If you go out for a run before sunrise or take a spinning class at 5 a.m., it can be difficult to decide whether to eat breakfast before or after an early morning workout. (or both). With so much going on about the importance of pre- and post-workout meals, it feels like a massive amount of food and stone is crammed into a small window.
Nutritionists say there really isn’t a definitive answer for everyone, but there are guidelines that can help you make the right decision.
“It’s a bit of an individualized recommendation,” said Kristen Smithspokesperson for Nutrition and Dietetics Academy and the founder of 360 Family Nutrition. “While not everyone needs to eat something before a workout, for some it might be beneficial to eat a small carbohydrate-rich snack.”
And, some people may prefer to eat smaller amounts before and after working out, Smith noted.
While how you align your meals with your workouts is a personal choice, nutritionists and fitness experts explain that there are several factors to consider when deciding when to eat. Also, certain foods are best for pre- and post-workout meals.
The benefits of eating before a morning workout
You make need fuel for exercise. Research suggests that eating or drinking carbs before exercise may improve training performance and may allow you to train longer or at a higher intensity, said Carol Espel, fitness director at Pritikin Longevity Center.
THE Nutrition and Dietetics Academy recommends eating carbs and protein one to four hours before training – but that’s not always possible if you’re exercising at 5 a.m.
Some people have enough stored energy from what they ate the day before to support their early training, said Kat comefitness expert and founder of Studio Sweat on demand. “It’s about intuitive eating and intuitive exercise, and being in tune with your body,” Kom told HuffPost. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution.”
How to test your tolerance for a pre-workout breakfast
People have different needs, and those needs can change from day to day. Kom said if you’re new to training, you might want to eat something beforehand. If you’re a seasoned athlete, you can’t. Some people may have sensitive stomachs and risk getting sick if they eat before exercising.
“I can’t eat anything two hours before my workout,” Kom said. “Whereas my husband could probably eat a burrito and then get into a HIIT workout. I always suggest my clients try different things to see what works best for them.
The most important thing is to pay attention to how you feel during your workout, Kom explained. Do you feel nauseous? Dizzy? Do you feel like you have enough energy to train at the intensity level you prefer?
If you eat before exercising and your stomach hurts, try skipping your pre-workout meal. If you’re not eating and you’re feeling dizzy or having trouble keeping up with your fitness routine, try eating a little something next time.
“It’s important to experiment and figure out which eating pattern works best for your body,” Smith said.
Several other factors could also influence when to eat, Smith said. For example, nutritional and fitness goals, medical history, duration and intensity of physical activity, and time of your last meal.
“If you’re not a fan of eating before a workout and it doesn’t affect your performance, definitely don’t force yourself to eat anything,” Smith said.
Pre-workout hydration matters more than eating
Choosing to eat before your morning workout can be a personal choice, but Kom said everyone should aim to drink water first.
Research suggests that drinking water before breakfast helps people reduce their overall calorie intake throughout the day. Studies also show that hydration plays a key role in physical performance, injury prevention and recovery.
When you are dehydrated, your energy levels will build up and your training will suffer. Kom suggested drinking about 16 ounces of water in the hour before exercise.
“As soon as I get up, I drink water,” she says. “I drink water on the way to the gym and when I work out.”
What to eat before training
If you choose to eat before you exercise in the morning, it’s best to avoid foods high in fat and protein because they can take longer to digest, Smith said. And don’t eat too much.
The goal is to prevent stomach pain and minimize nausea, Kom noted.
“Generally, you want to eat foods with carbohydrates, such as dry cereal, dried fruit, peanut butter with fruit, or oatmeal with milk and fruit,” Smith said.
You should always have a meal after training
A post-workout meal is crucial whether you eat before exercise or not. THE Mayo Clinic suggests eating carbohydrates and protein within two hours of exercise.
“After exercise, your body immediately begins to replenish glycogen stores and regrow muscle protein,” Espel said. “Fueling these processes soon after exercise can help your body do it faster.
Choose unprocessed carbohydrates and proteins, she noted. Think: whole grain bread, peanut butter with a banana, fruit and yogurt, a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with veggies, or a recovery smoothie.
“It can maximize protein and glycogen synthesis, boost metabolism, and most importantly, improve recovery,” Espel said.
Even if you’re not trying to gain massive amounts of muscle, you need to eat protein. It provides essential amino acids that your body cannot supply on its own.
According to a story previously published by HuffPost, a generally healthy person who is not very active should consume 0.8 grams to 1 gram of protein for each kilogram of body weight per day (that would be about 68 grams of protein for someone 150 pounds), and a super active person would need about 1.2 grams to 1.7 grams per kilogram per day (82 grams to 116 grams of protein for a 150 pound person).