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by Elaine K Howley

March 7, 2023

If you’re a night owl, these tips could help you make it to more morning workouts

Most humans feel sleepy at night and wakeful during the day thanks to their circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle that relies on regular exposure to daylight to run properly. There can be, however, a lot of individual variability between when one person feels most alert versus another.

Your unique circadian rhythm is governed by a mix of genes, hormones, environment, and habits. While your sleep­–wake preferences are, to a certain extent, baked in—i.e., a night owl will likely always tend to stay up late—they’re not completely immovable. You can shift your internal clock, and that can be welcome news for folks looking to swim with a Masters group early in the morning.

Many Masters Swimming programs front-load the day with a workout, often before the sun has gotten itself out of bed. It can be hard for some swimmers to make those practice times because they’re more inclined to afternoon activities. While it’s perfectly fine to swim in the afternoon—and in fact one study suggested that if you’re trying to control blood sugar, afternoon workouts might be the better option—life can get in the way.

It’s easier to be certain that you’ll make a swim workout that transpires prior to 7 a.m., before work and family commitments have a chance to overrun their anticipated time allotments. But if you’re a night owl who finds it difficult to swim in the morning, these tips might help you shift your clock forward and make it a little easier to make it to morning workout.

Get some sunlight every day

The circadian rhythm is supremely ruled by the diurnal phases of light and dark on Planet Earth. Human biology evolved to fit into that natural cycle, but modern life has many sequestered indoors for the bulk of daylight hours, sitting in front of brightly glowing screens. That can throw off the circadian rhythm. But getting some sunlight every day can help regulate the sleep–wake cycle. Getting that exposure earlier in the day could help you shift your waketime earlier.

Stanford Medicine reports that bright light therapy, also called phototherapy, is used to manage circadian rhythm disorders and to shift the innate sleep–wake cycle to a more manageable schedule for some people. This is a specific type of therapy that’s overseen by a health care provider, but you can mimic some of these benefits by getting a few minutes of bright, outdoor light first thing in the morning.

Move your bedtime and waketime incrementally

Pulling an all-nighter whether for work or pleasure and changing time zones are sure-fire ways to disrupt your delicate circadian rhythm. It doesn’t take much to fall out of whack when you stay up too late. This is because your body craves consistency. Therefore, as much as possible, when you’re trying to transition to become a morning swimmer, make small, incremental changes rather than one big jump to a new time.

For example, if you’re used to going to bed around midnight and waking up about 8 a.m. (you’re getting 8 hours of shut-eye a night, right?), bring that bedtime forward by 15 minutes each night while correspondingly shifting your waketime forward 15 minutes each day. Within 10 days, you’ll be going to bed around 10 p.m., a full two hours earlier than you used to, and waking up about 6 a.m., without a massive jolt to your body clock all at once.

A small 2005 study investigating how to ward off jet lag by advancing sleep schedules in preparation for an east-bound flight found that participants who moved their sleep period forward two hours did not fare better than those who shifted just one hour. The authors concluded that “a gradually advancing sleep schedule with intermittent morning bright light can be used to advance circadian rhythms before eastward flights, and thus, theoretically prevent or reduce subsequent jet lag.”

Ditch the substances

If you enjoy a nightly glass or two of wine, you might want to ditch the drink while you’re attempting to reset your circadian rhythm. You might think that a nightcap helps wind you down, but it disrupts your sleep architecture—the normal ebb and flow of phases of sleep. Disrupted sleep can lead to waking up feeling unrested and groggy.

Chronic marijuana use has also been linked with disrupted sleep–wake cycles. So even though cannabis is often marketed to help sleep, it might be best to cut it out when you’re focusing on adjusting your sleep schedule.

And caffeine is a non-starter when it comes to sleep. A cup of coffee or two in the morning to wake up is common, but if you have it too late in the day, it can really mess up your sleep. According to a 2015 study in the journal Science Translational Medicine, drinking the equivalent of a double espresso three hours before bedtime shifts your internal body clock back by an average of 40 minutes.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends healthy adults keep caffeine consumption below 400 milligrams per day. An 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains roughly 100 milligrams of caffeine, so aim for 4 or fewer cups (that’s a total of 32 ounces, which could be just one cup depending on the size of the mug you’re using) and avoid afternoon consumption.

Try melatonin

As the sun sets, your body naturally increases production of a hormone called melatonin. Made in the pineal gland, deep in the brain, melatonin calms the nervous system and readies your body for sleep. It’s driven by light exposure and supplementing with an exogenous form of it has been found to help support better sleep.

A 2014 review study in the Nutrition Journal examined the results of 35 studies into whether using melatonin as a dietary supplement can help support better sleep and found that melatonin supplementation could help increase total sleep time in people experiencing restricted sleep because of altered sleep schedules, relieve daytime fatigue related to jet lag, and reset the body’s sleep–wake cycle. Talk with your doctor before starting a new supplement to avoid any possible adverse medication interactions and to determine the right dose for you.


Even if you’re trying to change your circadian rhythm so you can exercise at a certain time of day, you still need to exercise when you can as you’re transitioning, in part because exercise can help shift your body clock forward or backward. That’s according to one 2019 study in the Journal of Physiology.

That study, which involved 51 older adults and 48 young adults, measured participants’ baseline circadian rhythms. They were then assigned to work out moderately for an hour on the treadmill every day for three consecutive days. Each participant was assigned to work out at one of eight different times of day or night, for three days.

The results indicated that exercising at 7 a.m. or between 1 and 4 p.m. advanced the body clock of participants to an earlier time. On the other hand, later workouts, such as between 7 and 10 p.m. delayed the body clock to a later time. Exercising between 1 and 4 a.m. (yikes!) and at 10 a.m. did not seem to have much effect on the body clock. Age and gender did not affect the outcomes.

Exercise scientist Shawn Youngstedt, first author on the paper, noted that the study was the first of its kind to “compare exercise's effects on the body clock, and could open up the possibility of using exercise to help counter the negative effects of jet lag and shift work."

At the end of the day, it’s important to keep moving, no matter when you can squeeze it in. Although it’s admirable to try to get up and at ‘em first thing, if the morning workout routine just doesn’t work for you, it’s better to go later in the day than not at all. Many Masters groups offer midday and evening sessions, so look for a program that can accommodate your night-owl tendencies if that’s what works best for you.

In all cases, do your best to prioritize your swimming for the sake of your physical and mental health. You’ll sleep better for it every time.


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