Not-A-Morning-Person Detox

I suck at mornings. I always have. It’s genetic (just ask my dad).

My past efforts at transforming myself into a morning person have all failed miserably.  There were occasionally times where there was a burst of morning joy (yes, I even made a top 10 list about why I should do this yet still failed) but inevitably the joy turned to despair and I returned to my usual ways of barely waking up on time for the latest I could possibly be where I needed to be. My mornings are typically a flurry of being in a rush and arriving at wherever I need to be totally cranky. People in my current job have seriously asked me when they first see me in the morning why I am so angry.

In college my worst grades were in the classes that started at 8:30 or 9:00am.  Luckily by junior year such classes could be avoided. My choice of medicine was quite a challenge in this regard as medical education is decidely not 9-5. Thankfully the labs were you had to be present were all after lunch and the rest…well I will leave that to my lab partners to divulge (this was before ever class was recorded and notes available online thus precluding any necessity to be present for didactic portions of medical education). And residency/fellowship…. oh well, I can’t even begin to tell you how hard it was for me to show up at 5:45 every day but I had a spouse who has since the day we married (and is a morning person) been able to supply me with the requisite amount of caffeine in hand and boot my ass out the door in time to make it to rounds (but I did deliberately place at #1 on my rank list a general surgery program that did not require its interns to preround; yes, I am such a bad morning person that I chose a pivotal part of my surgical training to get out of that extra 30-60 minutes of work before 6am rounds).

While I have chosen a career where being on your A-game in the middle of the night is perfectly fine (in-house overnight call as an acute care surgeon; most grants, manuscripts, and data analytics can be done when my second wind hits in the evenings or overnight), figuring out how to fit working out into the mix of a busy surgical career and life as a wife/mother has been a challenge. Excluding mornings from this has made the challenge that much harder. Every day I say to myself, “No problem, I will just exercise after work.” Turns out I am great at lying to myself. Most days, I am just to tired or cranky or hungry after 11 or more hours at work (yes, even when not taking care of patients, it is a rare day that I am working fewer than 11 hours; I have tried to fix this and I am convinced that it is just not possible with a surgeon’s schedule) and find myself crawling to bed, face half-covered in drool, after having fallen asleep on the couch at some point with just 4-5 hours to spare until I have to be back a work.

A few weeks ago, emerging from a long, snowy winter some 7lbs heavier than the fall, I knew I needed to change my behaviors once and for all since saving workouts for the evening has not been successful was clearly not the solution when morning workouts failed to stick in the past.

Somehow though, when I travel for work (or for vacations for that matter) I am able to fit in morning workouts even on very little sleep. So with this current effort at conquering my not-a-morning-personitis, I analyzed my successes while away from home to try to make a major change in my at home routine.

  • First, travel requires forethought and organization that I don’t typically apply in every day life since every day life just happens whether or not I am trying. Part of that forethought is making sure I have my workout gear and that I set my alarm clock to be able to fit in a 30-60 minute workout.
  • Second, when I travel, there typically isn’t a couch to accidentally fall asleep on (note: stay away from suites for this reason) in a big heap due to physical or mental exhaustion the night before. So, on my pre-workout evenings while traveling I get under the covers, read or blog for a bit (I do more pleasure reading or blogging on a trip than ever at home), and let myself fall asleep in the proper place.
  • Third, away work meetings, though still painfully early, usually start an hour later than any of my work obligations while at home. (Bonus: west coast meetings give this east coaster’s not-a-morning-person ass the illusion of extra time in the morning no matter what time the clock says that meeting starts. Yah!)
  • Fourth, because I am a totally technological loser, I can never figure out hotel alarm clocks so I just set my iPhone to wake me when I travel. For some reason being able to wake up to a fake choo choo train sound works better for me than the shrill of a typical alarm clock.
  • Fifth, I typically don’t have the patience to find the local NPR station when I travel (yes, I know there’s an app but remember this is still the morning and we’re still talking about me conquering said morning so finding the screen with that app is an almost insurmountable challenge). Without a great NPR news story followed by another (since this is commercial free radio) and so on and so forth, without the familiar voices of NPR’s Morning Edition emanating from the clock radio, it’s just easier for me to abandon the hotel bed.
  • Finally, when morning arrives (even if it is at 5am),  I am able to rise, brush my teeth, have my caffeine, and get dressed to workout over the leisurely course of 30 minutes or so before heading out to workout.

So here is how the detox happened. It started three weeks ago chosen deliberately due to an odd stretch of time where I was neither traveling nor on call (because being up all night tends to ruin multiple subsequent mornings for me).

First, I had to make my body understand that it was okay to be up much earlier than I need to be anywhere officially. So I started setting my iPhone to wake me up in the mornings since clearly I have no capacity to respond to my actually alarm clock. I just woke up, maybe had my coffee, and then stayed in bed while awake. This was it. Five mornings in a row I just got up early and did pretty much nothing. I just needed to get my body to get used to being up early and not rushing anywhere.

The following week, I actually got out of bed when the iPhone rang, brushed my teeth, had a cup of coffee, and got ready to work out (all without rushing). And then, I actually did work out. That week I focused on indoors in the home gym. No travel time. No pressure. No one to impress. I also conned my husband into joining me (I mean, I needed the coffee after all) and made sure there was something totally sinful to keep up with on the DVR. And you know what, it worked. Each morning for 7 consecutive days we worked out in the basement (and we blew through Newsroom, which I high recommend and moved on to Bloodline, equally compelling to get one up in the morning to see what happens next). On days that we did not time the alarms perfectly or pressed snooze a few too many times, we adjusted our run times to 30 or 45 minutes but 4 of those days we got in an hour long workout.

