Confessions of a Pre-Dawn Runner (and how to make running in the morning work for you)

Flash back to January, 2007: my alarm clock blared at 5am every morning. Running in the morning was my life – and at 85 miles per week, I was miserable.
Running in the Morning

It was dark for every run and a miserable Boston winter, with sub-zero temperatures, agonizing wind chill, and snow drifts taller than me. I hated my life.

I’m being dramatic, but I’m just not a morning person. Even today, getting up at 6:30am is early for me. If the time starts with a 5 when I wake up, I am not happy!

Alas, I know running in the wee morning hours is a reality for many of you. Many of the runners in Team Strength Running are sharing their pre-dawn adventures in our private group.

I’m not the person to tout the benefits of morning running (though I do prefer it, just not before 8am!) so today I invited Christine Sandvik to write for Strength Running.

Last year we met Christine when she wrote about going beyond the marathon and attempting her first 12-hour ultramarathon.

She’s one of my former 1-on-1 runners and now my content editor, helping me with the crazy amount of running content that SR puts out.

Today, she’s going to share how she trains for ultra-endurance events almost exclusively in the pre-dawn hours.

Enter Christine:

Christine_Running

By 5:30 am I was nearly 3 miles into my run.

The wind was howling and it was only about 15 degrees outside, with a “real feel” temperature hovering in the low single digits. I yanked my neck warmer up over my face as I arrived at the base of the steep hill where I frequently run hill sprints.

I turned around to start back up the hill, and the wind hit me square in the face. The cold was so intense I felt like I’d been sucker-punched and had the wind knocked out of me.

A stream of expletives ran through my head as I wondered what on earth I was doing out here so early in this terrible weather. And yes, I’m sure a few expletives probably slipped from my mouth as well.

I also had to laugh at the craziness of it all. Here I was in the dark on a freezing cold morning, getting ready to sprint up a hill repeatedly by choice. Fortunately, I had the company of my coonhound running buddy Brody, who was willing to race me enthusiastically up the hill (and beat me) every single time.

Between the laughing and the cursing I felt like a mad woman out there, so I gritted my teeth and got on with it. 6 hill sprints into a sharp, cold wind, then it was time to run a couple more miles back home.

It was still dark outside when I returned, but I knew a warm shower and a hot cup of coffee were waiting for me. And as soon as I stepped inside and started peeling off the layers, the post-run rush of endorphins flooded my brain.

It was only 6am, my run was complete, and the day ahead suddenly looked full of possibility.

Why run so early in the morning?

For many, the thought of running before the sun rises seems either impossible or laughable. Some swear that they just can’t exercise in the morning, while others struggle to find the time.

But it might be more possible than you think.

While I’ll readily admit that I have an advantage as a long-time early riser, I truly believe that anyone can make this schedule work for them if they’re willing to make the commitment.

But why? What’s the value of running before most people are even awake?

The benefits are both subtle and obvious:

  • a determined, committed mindset that you establish from getting yourself out the door, day in and day out
  • having a regular, uninterrupted block of time to complete your workout

While running in the morning during pre-dawn hours has not been without its challenges over the years, it has been an indispensable component of my running success.

Before I became a pre-dawn runner, I was a pre-dawn student. Even in high school, I was up at 4am finishing homework and studying for tests. As a competitive equestrian, I was often up at the same time for horse shows on the weekends.

So it’s fitting that I became a pre-dawn runner more than a decade later. I started a job at a veterinary hospital with frequent 12-hours days, so running early in the morning was my best option.

When I first started running at such an early hour, I kept my runs super short. I rarely ran more than 3-4 miles, and they were typically easy runs instead of any fast workouts. At most I would finish off my run with some strides.

Knowing I only had to get out there for a limited amount of time at an easy pace made it easier to get started.

As the months and years passed, I found myself gradually increasing the length of my morning runs. They slowly crept up to 5 or 6 miles on a regular basis, and in recent years I’ve squeezed in as many as 10 miles before work during my heaviest weeks of training.

Getting in double digits, hill repeats, or a tempo run in the pre-dawn hours takes some serious effort and commitment. But the sense of accomplishment is also pretty incredible.

