lose money on if you choose to sleep in. Regardless of where the accountability comes from, you're more likely to stick to a routine if there's something or someone out there ready to hold your feet to the fire when you don't show up.

Liz Lotts, a marketing editor, may naturally be a morning person, but that doesn't mean she can forego accountability, "On Tuesdays and Thursdays I ride my tri bike with a few girlfriends. The thought of them riding solo in the dark is enough motivation to get me up and out the door. I also go to Orangetheory three days a week. Again, there's accountability. You see the same people every week at the same time. They notice if you skip, and you notice if they skip."

Liz isn't alone. Ellie Stain, who works for a luxury real estate PR firm, joined ClassPass, a boutique fitness studio service, to help her stay accountable, "Booking a class versus doing your own workout is a lot more encouragement to get up. Plus, not being able to cancel your class within 24 hours without incurring a cancellation fee definitely gives an extra push that you have to go."

Ease your way into an early routine

If you're not a morning person, and the thought of rolling out of bed earlier than 7am makes you physically sick, why would you actually commit to a 4am wake-up call? Don't throw yourself into the pit of failed goals and inevitable guilt.

Todd Pollock, a trainer in Sellersville, Pennsylvania, suggests weaning yourself into an early routine, "If you wake up at 6am today, don't go crazy and wake up at 4am tomorrow. Give yourself four to six weeks to transition to an earlier bedtime, with a corresponding earlier wake time. Start setting your alarm for 15 minutes earlier every other day." This slow-and-steady approach helps you adjust without throwing your body into a tailspin.

Start with short workouts

It's not just the early mornings that can be a jolt to your system, it's also the act of working up a sweat first thing in the AM. Rhonda Franz, a writer and editor, admits that 4am workouts probably won't be easy for everyone, "You pretty much have to be a morning person for that," but she goes on to tout the benefits of starting with short routines, "Try a short HIIT workout, 10 minutes on the exercise bike, a set of push-ups, and jumping rope. It doesn't have to be an hour."

This is especially true when you're new to early morning exercise. Instead of getting up at 4am to do an hour-long workout, you can get up just 15 minutes earlier than usual to squeeze in a quick 10-minute workout. Do that for a couple weeks, then change up your timeline, waking up a little earlier while simultaneously extending your workout slightly.

Make it happen every day

When you're developing a new habit, consistency is key. Jennifer Hummel, the owner of Catalyst Fit in Richmond, Virginia, sometimes gets up as early as 3am to fit in her workout before her day gets started.

While she typically advises new exercisers to commit to working out every other day, never missing more than two planned days in a row, her advice changes when it comes to developing a morning routine, "I push every day. Shorter workouts, but more often. The key is learning how to go to bed and fall asleep on time. If you're planning a Monday, Wednesday, Friday workout, chances are you'll be fine Monday, then stay up late Monday night because you can 'sleep in,' then you'll have a hard time falling asleep Tuesday, which means getting up early Wednesday is more difficult."

In other words, you'll have a really hard time getting into a consistent schedule. Instead, wake up early every morning and plan to do something, even if it's just a 20-minute yoga practice. The point is to develop the habit.

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Laura Williams is an exercise physiologist and fitness writer who will continue working out at night, thank you very much. Connect on Twitter @girlsgonesporty.