What to eat before an early morning run, practice, strength training session or workout class, so you won’t end up with a stomach ache.
Finding the time for fitness isn’t always easy, and many find the early morning hours to be the only suitable time to get a workout in. Since sleep is a precious commodity, it’s likely you hit the snooze button as many times as possible, only to roll out of bed, throw on your workout gear and head out the door.
But doing so means neglecting a key element from your workout –fuel! Not only does food give you energy for exercise, but it also jumpstarts your metabolism.
What macros to eat before a morning workout?
In case you need a little reminder, carbohydrates, like those found in fruits, vegetables and grains, are the primary fuel source to power you through a workout. The body can digest carbohydrates quicker than protein and fat, so they provide quick acting fuel for morning exercise.
The body also stores carbs in the liver and muscles–this is called glycogen. After fasting for 8+ hours while asleep, your glycogen stores are basically depleted. And if you don’t eat anything, that means you’ll be running on empty (literally).
I know what you’re thinking… “I’m already waking up at the crack of dawn to workout, and I really don’t feel like eating that early.” Maybe it’s 5 or 6am, and food just doesn’t seem appealing. Or maybe you’re concerned that you’ll eat the wrong things and get a side stitch or stomach ache.
But if you eat the right thing, you’ll be able to avoid all of these worries. It does take some trial and error to find out what’s the right food for your body early in the morning, but it’s worth it once your figure it out.
What if I workout on an empty stomach?
Working out on an empty stomach (aka fasted workout) is a heavily debated topic in health magazines and on social media lately. Those that work out fasted swear by the benefits, while most Registered Dietitians don’t recommend it.
You may be thinking, “Why would I even want to work out on an empty stomach?” Well, there are a few reasons that people try working out without any “gas in the tank”.
1. You want to burn fat.
It’s well known that the body uses stored carbohydrates, known as glycogen, and dietary carbs as the primary fuel source for exercise. But what happens if you starve the body of carbs?
If you don’t eat before a workout, your body will tap into the glycogen stores to burn them as fuel. But glycogen stores only last for a short period of time. Rather than collapsing on the spot, the body turns to fat stores to break them down for energy.
That sounds awesome, right?! Well… breaking down fat is harder on the body and takes more energy than using carbs. There is some merit to this, as some research suggests that working out in a fasted state may reduce body fat percentage.
That said, there is also research to show that working out in a fasted state will decrease overall performance, but more on that later.
2. You think it will help with weight loss
Since fasted workouts use fat as the primary fuel source for energy, it’s natural to assume that they will help with weight loss. There is some evidence to suggest that fasting at the right times may result in weight loss.
But a fasted workout alone is not enough to help you lose weight. You need a mixture of a well-balanced diet, a calorie deficit and exercise in order to lose weight. [Related: 6 Healthy Tips For Runners To Lose Weight]
Some research even suggests that fasting before a workout can make you hungrier later in the day, which can lead to overeating.
3. You want to prevent indigestion.
We’ve all been there– either you eat the wrong thing before a workout or maybe you eat too big of a meal. Either way, it’s a common complaint among athletes that they experience stomach issues if they eat before a workout.
Because of this, some people choose to workout on an empty stomach. If there’s nothing in your stomach, nothing will jostle around and make you feel sick. [Related: How To Avoid Stomach Issues While Running].
How fasted workouts affect performance
First, it’s important to always have a goal in mind when making nutritional choices. For many of my readers, their nutrition goal goes hand-in-hand with their fitness goals. You want to use food to enhance your performance and increase fitness.
That said, others want to lose weight or try different styles of eating to figure out what works for them. I highly encourage you to think of the reason why you’re making a certain eating choice, like fasting before a workout.
If you’re working out on an empty stomach to increase your overall performance– run faster, lift heavier, grow stronger and more agile– you may want to think twice. Research on fasting before exercise shows mixed results on performance.
For example, some studies reported that not eating before exercise decreased performance, while others showed no effect. I was not able to find any studies that showed an increase in performance when fasting before a workout.
There are a number of reasons for such differences, including the different ways the studies were designed, the length of the fast, and the varying athletic levels of study participants. In general, most of the studies use sedentary people, which doesn’t always correlate to trained athletes.
The study authors recommend that “athletes train at relatively low intensities when fasting to ensure that they recover adequately to optimize performances in competitive events.”
What if it’s a short workout?