7 Reasons to Love Early Morning Running

Christine_Ultramarathon

Getting out the door at 5am isn’t always easy. But after building the habit for so many years, it’s no longer a matter of “if” it will happen.

The more I continue to push myself faster and farther in races, the more I have continued to reap the rewards of this perseverance. So why should you consider running early? Here are 7 reasons to consider:

Adaptability

Running in the morning has more unknowns, so you may need to adjust your planned workout based on the weather and available routes.

Despite meteorologist’s best efforts, we never know what weather changes we’ll wake up to, and sometimes it requires a change of plans on the fly. You might need to get creative to find a clear stretch of road, or a hill to run repeats.

Or you may find yourself in a downpour 10 minutes into your run after your weather app assured you there was a 0% chance of precipitation for the next hour!

A late night due to a work or family commitment, or just a poor night of sleep can also make early morning runs more challenging and require some adaptations. Waking up after minimal rest means you probably should reschedule a fast workout or a longer run.

But easy running can help you ease into the day, counter-intuitive as that may seem. For me a short run is usually more effective than an extra 30 minutes of sleep – it feels better to get out for a few easy miles and allows me to focus and re-energize for the day ahead.

Many runners love following a training plan, and will stick with it no matter what it takes. And that’s a fantastic quality that fosters strength and perseverance.

But as we all know, races can sometimes be a lesson in adaptability. And running in the pre-dawn hours can often provide excellent, if unintended, lessons in becoming more adaptable.

Learn to Laugh at Yourself

Pre-dawn running has frequently helped me to take myself a little less seriously. As earnestly as we approach our training, most of us are out there to enjoy ourselves and feel healthy, strong and fit. Throughout the process, we have to be willing to laugh at the crazy situations we occasionally put ourselves in.

The super early morning hours, crazy weather changes, mounds of reflective gear and unexpected wildlife encounters can make things more interesting. You may even learn critical skills like recognizing the eye reflection of various types of wildlife (and house pets) in your headlamp.

Once I nearly tripped over a skunk in fog so thick that neither of us saw the other approaching. Fortunately I managed to make it out of the situation stink-free…

Focus and Mindfulness

Running in the dark, early morning hours can require much more focus than an easy daylight run. Routes that you have run a thousand times may look totally different at that time of day, and require more care to avoid potential hazards like pot holes.

If you run on trails in the dark that have roots and rocks, this singular focus is even more essential.

We live in a world where a zillion things demand our attention at all hours. Focus and mindfulness can be hard to come by.

But this is a skill that will serve you well in races of any length, as well as in your daily life. Having an hour to yourself to be focused and centered on a single objective is incredibly fulfilling.

Predictability & Flexibility

Another advantage of early morning running is that it’s less likely to be affected by other commitments and appointments.

Let’s face it – who else is nutty enough to schedule a meeting with you before 6am? With rare exceptions, running in the pre-dawn hours can give you a quiet, uninterrupted block of time before your day gets underway.

Runs are scheduled more easily and predictably than after work, when any number of commitments may be pulling you in different directions.

Running in the morning at odd hours also allows you to explore routes that might be too congested with traffic later in the day. Running through silent streets or shopping centers typically overflowing with people is an entirely different world at that hour of the morning.

If you’re training through the winter, main streets are more likely to be plowed and have better footing and lighting, and getting out early enough may make them a safer option.

Express yourself!

Running so early in the morning also gives you an opportunity to express that slightly masochistic side of you.

I’ll admit it – sometimes I enjoy being considered a nut for running crazy early or tackling ultra distances. Despite working together for almost 5 years, when the weather is particularly challenging one coworker still asks me “You didn’t run this morning, did you?

By now he knows the answer, but it’s always entertaining to see his expression when I give him a resounding yes!

If coordinated running outfits aren’t your forte, early morning running is definitely an opportunity for function to trump fashion. It’s especially easy to overdress when heading out super early into a wintery blast, but layering appropriately will help you get through just about any conditions comfortably.

And in the dark, no one will notice your mismatched outfit!

Set the tone for the day

Despite the extra effort it can take to get up and out at an early hour, it’s a wonderful feeling to have a run completed before the sun has risen.

