One of the most common questions I get asked is “what should I eat before my workout?” This is a hotly-debated topic, and one that I could write on and on about (but fortunately for you, I’m going to keep it fairly short!). (picture source)
On most mornings, I’m up between 4:30 and 6am (depending on whether I’m traveling, who my client is, and what my workout is). Not only am I still half asleep and not hungry, but I have a very sensitive stomach, and running soon after eating just doesn’t work for me. I’m not excited about sacrificing an extra hour or so of sleep just so I can have something to eat before I work out, so I’m fortunate that – for most workouts – I do just fine heading out the door without any food. But I fully admit that this might not work for everyone, and it might not be the best idea, depending on your goals. Let’s take a look at some pros and cons of exercising before breakfast.
Benefits of Exercising in a “Fasted” State
- Burn more fat: Many studies will show that working out in a fasted state (before you have breakfast) allows you to burn more fat in your workout. The British Journal of Nutrition and the Journal of Physiology both show the fat-burning power and health benefits of exercising before breakfast, but there are dozens of others out there as well. My conclusion is that the difference is relatively small – while you may get a slight fat-burning boost from a fasted workout, the benefits are not huge over time and are often over-stated. If working out fasted means to YOU that you’re less likely to complete your workout effectively, the fat-burning effects alone should not be enough to sway you. But if you’re fine either way, it’s a great bonus!
- Less stomach upset: Not eating before your workout means you are much less likely to have digestive problems from something you ate not settling right (especially if you take time to “take care of business” before heading out). I personally don’t like the feeling of food sloshing around in my stomach while running, and need to allow at least an hour after eating and before running.
- More time: As crazy as this sounds, there’s something kind of nice about just getting up and going, and not having to worry about the extra step of eating. Every few minutes of extra sleep counts, right?! (picture source)
Benefits of Exercising After Breakfast
- Better energy/ performance: This will depend on the person, but I often find that I am able to feel slightly better (and even perform better) in my workouts if I have eaten before. This is why, even for very early morning races, I get up with plenty of time to eat a small, stomach-friendly breakfast, digest, and head to the starting line. It’s probably why I often feel better during weekend workouts, too (well, that and a little more sleep).
- More strength and endurance gains: Many studies show actual performance enhancements in athletes who have eaten before working out. It makes logical sense – if your muscles are topped off with glycogen, they’re more able to work harder, adapt to the demands of your workouts, and achieve strength gains. If you’re doing an intense workout while fasted, your may even end up burning some of your hard-earned muscle, which is never a good thing.
- More alertness: Some people just don’t feel awake until they’ve eaten breakfast, and can feel drained or light-headed when working out fasted. If this is you, and you’re worried about injuring yourself or being unsafe in any way, then by all means, grab a snack before you head out the door! (picture source)
So what would I recommend overall? You have to find what is right for you. If you’re new to working out, try a few fasted workouts, and try eating something small before your morning workouts to see how you tolerate it. Experiment with different foods, too. The topic of what to eat before your workout will have to wait for another post, but suffice it to say that it is very individual, and what works for me may not work for you.
I also want to note that if you do a fasted workout, it’s even more important to eat within an hour or so after your workout to enhance recovery. Ideally, you’ll consume a balanced breakfast, with a good dose of protein (see several benefits of protein here!), which will help you capture all the strength gains you’ve made in your workout.
So tell me in the comments … do you eat before you work out in the morning, or do you prefer fasted workouts?
Ugh, I wish I could eat, but once my intestines are awake – I’m in trouble 🙂
Hi Meghan! Sorry to hear you have trouble with your intestines. Does working out on an empty stomach work for you? Do you only have stomach pain in the morning? I hope you’re able to find a solution that makes it a bit better for you!
I prefer working out a bit after I’ve eaten breakfast… I usually wake up hungry and if I wait to eat until after I workout I’m ravenous throughout my whole workout and cannot stop thinking about anything but food 😛
Makes sense, Allison! I don’t usually wake up hungry … even on weekends it takes me an hour or more before I even want to think about breakfast, so that would mean waking up WAY to early (like 3:30!) during the week. But if you’re hungry right away, and it works for you, I think that’s great!
