Yes, it’s absolutely true that some athletes are “morning” people (larks) and others are “nighttime” people (owls). Currently, scientists believe that your chronotype—or what time you like to go to sleep and wake up— is largely genetic and that it does, indeed, affect athletic performance.
One recent study of Major League Baseball players found that a player’s natural sleep preference might affect his batting average, with larks hitting better before 2 p.m. and owls performing better after 2 p.m., and best after 8 p.m.
This could have huge implications for how players are evaluated before they’re drafted in the future, not only in the MLB but also in other sports organizations, including the NBA, a league who’s games are often played in the evening, says the study’s lead author Dr. Chris Winter. “You can change sleep patterns to some degree, but these tendencies tend to be fairly ingrained,” Winter says.
Researchers have previously demonstrated, for example, that athletes perform better at a certain time of day by regularly training at that time, and that coordination and strength tend to peak between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.—at about the same time your body’s core temperature peaks. However, most of these studies were performed on 20-year-old athletes, and there’s evidence to suggest that “chronological variation in performance” is less apparent in middle-aged athletes compared to younger athletes, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
Winter theorizes that your friends might be older than you are, as older people have an increased tendency toward becoming larks for reasons that aren’t well understood. Or, he says, “that’s just how your circadian tendencies work out.”
Other factors that can make you slower in the morning are more environmental or behavioral than genetic, including working out without eating breakfast, joint stiffness after getting out of bed, and sleep inertia, or a prolonged feeling of sleepiness after waking up.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Your chronotype does affect your performance and may be the reason why your friends hike faster than you in the morning. The Center for Environmental Theraputics has a 19-question circadian rhythm type questionnaire you can fill out online to determine your chronotype.