Should I eat before my morning workout?

Hi all, I have a long overdue post for you today. 

Back in December I started my post series what to eat and when to eat it. I answered these questions;

  1. Should I eat if I'm not hungry?
  2. Should I avoid eating after 8pm?
  3. When is the best time to eat carbs?
  4. What do I eat before and after exercise?

In my last post I talked about how to fuel up before an evening workout. For those of you that head to the gym after work/school and before dinner that post is for you.

Today's post is for those of you that rise and grind. For five years I was up early to fit in a workout and clear my head before the day began. I loved the mental benefits and the security of knowing that my morning time could not be taken from me. However, I constantly struggled with what to eat (if anything) before my workout. I won't lie, it took me quite a bit of time to figure it out. The goal of this post is to help take the guess work out of morning workout meals by providing some go-to guidelines. Although it may take you time to figure out what foods work best for you, I encourage you to experiment until you do. Remember: Your body can truly adjust to anything, just have patience and take it slow.

Should I eat before my morning workout?

Ask yourself these two questions, in this order: What kind of workout am I doing? Am I hungry?

When you ask yourself what kind of workout you are doing, answer based on intensity. For simplicity, I am going to break intensity into three categories: high, moderate, and low. I will give an example of what type of exercise or workout might fall in the category and how to eat for that intensity. The second question, "Am I hungry?", will tie in along the way.

High intensity

If you exercise at a high intensity, such as CrossFit, circuit training, or weight lifting for strength or performance, you need to eat before your workout. High intensity (and fuel necessary) workouts are those that use weights to challenge your muscles (hypertrophy, max reps, strength training) or use weights to get your heart pounding and make you sweat (Crossfit, kettlebell circuit, fast paced superset routines, etc).

A friend came to me for advice about what to eat before early morning high intensity CrossFit workouts. She said that she usually gets herself out of bed with just enough time to change and get in the car, but never with enough time to eat. When she leaves class she is light-headed and dizzy. Does this sound familiar? I bet a LOT of you that have tried the morning workout routine have struggled with these symptoms.

Without giving a detailed physiology lesson (I can save that for another day :P ) the body fuels exercise using both carbohydrates and fats. The carbohydrate sources of energy include glucose from the diet, glucose released from storage in the liver, glucose stored in the muscle itself. Fat sources include fat tissue breakdown and use of fats assembled and released from the liver. What varies is how much of each fuel source is used. This ratio will change based on exercise intensity and an individual's level of fitness. More specifically, it will vary based on one's ability relative to the specific activity they will do. High intensity workouts and strength training routines require more carbohydrate for fuel and use less fat for fuel than other levels of activity. For this reason, it is important to set yourself up for a good performance by providing some energy (glucose) into the blood stream before your workout begins.

When you exercise on empty, such as fasted after a full night of sleep, your stored glucose levels are also low. The dizziness can be due to low blood glucose levels that result from the inadequate  carbohydrate fuel from diet or stored sources. Because this type of exercise demands more carbohydrates than fat, the bodies ability to breakdown and use fat sources is not sufficient enough to keep up with the energy that is needed for this activity. 

Bottom line: you need to eat before these tough workouts! But, it doesn't need to take time away from your sleep... 

Focus on starting with a carbohydrate source. I pretty much only recommend fruit. Whole fruit (unlike fruit juice) has fiber. The fiber slows down the carbohydrate breakdown resulting in a slower influx of glucose (energy) into the blood stream. This provides energy to draw from for a longer period of time than a rapidly absorbed juice. Fruit doesn't have too much fiber so it won't  sit in your stomach or cause GI upset.  Pick an easy portable fruit that you can take even just a few bites of to get energy (from the natural sugar) into your blood stream. This can be enough to get your metabolism moving in the right direction. On your way out the door grab an apple, a banana, some grapes or berries to munch on in the car. 

