Beep! Beep! Beep! The 4:15 a.m. alarm blares. Your body goes into robotic action as you swing your legs out from under your comfy blankets, turn the alarm off, tug on your workout gear, and walk blindly to the bathroom to brush your teeth and wad your hair into a messy bun. You grab your keys and lock the front door behind you. As you start the car and take a swig from your water bottle, you crank up the radio to lift the fog from your brain and drive a route you know by heart. Your thoughts bounce between the class plan and which members might join you that morning. Feeling more alert, you park, enter the fitness studio, and immediately turn on some upbeat music. You smile because you’re now ready and feeling confident that you’ll lead a great fitness class.
This scenario is familiar to many a brave instructor who dares to take on the crack-of-dawn time slot on the group fitness schedule. I know this routine well, as I teach at this ghastly hour twice a week—not because my body is eager to strain and sweat at 5 a.m.—but because I dedicate my evenings to shuttling my three boys to their practices and games.
When I changed my classes from evenings to early mornings, I felt ill prepared. I remember falling into bed at night, rattled, as my mind raced with these questions:
- What if my alarm doesn’t go off?
- What if my car doesn’t start?
- What if my songs aren’t in my playlist when I get there?
- What if I forget the order of my routine?
- What if . . . ? What if . . . ? What if . . . ?
Those worry-filled nights caused fragmented, restless sleep that affected my well-being the entire next day. The result was a sleepy co-worker, a nutty wife and a grumpy mom. Don’t let this happen to you! If you teach an early-morning fitness class—or are considering it—learn from my mistakes and put a sound action plan in place. When I saw that I needed a new approach, I created a “group fitness emergency preparedness” strategy, inspired in part by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s appeal that we all be ready for real disasters (and not just sleeping through an alarm). As a result, I slept better, left the house without scrambling, and confidently executed a well-led class. I learned how to survive my 4:15 a.m. wake-up call.
The following strategies will help you put together your own survival kit for predawn teaching.
The night before you teach, take a few minutes to put some things in place. This will be helpful because the brain struggles to think clearly just after waking, and we can significantly reduce that struggle by removing the need for decision-making. (The transitional feeling of grogginess and disorientation is known as sleep inertia.)
CHOOSE YOUR ATTIRE
The night before your class, plan out your entire outfit, down to your socks, shoes and jacket. Consider which format you’ll be leading, how your body is feeling (aches, pains, etc.), what colors or holidays you’re feeling inspired by, and which of your workout clothes are clean and available. Place your selections in a specified location (e.g., on a bedside chair or in an armoire). That way, when you awaken the next morning, you’ll find your outfit in its designated spot, ready for you to don. No decisions, no hesitations.
PLACE MUST-HAVES NEAR THE EXIT
My keys. Where are my keys?! And my water bottle? Ah, I’m going to be late! Maybe you’ve felt this panic. It’s likely that you did find your keys, then you ran to your car, sped frantically, arrived shaking and rattled with seconds to spare, and consequently led a poorly cued class. This is a tough lesson to learn, especially considering it’s preventable. Make sure you put your keys and gym bag near the door and, the day before, check that your car has enough fuel.
WRITE THE CLASS PLAN
Be absolutely sure you have written your class plan and/or reviewed any choreography. A classroom teacher who shows up without a lesson plan invites chaos: Trying to teach on the fly leaves room for mistakes and awkward transitions, no matter how many years you’ve been teaching. Your class plan might consist of creative, custom notes or prechoreographed material from a licensed company. Either way, prepare your notes the night before and place them in a special spot—near your keys, for example.
CHECK YOUR PLAYLIST
Do not expect yourself to be a predawn DJ. Create and download your playlist and charge your device the night before. In fact, double-check your device:
- Is it really charging (is there a lightning bolt in the upper corner)? You don’t want to get to class with a dead device because you assumed it was charging.
- Did the playlist actually download, or is it stuck in the cloud? Occasionally you may add and delete items to accommodate storage space, and you may forget to back it up. You don’t want to start setting up for class only to discover that your preferred (and often necessary) playlist is missing. Always have a backup plan for music, whether it’s an older, charged device with a “go-to” playlist or something the facility offers.
NOURISH YOURSELF AND BE “ALARMED”
If you must have java to get started, be sure to program your coffee maker or have your caffeine or juice ritual in place. Also set out your preworkout snack or drink, as you will need to nourish yourself. Bananas, apples, nuts and protein bars/drinks are convenient.
You may want to consider setting two alarms instead of one, to cover your bases. Oh, the relief you will feel! In addition to your smartphone alarm (which seems to be the current standard), set a second alarm, which could be another smart device or just an old-school alarm clock. You will have greater peace of mind knowing that if one alarm doesn’t ring, the other one will. This may be essential to getting restful sleep as an early-bird fitness instructor.
Policies and Communications Preparations
Know your facility’s plans and policies regarding various contingencies. Participants put in as much effort as you do to get to class at that early hour, so determine in advance how you’ll contact them in an “emergency” situation. They will appreciate the communication and heads-up.
HAVE A SICK POLICY
There will likely be times when you wake up feeling ill or need to care for a sick family member. This is why it’s so important to talk to your owner or group exercise director in advance to establish a plan. For example, do you call the front desk and let them take care of all the details? Or do you need to find a substitute? If getting a sub during the night is nearly impossible, will you cancel the class? Are you able to message your participants? It is comforting to know that a plan is “locked and loaded” if you wake up feeling sick. Don’t wait until you are violently ill to consider this issue!
PLAN FOR INCLEMENT WEATHER AND OVERSLEEPING
You also need to determine what will happen if you can’t make it to class because of unsafe weather conditions or car problems. And if the unthinkable occurs and you oversleep—it does happen—what is the fallback plan? Oddly, just having a plan for this cringy situation will help you sleep better.
Focus and Visualize Success
By taking a few well-thought-out steps, you can survive your 4:15 a.m. alarm. Be proactive! Each night prior to teaching, take a moment to visualize your morning. Walk yourself through each step of your routine, from the moment your alarm rings to the moment you push “play” on the stereo. Along the way, ask yourself “What if . . . ?” questions. If you succeed in planning, your plan will be a success. You’ll arrive at your predawn class rested, confident and with a genuine smile.