Here’s to you, morning Charlotte runners. You denizens of the predawn workout. You who watch the Queen City awaken from its slumber to the beat of your own footsteps. Your dedication is inspiring and humbling.
Yes, we love you. But we don’t always understand you. What motivates you to lace up in the wee predawn hours? What is the siren song that lures you from a warm bed to pound out so many chilly morning miles? And why can’t you just run around a brewery in the afternoon like normal people?
To help us late sleepers understand the motivation of the early morning runner, we’ve consulted with a few subject matter experts. Here, a few Charlotte-area runners clue us in on what makes a morning run so special, as well as the why, the where, and the how to join them.
The Power of the Group Run (and Cake Afterward)
Running in the morning is a matter of practicality for Peter Balletta. Being self-employed, he says he would feel guilty about taking time out of his day and missing jobs if he got his miles in later. But he does admit that those long morning runs can get a bit lonely.
That was Balletta’s motivation to organize a weekly group run, the Sunday Long Run, as it’s known on Meet-Up. Every Sunday before 8 am, dozens of Charlotte-area runners meet at the entrance to the Four Mile Creek Greenway. The run follows routes ranging from 3 to 10 miles on area greenways and through the pleasant neighborhoods in the southernmost reaches of Charlotte.
Balletta has been organizing this event for around eight years. In that time, he’s witnessed firsthand the motivational power of the group dynamic. "Friendships are formed during the run," he says. “People share information on what clothes to wear and how to fuel. You get to learn a lot about running.”
Of course, there’s also accountability. Balletta says if someone doesn’t show up on a given Sunday, someone will inevitably ask where they were. "It makes it such a unifying thing," he says. “It’s a real motivation.”
The real reward, however, may come after the miles have been completed. At the end of each run many participants meet at a local coffee shop. Some time ago, someone starting bringing baked goods, and the tradition stuck. Balletta says that now people bring cakes, chocolates, and even the occasional 12 pack of beer.
If a group run and tasty baked treats afterward is your idea of a perfect Sunday morning, grab your shoes and join Balletta and his fellow runners (and sweet-toothed souls).
The Mind of the Morning Runner
Group runs can be great for motivation and accountability, but the solitude of a solo morning jog shouldn’t be discounted.
Just ask Lisa Firullo, a licensed therapist based just north of Charlotte. As a mental health professional, she is used to taking care of others. So for her, it’s the catharsis of a solo sunrise run through the woods that motivates her to get going early.
"It’s quiet and peaceful in the morning," she explains. “It’s my time for me, before I take care of anyone else.”
There’s some science that explains why physical activity is so important for our brains, says Firullo. "When you’re running, you’re releasing dopamine and serotonin. It’s the equivalent of a mild antidepressant."
She recommends getting this boost in the morning as it can set a positive tone long after you’re off the trail. The good feeling you experience during the run can help carry you through your whole day.
But getting out of bed for that first morning run can be a challenge. To get started, Firullo suggests taking small steps.
"Start with five minutes a day," she says. “Start with a walk/run. Chances are, once you’re out there, you’ll do another five minutes.”
While the SLR is a great event for south-Charlotte runners, Firullo likes the groomed cross country trails at Davidson College for those in the northern edges of the Queen City. And if you’re looking for a group of early birds in this part of town to run with, the Davidson Area Running Team (DART) is a very active club of runners with a wide range of abilities.
How to Get Moving (Safely)
There are some unique physical challenges to running in the morning. Sarah DoBroka, a physical therapist with OrthoCarolina, says that heading out right after you wake up can be difficult for your body. "You’ve been still for five to eight hours," she says. “Your muscles aren’t warmed up.”
This is why all those dynamic stretches every running article suggests are even more important in the morning. DoBroka likes using a curb for calf stretches, leg swings (front to back and side to side), and kicking your heel toward your butt to loosen tight quads.
Beyond the fact that you’re asking your body to go from rest to run in a short span of time, DoBroka says there are a couple other physical differences to be aware of.
First, DoBroka says that nutrition is a different concern in the morning than at other times of the day. In the morning your tank is empty, since you haven’t eaten for several hours. Exacerbating this is the fact that morning temperatures are often lower and you burn more calories in the cold. So consider how to fuel up before heading out. DoBroka suggests just having a small snack, such as a carb and perhaps some juice. The goal is to aim for natural sugar versus proteins.
Finally, DoBroka warns that early morning runs are not the best time to go for a PR (Personal Record). You’ll typically run slower in the morning, she says. So give your body time to warm up and even stop a couple miles in for some active stretching.
DoBroka’s favorite place to get moving around Charlotte is Crowders Mountain State Park. Dozens of miles of hiking trails traverse two mountains and circumnavigate a small lake. It’s not an easy challenge to make it to the peak before dawn, but catching the sun rising over the Carolina piedmont is a magnificent way to start your day—as any runner who’s been there can attest.
Originally written for OrthoCarolina.