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The Early Shift: Getting Your Feet on the Ground Before Your Brain Can Stop You

Friendly note: If you are not hitting the New Year with the hope/goal/resolution to get back to the gym, then don’t read this… If you view the idea of fitness with scorn, then you will hate it. On the other hand, if you’re curious and like to hear about fitness programs that work for other people, especially those of us dedicated to the IT/geek industries, then read on. What I’ve described below is a working model for me, and my hope is that maybe an idea or two might be good for you too. But if waking up before 8am is out of the question, then maybe you should read something from RebelLabs instead ;)

The 4:30am Wake-Up

People who know me know that I get up at 4:30am to start my day (and some of them are still like, “WAT?”).

I’ve always been a morning person, but my super-early wake up is a result of one of my many “Deals” struck with my wife in order to make our lives together work.

Basically, when our kids were young, at least one of us needed to be in the house to look after the kids in the morning before school or daycare. Both of us wanted to work out every day because we were (at the time) in our mid-30s and the days of relying on the high metabolism of youth were in the rear view mirror. We had convinced ourselves that the morning time before work is the only time of the day that doesn’t get sacrificed to other work or family commitments like business meetings over lunch or school chorus performances in the evening.

As a technology entrepreneur, I am simply not able to protect any other time of the day from my work except the early morning before anyone expects me to be awake. So, we were both committed to the morning workout, but the challenge was for both of us to exercise before 7am, when the kids woke up and needed attention. So, I took the early shift (5-6am) and Laura took the “late” shift (6-7am).

Tip #1: Get Your Feet on the Floor Before Your Brain can Stop You

Toomas Römer, one of the co-founders of ZeroTurnaround, talks often about reprogramming himself. I think it is a great way to approach the problem of adding regular exercise to your life. Starting my day at 4:30am with a morning workout took some significant reprogramming, even for an early riser like me.

The key is to eliminate all decisions that could stand between you and your workout. Every night, I set out my clothes for both my workout and work, so I don’t need to think about it in the morning. I usually pack some food to bring to work, and I do that the night before. Chores like making the coffee, taking out the trash, emptying the dishwasher all get done the night before.

All of these things are possible speed bumps on your way to the gym. Most importantly, you need to plan your workout in advance. Unless you have a personal trainer or are taking a class, you need to rely on your own self-motivation to get the workout done. Don’t give yourself any choices. Figure out your workout in advance, so all you need to do is show up and do it. The way I see it, allowing choice at this point just gives your brain the opportunity to convince you that taking the easy route is best. Set the alarm, and when it goes off, put your feet on the floor, get dressed and go to the gym. Don’t think; just do.

Tip #2: Alternate your routine so you don’t get stuck in a rut

Making the early morning workout a part of your day requires routine, but even a good routine can easily turn into a boring requirement. If you do too much of the same thing, your body adjusts and you no longer feel like you are making progress.

However, if you’ve been able to successfully reprogram yourself, and you’ve adjusted to a regular workout, you need to keep the routine or you risk losing all of your investment. The key is to make minor modifications in order to make it all seem “new” again. There are several possible ways to do this:

  1. Adjust your goals. Some people need goals in order to stay motivated. If you’ve been working out for a while, it probably isn’t a weight reduction goal any more. Now, you need to challenge yourself with a competitive goal, such as competing in triathlons, tough mudders or Spartan races. These can be individual or team competitive goals. Why not Estonian wife carrying?
  2. Adjust your workout. Every week, I do six workouts (Saturday is my day off) with a combination of running, swimming, biking and lifting, and four different weightlifting workouts, each with a focus on a different set of muscle groups. I find that relatively minor modifications to the regular workout can have huge benefits. For weight lifting in particular, I often adjust my routines, even though I maintain similar exercises for specific muscle groups. Even if you don’t want a personal trainer on a long-term basis, you might want to hire one for a short time in order to get new ideas about how to work those muscle groups. I sometimes pick up a few good ideas just by watching trainers work with other clients. I’ve even picked up a few great exercises from physical therapists when I’ve rehabbed various injuries.
  3. Cross training and group training. I like to run, bike and swim, which allows me to alternate my workouts and keep things from becoming too routine. I’ve also recently been introduced to CrossFit (our employees in Prague go to this gym), which combines all kinds of weightlifting and cardio exercises into a hardcore workout that never gets old. Plus, CrossFit is generally done as a group, and it is easy to stay motivated when you are working with a group. Team triathlons, runs and bike races are also great for motivation.

Tip #3: Get it to stick, and you might never stop

Every morning, there are lots of other early shifters at the gym, and they usually are regulars. This tells me that it is a routine that works for a lot of people. Maybe you could even say it is addictive. If you can re-program yourself and stick with it over the long term, you will reap the benefits. It works for me. Think I’m crazy? Please comment and share your approach.

And remember: Exercise requires motivation. So if you don’t have a T-Rex chasing you down the quite morning streets of your city or town, you’ve got to rely on yourself!

  • Sander

    I think it’s commendable, but, how many hours of sleep do you get by on? Less than before you started rising so early? Oh well, whatever it is you do is clearly working out fine, because you make a great product.

  • Alex Laats

    Sander… Thanks for props on the product. It is indeed great!! Our Estonian team gets all the credit! I get by on about 6 hours of sleep per night (less when I’m in Estonia hanging out with our great software developers ;) ).

  • My goal is to sleep 7 hours a night, I’ve found this to be the optimum. Less doesn’t work for me in terms of energy level during the day and sleeping more than 7hours keeps me sleepy during the day, weird.