Each of those seven days was a great day for me. More energy when I got to work. No one asking why I was in a venomous rage when are arrived at my place of employment since I had worked all of that “I would rather be in bed” anger out of my body already. The evenings without pressure to try to work out only to be angry at myself for having not done it were so much easier. And, no more messing up my back by falling asleep on the couch in a contorted position. I would get myself upstairs and to my proper sleep location because I knew I had a morning workout I needed to be up for. I slept so much better. (It’s not that I didn’t know all of this already but transforming such knowledge into action was always the hard part.)

After two weeks of not-a-morning-person detox, I was feeling pretty good. The following week, however, had a few challenges. On Monday of that week, we were nervous for a family member and needed to be at a far away hospital pretty early and we blew it. But we got back on track the next day and it was getting to the point when I really wanted to work out in the mornings. But alas, some mornings are rough, especially those that require me to be at work before 7am. However, I was determined not to slide back to my old ways. So, on the days when even a quick 25 minute jaunt on a machine in my own home was out of the question we turned to the 7 minute workout. Yes, I am partial to the New York Times version of it. My husband turned me onto it. It’s what he did at the hotel when, during his last trip, every treadmill and elliptical in the crappy gym was taken by 5am. Sure, the workout can be repeated over and over for a great cross-training workout but even just seven minutes will get the muscles sore and the heart pumping so on the morning when the alarms just weren’t timed right to be at work for 6:30 and on the day that I had to leave at 5:45 to get my kid to her field hockey tournament on time, I worked out for exactly 7 minutes. But, hey it was better than no workout and it allowed me to stay on the wagon of morning workouts.

So, is this it? Is my detox process complete? Am I finally cured of my not-a-morning-personitis? Will I relapse? I am not sure.

But, this morning was the start of the fourth week and I got up and out for a quick 3 mile run and it felt good. I am hoping that my slow, calculated effort this time based on analysis past successes (as opposed to taking advantage of jetlag after a bout of traveling) will be the secret of life-long success in the days, months, years to follow. I give you permission as followers of the blog to hold me accountable. And please share your stories on how you make mornings work. I need all the help I can get to keep this up.

13 thoughts on “Not-A-Morning-Person Detox

  1. Very inspiring! I started running (after not exercising for the first several years of medical school) last summer (studying for Step 2…heading into M4) but as soon as I was in Boston for my away rotations I dropped the ball, and haven’t picked it back up. Now that it’s finally warm outside I am hoping to get back on my feet, but we’re moving all of our stuff out to Boston next week and then living at my parents’ for the month before graduation while my husband finishes some projects at work. Hopefully by packing minimally for this month with my parents, I will notice my running shoes more often and remember to get out there and exercise.

    • You will have the Charles River to inspire you. I lived there for 4 years (pre-exercising) and not once did I go out for a run. Now whenever I am in Boston/Cambridge I kick myself for the wasted opportunities.

  2. I will definitely have to try that out! My husband said we will go on bike rides along the Charles, so perhaps I’ll be enjoying that scenic path in more ways than one!

  3. I’m not a morning person either. Given the amount of trouble it sometimes costs me to arrive at work awake at 8PM (and the uselessness of prior experience with morning work outs)… yeah… no.
    Give me my coffee.

  4. I knew I liked you, I just didn’t know all the reasons why! As a person who shares your aversions to mornings, I loved this entire post. Now I’m trying to shame myself into trying this for myself, but I’m still in the denial stage. It has taken me an entire month to adjust to daylight savings time, and I am just now starting to get up anywhere near “on time.” (Like you, I tend to delay getting up til the last possible minute, eliminating things from my routine one by one til I’m down to “put on clothes” and “brush teeth before leaving house.”) Baby steps, right? If I can get up on time in April, maybe by May or June I can start running in the mornings. With the onset of summer heat in Texas, it would be good for so many reasons. Thanks for this fantastic, thought provoking post!

  5. I’m so happy I am not the only one who gets up last possible minute and shamelessly relies on her husband for caffeine. My IQ is about 50 when I leave the house (toilet trained, check), about 100 when I arrive at work, and not full speed until about 10 am. Lots of good ideas for making a workout happen!

    • Every day at about 9:30am, no matter what I am doing, I think to myself, “Right now I am totally jonesing for a run.” But alas, everyday (except a few weekends here and there) I have something else to do at 9:30.

  6. I am not a surgeon, but I am a doctor needing to fit in family, friends, and exercise. I am an internists, so I don’t necessarily have the grueling night call that you do, getting up in the morning remains challenging. The times I’ve been successful has been knowing I had a running date with a friend, or literally, when I was training for an Ironman- had “homework” to do or else I knew I couldn’t do the the event. That generally gets me moving is if I have a goal ahead of me and needing to make sure I get in the work outs to make sure I don’t crap out during those times. I like your- detox idea- of just getting up- at that time for a week and doing nothing so that the body is used to it. I’m going to try it. I am enjoying your posts!

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  8. Loved this post! I have never been a morning person and added to it years of evenings and call (as an OR nurse) I barely survive mornings. I don’t drink coffee but do rely upon my husband to call up with a “if you don’t get up now we will be late” message occasionally (we car pool). I switched to my iphone alarm a few years ago but now can tune it out so have to move it around the room and change the ring regularly. As an afternoon/evening person I do usually manage to exercise but I also only do 8 hour shifts and not 11’s like you. I car pool home after his work day finishes which gives me about 2 hours during which I swim, walk or get groceries. If it’s a non walk or swim day then I take to the bike or the trails when I get home. It really is a challenge to stay on board no matter when you exercise. I am better with a goal in front of me and it is good to be accountable so one of my best friends and I exchange texts every few days about what we are doing.
    How is your detox working — still at it? Hope so.

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