These tricks for building a simple yet effective morning workout routine have drastically improved my fitness

It doesn't need to be all 5am starts and ten miles for breakfast.

Morning workout routine: Ally Head on a run
(Image credit: Ally Head)

When you hear I'm a Health Editor, you probably expect me to be jumping out of bed each morning for daily Crossfit sessions, banking half marathons by 7am or holding a 365 day plus meditation streak. Right? Well, sort of. While I'm passionate about health and wellbeing, in the past I've found it as difficult as the next person to perfect my morning workout routine.

Rewind five years and I'd force myself up at 6am every day to push myself through an - often fasted - HIIT workout or long run. Often, I'd be surviving on six or less hours sleep and running on caffeine come the end of the day.

Little did I know that this approach to working out wasn't sustainable and would soon lead to burnout. My cortisol levels were through the roof and I was constantly anxious - not ideal for someone working in the health industry who trains for marathons for fun. 

That said, that period of my life taught me some invalulable lessons in how, exactly, to build a realistic yet effective morning routine. I still workout regularly - I'm currently training for my ninth marathon in September - but I've found a more balanced, manageable approach that doesn't leave me feeling constantly stressed. 

So, how did I do it? Well, luckily I get to speak to some of the top PT's in the world as part of my day job and they pretty much all confirm the same - that you'll only ever stick to a workout routine that you enjoy. This is why building a routine that works for you and your current lifestyle is so key. If you're someone who rises early anyway, 6am runs might just work for you, but if you're not, they'll soon become pretty gruelling and unenjoyable. 

Below, I reflect on the lessons I've learnt over my six plus years in the industry and eight marathon training cycles, plus share advice from one of the UK's leading run coaches, Lillie Bleasdale. Keen to know how to create your very own morning workout routine? Keep scrolling. Don't miss our guides to workouts for beginners and simple morning routine ideas, while you're here. 

As an 8x marathon runner and Health Editor - how I've built a manageable yet effective morning workout routine

1. Work out what workouts you enjoy

This one might sound super obvious but is actually really essential if you're going to carve a workout routine you can stick to.

For years, I forced myself to early morning high intensity interval classes thinking that they were the "best" workout full stop. Spoiler alert: a workout that you don't enjoy will never be the best for you and your body, so it's essential to mix things up a bit and figure our what you actually like doing. 

There's so much on offer: whether it's a Pilates workout, yoga class or weight training at a local studio or Joe Wicks workout, Yoga with Adriene flow, or resistance band exercises from home, the possibilities are endless. 

If you work long hours during the week, your morning workout routine might only apply to weekends. Why not try wild swimming, squash, or tennis? As above: the world truly is your oyster.

2. Don't force it

Wondering how you're meant to build a consistent routine without a bit of discipline? It's a good question and simply put, a fine line. 

Sometimes, forcing yourself up and out will make you feel better for the day ahead. Other times, it's absolutely essential to skip your scheduled session and rest in order to progress your fitness.

Listening to your body is really key. If you genuinely feel too tired to get your session in, don't sweat it. 

3. Be flexible

This leads me on to my next point nicely: of being flexible and remembering that sometimes, life just gets in the way. A few missed workouts won't impact your health long term, but stressing about missing said workout might just.

Now, if I miss a morning session because I had to run errands, spent too long getting my breakfast ready or simply wanted a more relaxing start to the day, I don't sweat it. Why? Because I always aim to leave some time later in the week to bank said session. 

Having this flexibility and reframing my all-or-nothing approach to morning workouts has taken the pressure off big time and meant I'm moving my body in a much more diverse range of ways. Could you, for example, cycle or run home from work? What about head out for a brisk walk on your lunch break? Or even squeeze in a ten minute Joe Wicks workout before dinner? Personal trainer Lavina Mehta MBE shares some great tips for what she calls exercise "bites" on her channels - short, sharp bursts of movement designed to be doable in any situation. Remember: every little helps. 

4. Set realistic goals

This one's important. Almost every expert I've spoken to about routine over the past six years or so working in this industry has confirmed that setting unrealistic expectations for yourself will only end in disappointment or failure.

If you're a total beginner, aiming for three workouts a week is plenty to get your heart rate up and blood pumping. For the slightly more advanced, the NHS recommends anything from five 30-minute sessions a week to maintain your fitness.

Remember, though: activity levels are personal to each individual and your morning routine will likely look totally different to your colleague or best mate. Even when I'm peak marathon training, a lot of my friends will be running higher mileage than me each week as they're training for a different time or distance goal. Comparison is the thief of joy - remember to focus on yourself and your journey.

5. Set your alarm 15 minutes early

If you're someone, like me, who likes to wake up slowly in the morning, setting your alarm fifteen minutes before you actually need to get up is simple yet effective. That way, you can bank a snooze without throwing your whole morning routine off kilter.

I'm also a big fan of my Lumie SAD alarm clock, which mimics sunrise to gentle light my bedroom until I'm awake. (Scroll our guide to the best sunrise alarm clocks, here). 

6. Lay your kit out the night before

Another absolute game-changer of a hack for me? Laying my workout clothes out the night before. When it's the early hours and you're tired, the last thing you want to be doing is rooting around your sock drawer for your most supportive sports bra.

