For all you non-morning people—which means a lot of you—nighttime might be your only chance to break a sweat, especially if you work longer hours. If your eyes aren’t sagging and your body’s ready, then go for it, right? Well, not if it means impairing your sleeping ability or hindering your performance in the weight room. We had some experts weigh in on those nightly workouts so you can do them right and get the results you’re looking for.
Does the timing matter?
This is tricky. Stan Dutton, C.P.T. and coach for personal training platform Ladder, explains that it really depends on the individual. Some people may need to cut off exercise three or four hours prior to bed because it makes them too alert to sleep; others can go out like a light shortly after exercising.
While choosing a specific time of night won’t greatly impact your workout, if you’ve been awake for over 17 hours, your performance will be impaired similar to if you were under the influence. The most important factors are your total sleep and wake time.
“Exercising will increase core temperature, boost adrenaline, and increase your heart rate,” Dutton said, but “research shows that exercising at any time of day will actually improve your sleep quality.”
Adam Perlman, MD. MPH, FACP, an Integrative Health and Wellbeing expert at Duke University, agrees. “In general, exercise is good for helping people to sleep better,” he said.
“Many people find that exercise too close to bed time, often within an hour or two, can make it difficult to fall asleep due to its stimulating nature and effect on body temperature,” he said, “so become an expert on you and experiment with exercising at different times of day (and night) and see how that effects your sleep.”
Does the type of workout matter?
If you’re doing a lot of cardio, you may be more stimulated and need extra time to wind down, explains Amir Khastoo PT, DPT at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, CA.
“If you’re planning a heavy cardio-based workout, you may need to allot some extra time afterwards because an increased level of endorphins may make it difficult to fall asleep,” he said. “In this case, try to give yourself a cushion of two hours from the end of the cardio-heavy workout to when your head hits the pillow.”
You can slash a bit of that time if you’re doing resistance work. “On the other hand, when performing strength or weight training, you’ll need less time, because increased muscle fatigue will have you feeling more tired and ready to fall asleep within an hour of your workout,” he added.
What should you eat late at night?
If you’re exercising during the late hours, you’ll need a pre- and post-workout snack or meal, even if it’s super dark out. “In general, I tell my clients to eat exactly what they’d normally eat after a workout, unless they haven’t had dinner yet,” said Dutton. Every meal should have protein, carbohydrates, and good fat from whole foods.
But keep it light. “I wouldn’t recommend anything heavy at night, but a piece of salmon and broccoli or a plant protein bowl works. Or yogurt with fresh fruit,” said Perlman. The exact amount and ratio varies based on the individual and their workout, but many experts recommend a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein.
Eat within 30 minutes following exercise in order to regain nutrients, replenish energy stores, and initiate muscle recovery. “Following a meal, allow yourself at least 45-60 minutes for proper digestion prior to sleep. If you know you won’t be able to stay awake for 60 minutes after you eat, reduce your portion size in order to avoid empty calories,” Khastoo said.
Will you gain weight?
“To be honest, one of my favorite myths to bust is the one about ‘eating at night will make you fat.’ In fact, there are even studies that show people who eat at night weigh less,” said Dutton.
Perlman agrees. “There is a concern that eating too close to bedtime will increase the risk for weight gain,” he said. “These recommendations are based on little scientific evidence.”
Eat what you’d normally eat for a post-workout meal, no matter the hour. That means plenty of protein, carbs, and some fat. “Time and time again, science will show that the overall quality and quantity of food is far more important than timing,” Dutton explained.
Can you skimp on sleep?
Definitely not, says Dutton. That’s where night workouts might be a problem. Compromising your sleep will negatively affect your health, muscle repair, and performance. When Dutton works with clients, sleep always comes first.
“My only rule is that if they’re physically exhausted and feel like they’re too tired to exercise safely, it’s more important to skip the gym and get some rest,” he said.
A good rule of thumb? Only work out at night if you can get a minimum of six to seven hours of sleep afterward.