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?