Exercising first thing in the morning has a ton of advantages: it wakes you up, sets you up with a success before you’ve fully started your day, and ensures you won’t forget to work out later. But then there is the problem of breakfast.
Do you have to eat breakfast before a workout?
No, but it helps. Some people find fasted workouts to be harder than ones where they’ve eaten beforehand. Though this depends on the person, the workout, and, to some degree, whether you’ve gotten used to exercising on an empty stomach.
For an easy workout, like a light jog or a short lifting session, you may not notice a difference between training with and without breakfast. In that case, do whatever you prefer. But expect breakfast to help for:
- High intensity cardio or conditioning work, like fast running or true high intensity interval training.
- Long workouts, especially those lasting more than 90 minutes.
- Any workout after which you tend to feel unusually tired, which may include heavy strength training.
If you have enough time in the morning, you can wake up, eat a normal breakfast, then get around to training an hour or so later. This routine works for a lot of people, but some of us try to hit the road or the gym as soon as possible after waking up. In that case, your choice of food matters more.
What is the best thing to eat?
Carbs provide quick energy, especially if you eat them in a form that your body can process quickly. This mainly includes sugar and starches, which digest most quickly when they are not combined with much fat, protein, or fiber.
In other words, this is different from what would normally look like a healthy meal. You’ll have time after your workout for something that digests a little slower. But if you have to eat immediately before a workout, go with something that’s mainly carbs. A few traditional options are:
- A banana
- Oatmeal or overnight oats
You don’t have to eat purely carbs if you don’t want. Feel free to put some peanut butter on that toast if you like, or have a yogurt, which contains both carbs and protein. Experiment to see what hits the sweet spot in between carb-y and tasty.
What if I don’t want to eat carbs?
That’s up to you, but make sure you’re aware of the potential effects on your workout. If you eat a keto or low carb diet, it may make sense to put some of the few carbs you do eat right in front of your workout. And if you use intermittent fasting as part of a weight loss strategy, you’ll have to balance the pros and cons of having breakfast before you work out. Again, a small snack may help you have more energy for your workout without totally derailing your diet.
Sometimes people train fasted on purpose because it “burns fat,” but that’s only true on a technicality. If I want to keep more money in my bank account, I can pay cash for something rather than using a debit card. But at the end of the day, my money is still all my money, no matter how I made an individual purchase. Choosing one payment method versus another doesn’t make me any richer.
In the same way, “burning fat” during a workout doesn’t affect how much fat you’ll have in your body at the end of the day. You can burn 200 calories of carbs from your breakfast, or you can burn 200 calories of fat and then eat an extra 200 calories afterward. Total calorie balance is what matters, not the metabolic details of what substrate your mitochondria are munching on during a workout.
What if I can’t eat first thing in the morning?
There are a few solutions to this problem. First, you may be fine without breakfast; some people prefer to train fasted because it’s easier, and they accept the slight fatigue. You may also want to look into waking up earlier to have time to digest a meal, or simply rearrange your workout to come later in the day.
But there’s usually something you can eat, if you want to. Beverages are often easier to stomach than foods, so try some skim milk or almond milk, and consider using the sweetened version (like chocolate milk) or adding something like honey for extra carbs. I used to think a “shake” had to be a big smoothie full of fruit and ice and protein powder and peanut butter, but these days my go-to before a workout is just one cup of chocolate almond milk, with or without whey powder, to get a start on the day’s protein.
If you truly can’t eat before the workout, can you eat it? Long workouts can benefit from intra-workout nutrition. That normally means workouts longer than 90 minutes, but there’s no law saying you can’t bring your breakfast with you for a shorter workout. If you run, grab some of those gel packets that marathoners and endurance cyclists use during races. If you lift, mix up a shake and bring it with you to sip between sets.
Ultimately, the best breakfast is one you only discover from experience. Don’t be afraid to try something new: if you currently train without breakfast, a few bites of toast beforehand might make a night-and-day difference. Experiment and see what works for you.