Finishing a workout before 6 or 7am leaves you energized and focused to tackle whatever is on your schedule. Coffee pre- or post-run (or both!) can be added motivation, but you may find that caffeine a little less necessary after your run than you might otherwise.

[Jason’s note: coffee always.]

Determination, commitment & fortitude

Above all else, I’ve found that running in the morning on a regular basis has helped make me a stronger, more resilient runner. Conquering early mornings and bad weather has been excellent preparation to dig deep during races, especially ultras.

Run early enough times and it eventually becomes an ingrained habit. Sometimes I’m a little sleep-deprived, and it may not always be fun, but I always finish a morning run feeling better than I started.

While the physical part of training is an essential component, don’t discount the value of mental training as well.

And though it may not be a mental exercise in the classic sense, running early has consistently set me up with a “just get it done” mindset that proves incredibly useful in races.

Just as hills are often referred to as speed work in disguise, pre-dawn running is resilience training in disguise. You hang in there and push forward day after day, and suddenly things that once looked out of reach seem a little bit more attainable.

How to Run in the Morning Like a Champ

Morning Sunrise

A Denver sunrise from Jason’s kitchen window

If you’re not a pre-dawn runner at heart but are willing to give it a try, here some tips to make the process easier:

Prepare in advance. This is an obvious one, but getting everything organized the night before can make your morning go much more smoothly.

If the weather is questionable you may want to give yourself several options so you don’t have to go rooting around in the dark for a jacket and hat and gloves.

Make the time non-negotiable. Put it on your calendar, set three alarms, and don’t rely solely on self-discipline to pull you through.

If you set aside the time and get yourself out of bed, the rest will usually fall into place. Set high expectations for getting out the door and don’t cut yourself any slack, but keep the actual run expectations low.

Start small. Seriously – start really small, as in a 1-2 mile run to start the habit of running consistently. Getting up and dressed for a run this short may not seem worth it, but it’s hard to say no when your alarm goes off if you only have to get out there for 10 -15 minutes.

Once you get out the door it’s a win, and you’ll likely be willing to go longer. But for the first few weeks keep the expectations low and don’t push too long or too hard. Just get it done and establish the habit.

Start with good weather. Winter running is enough of a challenge, even in the daylight hours! It will certainly be easier to build the pre-dawn habit and stay motivated if the weather is warm and there is more daylight.

Safety first. With all my years of pre-dawn running I’ve invested a small fortune in headlamps and reflective gear!

While you don’t have to spend an enormous amount, definitely invest in a decent headlamp and plenty of reflective/safety gear. You’ll never regret it!

Pre-run fueling. Eating prior to a run is non-negotiable for me, even if I’m just heading out for a few easy miles. Others may not need any pre-run nutrition – it’s definitely a personal decision.

But an unexpected benefit of eating shortly before I run is teaching my stomach to handle eating and running for longer ultra races.

Meet a running buddy or run with a dog. Meeting another runner is ideal, as it makes it much harder to skip a run when a friend is waiting for you!

I rarely run with other people, but ever since getting a dog who loves to run it has made it even easier to run in the morning. Brody is always enthusiastic no matter what the weather, and loves his post-run treat as much as I love my post-run coffee.

Though I ran for years in the dark alone (with my pepper spray), having a dog also helps me feel safer on my runs.

Make peace with drivers. I have a love/hate relationship with drivers I encounter in the pre-dawn hours. With my headlamp and reflective gear I know that I’m visible from a distance, and most cars slow down and give me wide berth.

When that’s the case, I always wave thank you! But there are plenty of jerks out there too, and even more distracted drivers. So always be aware and on the defensive and prepared to move quickly out of the way.

Sometimes memories of early morning runs stand out clearly to me, with a particular event or mishap etched in my mind. More often they are a bit of a blur, almost as if they were a dream that I struggle to remember as the day progresses.

But no matter how fleeting the memory, the benefits of pre-dawn running are prominent in my mind.

Getting out while most of the world sleeps has served me incredibly well over the years, and has the potential to do the same for you.

No matter how formidable it seems, give pre-dawn running a try, and eventually you might find yourself hooked.

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