I do two workouts most days: a session on a spin bike in the morning, and weightlifting in the afternoon or evening. But I remember a time when two-a-days sounded like an incredible amount of work, the domain of pro athletes and people who had an unhealthy obsession with exercise. It turns out that doubling up on workouts isn’t as scary as it sounds though, and can actually help you find more time in your day to exercise.
Before we get into the why and how, let’s talk about one important reason not to do two workouts. If you’re preoccupied with how many calories you’re burning, or if you exercise to “earn” your food, or if you feel like a bad person for exercising less than usual, these are all reasons you might want to reevaluate your relationship with exercise and consider seeking help.
These can be signs of compulsive exercising, which is in the same family of mental health issues as eating disorders. The National Eating Disorders Association has a helpline and resources if you need them.
Why you might want to do two workouts in a day
OK, now let’s talk about some of the good reasons to do two workouts a day. The most common is to avoid inconveniently long workouts. Runners often split up their easy runs to get enough weekly mileage: it’s easier to do five miles in the morning and five in the afternoon than to wake up early enough to get a 10-miler in before work.
Another is to add volume to an already-packed schedule. Maybe you already lift five days a week, but you know you need to do some cardio and some stretching to improve your performance as an athlete, or even for general health. (Cardio is good for you and, no, it doesn’t kill your gains.) Doing those extra things in a separate, dedicated workout may work better for you than just tacking them onto your existing workouts.
You might also simply enjoy doing multiple workouts. Exercise is good for your mental health, helping to reduce stress and potentially help manage symptoms of anxiety or depression. If a morning jog puts you in a good mood for the next few hours, there’s no need to skip it just because you have another workout planned later.
The big secret: easy workouts
When somebody does two workouts a day, here’s the big secret: they aren’t all hard workouts.
If you’re used to going all-out every time you hit the gym, you’ll need to temper your expectations for your two-a-day life. Your body might be able to handle three or even five truly intense workouts each week. It’s unlikely to be able to handle ten.
Plan out your week, and figure out how many genuinely hard workouts need to be in it. Space them out as appropriate. Then, add in your extra workouts, being careful to select ones that don’t have much of a recovery cost.
It takes some self-experimentation to know what you can recover from easily. As a general rule of thumb, these things are hard on your body and will probably make your next workout feel a lot harder. Be careful how you schedule them:
- Heavy deadlifts
- Maxing out big lifts
- Speed workouts in running
- Long runs
- Races or time trials
- Anything very long, very heavy, or where you feel exhausted afterward
By contrast, there are plenty of workouts that don’t have a huge recovery cost. Things in this list can go pretty much anywhere in your weekly schedule. I’m going to give a few examples, with the caveat that you should only count a workout as easy if it feels easy for you. If you’re a marathoner, a three-mile jog is nothing. But if you’re new to exercise, that same jog might be one of your week’s hard workouts. So use your judgment. Here are a few examples of potential easy workouts:
- Stretching, foam rolling, or other mobility work
- Short, easy pace runs
- Low intensity cardio on a bike, elliptical, etc
- Lifting light or medium weights, especially if you don’t take the sets all the way to fatigue
- Conditioning work, if you’re in good enough shape that it doesn’t wreck you (for example: prowler pushes, burpees, kettlebell swings)
As you get stronger and fitter, things may start moving from the “hard” list to the “easy” list. Last year’s long run may be this year’s short easy run. Deadlifts will stay on the heavy list if you keep upping the weight, but lighter deadlifts might be able to move to the easy list. You get the idea.
Pay attention to your nutrition
Normally, pre- and post-workout nutrition are just not that important. Normal meals, at normal times, can easily supply your body with protein. While there is an optimal “window” for refilling your muscles’ carbohydrate stores after a workout, those stores will be full again within about 24 hours no matter what you do.
But if you’re doing two-a-days, you’ll have your next workout before 24 hours have elapsed. So it becomes important to actually hit that post-workout window. Make sure to get some carbs, ideally mixed with protein, after each workout. This can be as simple as planning one of your regular meals to fall after a workout, but you can also bring a shake or an energy/protein bar to the gym if you need a more convenient option.
Work up to two-a-day workouts
As with anything else in fitness, building this habit may seem daunting at first. If you currently work out three times a week, don’t expect to jump right into a two-a-day habit. Start by adding one or two easy workouts each week, which can be as simple as a walk around your neighbourhood or a beginner yoga video.
Build on that over time, each week deciding to add a little more volume or to make one of the workouts more intense.
If you’d like a look at how this might work in practice, I currently do olympic-style weightlifting on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. I do deadlifts on Saturday. That’s five hard workouts, and they’re all in the afternoon or evening because that’s when I prefer them. On top of that, I hop on my spin bike almost every morning for an easy session of at least 30 minutes. Sometimes I’ll mix it up and do some kettlebell stuff instead of or in addition to the bike, so the schedule isn’t set in stone.
My workout schedule changes with the seasons, and yours can, too. In some phases there’s more lifting, and in others there’s more cardio. There are definitely times I drop back down to one workout a day because, hey, everybody needs a break sometimes.
So don’t be afraid to give two-a-days a try if you’re curious about them. You’re not going to injure yourself or wear yourself out if you’re careful about how you plan your schedule. And who knows, you might find that you like it.