If you’re working out for less than 60 minutes, you may think that fasting before a workout is not a big deal. After all, you can power through a workout for 60 minutes without any gas in the tank.
If you want to workout fasted and you feel fine doing so, then go for it! Just keep in mind that although you feel good, you may feel even better if you were to eat a little something.
Sometimes, eating enough the night before may increase glycogen stores so that you might have enough fuel for a morning workout. That means eating a large dinner with plenty of carbs, protein and fats, which will sustain you in the morning.
This all comes down to trial and error. If you feel like working out on an empty stomach works better for you, then that might be the case! But if you don’t eat before a workout, make sure you eat some recovery foods immediately after. This will prevent you from overeating later in the day. [Related: 10+ Best Recovery Foods For Vegetarian Athletes].
Take the guesswork out of fueling with a FREE 7-Day Vegetarian Athlete Meal Plan!
Opt for a food or drink that is mostly made up of simple carbohydrates. These are easy to digest and won’t sit in your stomach and cause GI distress.
The answer to this questions is highly individualized. For example, I can eat a small slice of toast with nut butter an hour before a run and feel okay. Other people can’t tolerate more than half a banana.
You really need to experiment with the amount of food you eat before an early morning workout. My suggestion is to choose one thing on this list and see how it makes you feel. If you feel hungry, add another option. If you have stomach issues, eat half of that one thing.
Below are 10 easy grab and go options that require little to no preparation on busy mornings.
Some of my clients call bananas “potassium sticks” because they are packed with this important electrolyte. That said, they are also rich in easy to digest simple sugars.
Plus, bananas won’t bother your stomach. As a matter of fact, they are recommended to people who recently had a stomach virus as a tolerable food. If you feel like you can eat a little more, put a tablespoon of nut butter on your banana.
2. Dry cereal
Cereal is packed with carbs, which is what you’re body needs before an early morning workout. Look for ones that are lower in fiber and added sugar.
Some of my favorites are plain Cheerios, Chex, Puffins and Life Cereal. Grab a few handfuls before a workout and shovel them into your mouth. There’s no need for milk, which may cause some GI trouble if eaten too soon before a workout.
Although granola is often thought of as a health food, it’s actually just some oats covered in sweeteners. That’s really what your body needs before a workout. Oats are a healthy carb that can be digested quickly. And a little sugar doesn’t hurt right before exercise.
Try it: Vegan Pumpkin Granola
4. Apple sauce
Apple sauce is a mixture of pureed apples, spices and sometimes a hint of sweetener. Since the apples are usually peeled before making the sauce, it’s low in fiber and high in digestible carbs.
If you’re feeling adventurous, try some apple butter instead. It’s made in the slow cooker, so you can set it and forget it!
I love dates so much. They are so naturally sweet, delicious and nutritious. And they work really well in low-sugar desserts. Whenever I feel like I need a little extra fuel before a workout, I pop 2 or 3 dates in my mouth and enjoy their sweet taste and quick-acting carbs.
Dates are also the perfect base for simple energy balls. These Peanut Butter Pretzel Date Energy Balls have the right combo of carbs for a pre-workout snack.
6. Dried Fruit
There are other dried fruits that work just as well as dates for pre-workout fuel. For example, raisins, dried apricots, dried mango, dried apples, dried watermelon and dried pineapple. I recommend looking for options that don’t have any added sugar, since the dried fruit is naturally sweet enough on its own.
7. Honey or Maple Syrup
Speaking of sugar, some people feel like they can’t eat anything in the morning, so they prefer to take a spoonful of honey or maple syrup. Since these options are essentially just sugar, they provide some quick acting fuel that will give you energy for about 20-30 minutes.
If you’re working out for longer than 30-minutes, you may need to stop to eat something. Try a banana!
8. Homemade Sports Drink
Many sports drinks on the market contain unnecessary additives, colors and flavors, but you can make your own at home with just three key components–fluid, electrolytes and carbs. The carbs in sports drinks help provide energy for exercise, and this is a great option for people who can’t stomach real food in the morning.
9. White toast
White toast is lacking in the protein and fiber department, which means it won’t keep you full for long. That said, because it’s pretty much just carbs, white toast is easy to digest and provides quick acting energy. If you like the taste of something starchy in the morning, opt for a slice of white toast.
If you have some leftover white or sweet potatoes from the night before, stick them in the microwave and eat for breakfast. Potatoes are full of incredible starchy fuel that is easy to digest. [ Related: 11 Healthy Carbs For Athletes]