The days of early morning workouts are numbered.
In January 2017, the Power Five conferences in the NCAA passed some new legislation aimed at making training for athletics safer. The ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC all voted to prohibit practices and workouts between the hours of 9pm and 6am for their athletes.
That means no more “zero hour” workouts for D1 athletes. Which begs the question: if we’re not allowing college athletes to hit the weight room early, what about high school athletes?
Mike Nitka, 36-year veteran high school strength coach and Volt Advisory Board member, knows that most coaches spend a lot of time and energy planning their training cycles, but don’t consider the negative effects early-morning training can have on teenage athletes.
“High school strength coaches are meticulous about prescribing sets and reps,” Coach Nitka says, “but often ignore the research on sleep requirements and early morning practice for teen athletes.” In other words, there seems to be a disconnect between what a coach deems an ideal training program and what is realistic for the health and safety of busy high school athletes.
Today’s young athletes have a lot on their plates: family, school, homework, sports practice and training. Combine those obligations with the biological shift in circadian rhythm that occurs during adolescence, shifting a teen’s internal clock back by about two hours and causing them to naturally rise and fall asleep later than younger children, and you have a recipe for potential disaster (1). And with high schools starting as early as 7:30am, many adolescents may find themselves chronically sleep-deprived.
1. It reinforces mental toughness and builds team unity.
Early weight room sessions can help discipline athletes in their evening time management strategies, and cement a team culture centered on shared suffering, hard work, and sweat equity. Accomplishing any difficult task with teammates can certainly build unity and strengthen relationships (though that task doesn’t necessarily need to be 6am strength training).
2. It can simulate the demands of competition.
This is especially true for tournament or meet-style athletes who compete early in the morning. Getting into a routine of early workouts can make the transition to competition easier.
3. It may be the only time you have access to the weight room.
This is perhaps a coach’s biggest argument for early workouts. If the only time a team has access to the weight room is at 6am, isn’t it better to get in early than not lift at all? And with so many after-school commitments, it can be easier than encroaching on evening schedules to get the work done.
I asked Coach Nitka what his response would be to this argument.
“My current thoughts on early morning training and practices can be summed up in two words,” he says: “Please don’t.”
“There is always another option, if coaches are willing to compromise. As the head strength coach, I would approach the sport coach and ask if I could fit in a quicker lifting session after practice, as opposed to 6am. Even a quick 30-minute session is enough to fit in some power development, if you’re organized and have a solid program.”
1. It can contribute to a chronic lack of sleep.
The importance of sleep for teenagers cannot be overstated—especially for teenage athletes.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of research conducted around the importance of sleep for children and adolescents, especially those engaged in athletics. Not surprisingly, there seems to be a direct correlation between chronic lack of sleep and sports-related injuries.
In a 2014 article published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics, researchers found that sleep deprivation is “associated with injuries in an adolescent athletic population” (2). Other studies show that teenagers need between 9 and 9.5 hours of sleep every night, but only average around 7 (3,4). Lack of sleep is associated not only with sports injury, but also with weight gain and decreased cognitive skills (something to consider if teenagers are driving themselves to early morning workouts). Lack of sleep can also affect fine motor skills, which can make performing technical weightlifting tasks potentially dangerous first-thing in the morning.
2. It can lead to athletes working out on an empty stomach.
In the early morning rush to get to the weight room on time, many athletes forget or forego eating breakfast. That, combined with a night of fasted sleep, can leave athletes in a glycogen-depleted state early in the morning. If teens don’t wake up early enough to eat a good breakfast before a training session, the quality of training ultimately suffers. Plus, it could lead to the development of a bad habit that can be hard to break later in life.
3. It can inhibit recovery and tissue repair.
An athlete will only get stronger if they have sufficient time between weight room sessions for the body to repair itself, and early-morning workouts can sabotage this recovery—leading to performance decrements and, potentially, injury. This is especially important if athletes have evening practices or games the night before an early scheduled workout.