Great post Megan! I agree that it depends on the person. I have a marathon friend who eats nothing before a race. I could never imagine doing that myself! I also heard somewhere that not eating before a workout depletes the calcium in your body… who know if it’s true, but it scares me a little!
I think the not-eating-before-a-marathon thing is becoming a new trend. I heard some research on a recent podcast that supports that this would control blood sugar better, as long as you start fueling 30 minutes or so into the run. For me, though, I’d be a little too scared to go into a marathon without eating! I think that as long as I give myself time to digest, I need some fuel in the tank! Haven’t heard that about depleting calcium, and I’m not sure how that would work, but it’s something to look into if it worries you!
When I workout in the morning on the weekends I do eat breakfast before. Usually something smallish. During the week I do not. I’m not a morning person and on the rare occasion I work out in the AM during the week it’s too early for me to eat anything! Afterwards is better.
I agree with you 100%, Lisa! We’re on the same eating schedule, although I do always work out in the mornings due to my unpredictable work schedule!
Love this post- I was always one to gloss over this as I love working out first thing and the morning and CANNOT stomach anything- but then again before I sleep I always have a substantial snack regardless of hunger levels so I think that fuels it well.
I do think that makes a big difference – thanks for raising it, Arman. I almost always eat a snack or dessert after dinner, and I think this makes a big difference. For those (crazy! ;)) people who finish dinner at 6pm, don’t eat a thing afterwards, go to bed at 9pm, and wake up at 7am, fueling before a morning workout may be even more necessary than for those of us who snack at night (and don’t get that much sleep!).
I’ve gotten into a good groove recently. I get up. Enjoy a cup of coffee/read blogs/etc for ~1hr then head out the door for a run or get in a strength training session. Running first thing in the morning, without any food in my stomach, has made such a huge difference! I also enjoy getting my workouts “out of the way” so I don’t have to worry about my energy (or lack there of) after an 8hr work day.
That used to be my habit, too, Kerry! Every day in business school I would have coffee and surf blogs or other websites for an hour or so before heading out. It was actually really nice, but the thought of waking up even earlier is deterring me from doing that now. Might have to get back into it!
Great summary – I have *never* (since 1989) eaten before my morning run. Of course only for the last 1.5 years have I moved up to doing longer runs and 50+ mile weeks.
But now that I also run later in the day on occasion – and since all of the races I run are after I’ve been up for a couple of hours, I have had to learn not just about ‘running nutrition’, but also how to balance fuel against … well, the reality of being out for 1 – 3 hours on a run far from home or other potential facilities … 🙂
For me the only ‘non negotiable’ is hydration. EVERYONE needs hydration – you need to figure out what works best for you, but without hydration you will not get peak performance and can really hurt yourself.
UGH, that reality is such a pain when it comes to running, right?! I agree with you on the non-negotiable of hydration. Some people can chug a lot of water before and after, some need a sip every few minutes, some can drink a bit every mile, but regardless, EVERYONE needs to maintain good hydration status!
Great post Meg! This is definitely a topic I ponder A LOT because I am a morning workout person. During the week, I do not eat before my workouts. Like you, I have a sensitive stomach and overall have felt energized and great. But on the weekends and specifically before my long runs as of late, I always ate. So right about finding what works for you but thank you for explaining some of the pros and cons. Hope you have a great day!
You and I have the exact same approach on this, then! Glad you’ve found what works for you.
I was reading a Huff Post article on this earlier this year and they were pushing a fasted state but I definitely do much better with a little fuel in my stomach. For running that usually meant a banana and PB but for lifting I usually do much better working out in the evening or else I’ll take an extended nap on the bench lol. Whatever works for you right?!
I think I came across that Huffington Post article as I was researching for this post! A banana and PB is a common choice … I’d often do a date with a blob of peanut butter or almond butter when I used to eat before morning workouts (and yes, I think your body does change, so it’s possible that I used to need something and now I’m fine without eating). I kind of like the idea of a nap on the bench :).
Great post Megan! I agree that it varies depending on the person! If I wake up first thing to work out I am more of a fasted cardio person – it just works better for me, of course this works ONLY if I do it first thing. If it’s later in the day there is plenty of food had before hand!
I’m the same way, Sara. Love my morning workouts and can’t imagine eating something first, but that’s just what works for us!