If having at least half of a piece of fruit is well tolerated try adding in a protein source. Keep it small. Having some protein with a carbohydrate can help support the muscle and it can slow down the absorption of the carbohydrate's glucose, therefore extending the amount of energy available. Here are some examples of pre-workout snacks for high intensity workouts.

Feel free to adjust the portions based on tolerance, fitness level (more seasoned lifters move more weight, therefore their body demands more energy), and activity type (for instance I can't eat as much if I know that I'll be jumping rope or doing burpees between sets).

  • Half to whole apple with cottage cheese 
  • Egg whites (made quickly in the microwave) and fruit
  • Glass of milk (milk has carbohydrates and protein and liquid is often more easily tolerated)
  • Larabar, or other bar
  • Slices of bacon or deli meat (whatever's in the fridge) with grapes
  • Peanut butter and banana
  • Potato (gotta love leftovers) with milk or nut butter (sweet potato and almond butter are a great combo, by the way)
  • Plain yogurt and berries
  • Protein powder mixed with almond milk [although protein powder can be irritating to the stomach and cause gas, some people can only tolerate liquid in the morning because it moves out of the stomach the quickest. try half of a scoop mixed with almond milk or regular milk and take a few sips before the workout starts]

shredded sweet potato + peanut butter


Moderate intensity

Okay, so a moderate intensity workout is probably the most common. A "real" definition exists out there but I want to give you my own examples to help you gauge where your workouts fall. Moderate intensity workouts include circuits that use light (or no) weights and place demand on the cardiovascular system (causes fast heart beat and makes you out of breath) but don't put high demand on the muscles like heavy lifting would. Other examples include kickboxing class, plyometric workout, TRX, light kettlebell circuit, lifting routine not focused on strength or size gains, and metabolic conditioning (short and sweet routine to get your metabolism up and tax the respiratory system, usually <20 minutes often body weight, a metcon workout using heavy weights is high intensity). Unsure where your routine falls? If it doesn't fit into high or low, than it's moderate. 

During moderate activity the use of carbohydrate versus fat becomes more balanced. Which fuel your body has a slight preference for will depend on your usual eating habits and how trained you are.

With moderate intensity workouts, I suggest that you eat a little something. I know, that sounds so vague, but I am serious. Take a bite or two of a banana, have a few apple slices or a few swigs of milk. I like to have a big spoonful of peanut butter, which provides some carbohydrates and protein as well as a decent amount of fat.

At this point, ask yourself "Am I hungry?". If you are hungry, eat more. Any of the above food combos work! No need to introduce an extra meal, but if you are getting dizzy spells during or after your workout that's your sign that you need more fuel coming in.  

Keep in mind: if you take a fitness class that is an hour long it's a good idea to eat more.

Low intensity

Low intensity exercise is still great for your health and should not be discounted. This includes yoga, pilates, going for a walk or jog, any kind cardio that is lasts 30 minutes or less. For low intensity, ask yourself if you are hungry. If you are, eat something small. As I mentioned earlier, keep it simple. Some fruit or nut butter should suffice and keep things easy. . Remember, at these lower intensities the body relies more on fat as fuel and less on carbohydrate. These activities are likely to cause an upset stomach if you are too filled. I avoid eating before low intensity exercise because my GI system doesn't like it, and honestly I can get through just fine without it. Do what works for you.

I know you probably have questions about post-workout meals following a morning workout. I will be following up with a post all about that, but for now it's important to know that you should ALWAYS eat breakfast. Have a good protein and carbohydrate source with breakfast, and downplay the fat after a high intensity workout (but don't leave it out) An example might be an egg bake and a whole piece of fruit. [Feel free to leave me your specific questions to address in my upcoming post about this topic].

more on post workout meals coming soon!

So, when it comes to pre-morning workout fuel, the same tips  from evening workouts hold true: Eat (if you're hungry), keep it small, keep it simple.

Please let me know your comments, questions, and what sorts of things you rely on to get you through your morning workout.



P.S. don't forget...

 ... no morning routine is over until your morning coffee is consumed ;P

... no morning routine is over until your morning coffee is consumed ;P