“The recovery process for high schoolers seems to be an afterthought for many coaches,” says Coach Nitka. “High school workouts are about progressively developing strength and power in our athletes. Where do we help them improve their diet choices? Where do we educate them on how to rest and recover between practices by discussing sleep needs to maximize their ability to compete?”
In other words, if we as coaches don’t equip young athletes with the right recovery tools, like proper nutrition and sleep hygiene, we are doing them a disservice.
4. It can lead to increased stress for athletes.
This reason for foregoing the “zero hour” training session is often overlooked, but can greatly affect an athlete’s psychological health and well-being. Competitive athletes already tend to be stressed about performance in sports and academics—and lack of sleep can contribute to excessive thinking, worrying, and planning (5). We already know that athletes are more prone to injury during periods of high academic stress (6), so adding the physical stress of training compounded by a lack of sleep can create a perfect storm of stress for teen athletes.
5. Who is supervising 6am workouts?
If you’ve read Coach Nitka’s articles on liability for strength coaches, you know that lack of qualified supervision during weight room sessions is the biggest common denominator in liability-related lawsuits. And in Coach Nitka’s experience observing various high schools across the country, more often than not, the early-morning training sessions are not properly supervised.
“I’ve been to schools where the weight room is open at all hours, so kids can get their lifts in. I’d find the door unlocked and kids lifting unsupervised—or supervised by someone other than a qualified strength and conditioning coach, like the seniors on the team,” he says.
“If you’ve got 17-year-olds playing the role of strength coach, that is NOT adequate supervision,” says Coach Nitka.
Putting it All Together
Perhaps one reason this issue is so complex is that both arguments focus on what is perceived as being “best” for the athlete. On one hand, strength and conditioning is important for performance and injury prevention for all athletes—while on the other hand, good sleep habits and optimally timed workouts are important for athletes as well. For the high school strength coach, the matter comes down to the difference between really good programming, and really practical programming.
We cannot treat our high school athletes like professional athletes. They cannot be expected to have the emotional maturity to make the necessary sacrifices for their sport, and they can't be physically pushed past a certain limit. The life of the teenage athlete is comprised of more than just training, practice and sports—there are family dynamics to consider, like who will be dropping the athlete off at the weight room at 6am, and uncontrollable variables, like an athlete’s home life and nutritional habits when they’re not at school.
With a pro athlete, these variables can be controlled—after all, competing is their job. But with high school athletes, we must be aware of and protect them from practices that create unnecessary problems in their lives.
Coach Nitka discouraged early-morning weight room sessions during his tenure at Muskego High School. I asked him, with all the seemingly overwhelming evidence against early-morning training, what to tell strength coaches who say they cannot shift away from 6am workouts.
“I tell strength and conditioning coaches to learn and educate,” says Coach Nitka. “Educate all those who have some impact on helping the student / athlete reach their potential. Discretely educate the head sport coach and ask that he/she discuss training topics with their staffs. Educate the administration on the need for a larger facility, if that is why you are training in the early morning. Educate the athletes on what adequate sleep preparation means for their success.”
“We base our strength and conditioning program designs on scientific principles. Shouldn’t we also review and follow what the literature says about the needs of adequate sleep for our teen athletes?”
We must ask ourselves: Is the health and safety of your young athletes a priority to us as coaches? These young athletes are someone’s son or daughter, and we are responsible for them—so let’s always do the right thing when training them.
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1. "Sleep in Adolescents (13-18 Years)." http://www.nationwidechildrens.org/sleep-in-adolescents.
2. Milewski, MD, et al. Chronic Lack of Sleep is Associated With Increased Sports Injuries in Adolescent Athletes. Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics (Mar 2014).
3. "Sleep and Teens - Biology and Behavior." https://sleepfoundation.org/ask-the-expert/sleep-and-teens-biology-and-behavior.
4. "Sleep and Teens." http://sleepcenter.ucla.edu/sleep-and-teens.
5. Halson, SL. Monitoring Training Load to Understand Fatigue in Athletes. Sports Med (2014).
6. Mann, BJ, et al. Effect of Physical and Academic Stress on Illness and Injury in Division 1 College Football Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Jan 2016).