Its important to say at the beginning of this article that the people who get up early before work or on their day off to exercise should be commended and this article is not meant to discourage. My aim is that it highlights a couple of easy to do actions which could prevent low back and disc injuries creeping in.
To fully understand the concerns with early morning exercise we need to review the anatomy and physiology of the spinal discs in the low back. The discs primary role is to aid the spine in distributing weight and force evenly through the body. It was often thought that their main role was shock absorption but this has since been dis-proven and they are now more accurately described as force distributors.
The discs are made of two types of tissue. A toughened rope like outer structure called the Annulus fibrosis and a softer toothpaste like inner structure called the Nucleus pulposus (see picture below). Over time poor posture, prolonged sitting and repetitive movements can cause small tears in the outer tougher Annulus. With repeated tears over time the inner Nucleus will migrate to the outside of the disc. It is at this point symptoms are felt as the disc presses on surrounding sensitive tissue and nerves.
The discs absorb its nutrients and water when we are sleeping and non weight bearing. These nutrients are vital for the health and strength of the disc. Like a sponge filling with water the discs become saturated. On waking first thing in the morning the discs are at their fattest. We are actually slightly taller first thing in the morning compared to last thing at night. This though can be an issue when wanting to do strenuous exercise. When the discs are fully saturated more pressure and stress is exerted on the Annulus during compressive loading. This means that excessive stresses and strains through the disc could cause tearing of the outer fibres and/or bulging. Exercises like running, squats, dead lifts, lunges and jumping place large compressive loads on the spine and discs and therefore could cause problems. Morning sit ups are definitely not sensible, no matter what the Rocky training montages may suggest.
So should I completely avoid doing these exercises during my morning routine?
Definitely not. It is important though you take the time to prepare your body for the demands of these exercise. Spending the first 30-40 minutes of the morning weight bearing (standing and walking) allows the discs to adapt to the pressures and loads not experienced during sleep. This will actually remove some of the water from the disc but in doing so allowing it to be more strong and stable. Discs can also be put under huge stress from sitting so people who have a long commute to work or those to tend to sit down early on should take note. I advise my clients to have their breakfast standing if possible. This will help the disc adapt to the stress of weight bearing without stressing it enough to cause an annular tear. After weight bearing for the first 30-40 minutes a thorough warm up is needed. Don’t start with a weighted bar when doing squats or dead lifts. Use body weight and dynamic movements which increase in range as the warm up set progresses ie. Cat Camel. If running, spend the first part fast walking slowly building to your running pace over 5 minutes.
Although swimming doesn’t put as much compression through the spine as the other exercises described I would still follow the advice just to be safe.
In conclusion early morning training is a great way to start the day and can give you an energy boost which is felt for the rest of the day but rolling out of bed chucking on the trainers and hitting the gym hard is not the way to do it. Give yourself time to adapt. Walk and move then spend time warming up with dynamic body weight exercises. It might meaning having to get up a little bit earlier but it could mean the difference between staying fit and healthy and having a disc injury resulting in time off work and exercise.