Make life that little bit easier and take five minutes to prep the night before. I make sure I've got:

  • A sports bra
  • A workout top
  • Running shorts or gym leggings
  • Sports socks
  • My gym or running trainers
  • My fitness tracker
  • My headphones

all ready to go before I go to bed. With electricals, I also make sure they're plugged in and charging (sometimes the most enjoyable runs are aided by a good playlist or podcast). 

Bleasdale agrees that this is a handy hack, adding: "Laying out your kit the night before ensures you can roll out of bed and be on your way," she shares. "Not only will it make getting up and going easier in the morning, but it's a handy visual reminder of the commitment you've made to yourself."

Top tip: in the winter, pop your kit on the radiator while you're asleep. Come run or workout time, it'll be nice and toasty. 

7. Have a plan

With motivation of steel and the best will in the world, getting to the gym or your dedicated workout space (read: living room) might well end up being fruitless if you go in unarmed. Think about it: you get up and chuck your kit on only to be faced with decision paralysis for what workout to actually do.

If that's ever been you, you're far from alone. I know I'm guilty, which is why I plan all of my workouts on a Sunday evening and go into each session with a clear plan of action.

This not only helps to hold me accountable and get me up and out on mornings where I'd rather stay in bed, but means I never really have to think about what workout I'm doing while doing it - rather, I can enjoy the "me" time and headspace it offers.

Bleasdale agrees, adding: "Knowing that what workouts you're doing each week means that you can get yourself into a consistent ritual of ticking that off." She continues: "It makes it a part of the day, rather than a huge task for you to complete."

If you're a runner, mapping your route the night before can also be a game-changer. As Bleasdale points out, "Planning your running route in advance using tools such as Strava or Map My Run is a great way to ensure you're prepared and have no excuses when it comes to leaving the house." Our edits of the best running apps and best workout apps, at the ready. 

Shop my favourite morning routine aids now:

8. Diarise it

Similarly to above, I've found that making sure you've planned when you'll workout before each week is key to making sure you actually bank your sessions. 

Each Sunday, I look at my week ahead and pop my workout sessions into my Google Calendar. That way, I know when I'll have more time and energy to do my hard sessions and which days there's absolutely no time to squeeze in a sweat session.

9. Book in a workout date with a friend

Did you know? "Research shows that taking part in exercise with friends or in a group makes you work harder, increases your level of enjoyment, and keeps you more accountable," shares Bleasdale.

There's a reason team sport is so good for us. Next time you're feeling unmotivated, book in a walk, class or run with a friend. Not only will it hold you accountable and ensure you show up, but the workout will fly by in good company. Thank us later.

10. Fuel adequately

This one is especially important for women and something Doctor Hazel Wallace, otherwise known as The Food Medic, talks about extensively in her book and on her social platforms.

Aiming for a breakfast of protein, fat and carbs around half an hour to 60 minutes before your workout is key to minimising insulin spikes and ensuring your body has the right fuel to hit your session head on. Why not try: 

  • Greek yoghurt, peanut butter and blueberries
  • Eggs, avocado and toast
  • Porridge, seeds and raspberries

If you'd prefer a snack and a full breakfast when you finish your workout, my favourites include banana and nut butter or nut butter on seed crackers. Trust me on this one - I've noticed a big difference in my workouts this year simply because I've been fuelling them adequately. 

11. Be patient with yourself

Finally, while you'll see influencers on social media swearing that they do the same morning routine day in, day out, I don't believe any person starts their day in exactly the same way every day. As I've touched on, life often gets in the way meaning what you'd planned simply isn't doable.

One of the biggest changes I've made to my morning routine over the past year is to be more patient with myself. While there's plenty of science confirming that going to bed and waking up at the same time is good for our circadian rhythm and in turn general health, if you're tired, honour your body and get some extra shut eye. More sleep then means more energy to smash a workout later in the week, if you do have time - it's simple maths. 

Building a morning routine that prioritises sleep and your mental health as well as moving your body is the ultimate goal, as Bleasdale points out. "Exercise comes as a stressor to your body, so it's key that while you're getting your workouts in, you're also protecting yourself from burnout."

How? By ensuring you're getting enough sleep, fuelling your body with key nutrients, and stretching and recovering well. If your morning routine compromises any of these things, it's time to rethink your routine. 

Is it good to workout early in the morning?

Short answer: this will totally depend on you, your fitness goals, and your lifestyle.

Research on the subject is mixed - while some researchers have concluded that working out first thing can boost energy and productivity throughout the day, others found that afternoon or evening workouts resulted in less drastic blood sugar spikes and, in turn, inflammation. 

That said, one 2020 study concluded that working out at the same time every day - that is, carving out a consistent workout time - can help you to stay consistent with your workouts. Whatever time you decide to go for, try and keep it at the same time each day, if you can, to make it that bit easier to stick to. 

Ally Head
Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, eight-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She regularly hosts panels and presents for things like the MC Sustainability Awards, has an Optimum Nutrition qualification, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw, with health page views up 98% year on year, too. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.