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How Important Is Breakfast Before a Workout?

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Fast Facts

  • Whether or not you should eat breakfast before working out largely depends on your training style of choice and goals.
  • A pre-workout breakfast with the right mix of carbs, protein, and fat may yield good results when it comes to improved performance and a reduction in muscle damage.
  • Everyone should experiment by training both fed and fasted to actually feel how their energy levels and performance are impacted.

To eat, not eat, or what to eat for a pre-workout breakfast are the age-old questions of morning warriors. This debate re-emerges with every new health craze, like intermittent fasting or the bulletproof lifestyle, flipping everything we thought we knew about “the most important meal of the day” on its head.

The truth? There is no single right answer to what you should eat before a sweat sesh. It largely depends on your training style of choice and goals. Just like you probably wouldn’t train for a marathon if your goal is to gain 10 pounds of muscle, you wouldn’t blindly eat a certain food or train in a fasted state without first comparing that tactic’s outcome to your goals. 

Here’s how to determine what kind of pre-workout breakfast makes sense for you, or if you should consider skipping it altogether. 

Related: What’s the Best Protein Bar?

Is It Better to Train in a Fasted State?

For some experts, the fed-versus-fasted training discussion boils down to two primary concerns: muscle hypertrophy (a.k.a. building bigger muscles) or fat loss. The first camp tends to favor a pre-workout breakfast, while the lean-seekers often opt to exercise on empty in order to accelerate weight loss. 

The thinking behind the latter is that low-glycogen levels in the body mean you’re tapping into fat stores to power your workout, supercharging fat oxidation, and therefore dropping unwanted pounds faster. 

While science (1) has produced some studies to support this theory, when you consider the many variables like individual fitness levels, the extent of caloric restriction, and training styles (low to high intensity and endurance versus resistance) it quickly becomes more nuanced. 

“A lot of that depends on the type of activity you are doing,” says functional-medicine expert Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, author of Intuitive Fasting (out Feb 23). “The more intense activity you do, the more likely you are to benefit from eating before working out versus if you are doing a low-impact exercise like yoga.” 

So while there is some evidence to support fasted training for fat loss and in some cases sustained energy, is it the better way to train? Not necessarily. “Ultimately, whether or not to eat before or after a workout depends on the individual. I’ve seen a lot of people do well with waiting to eat until afterward, while others need to eat at least a little bit,” says Cole. 

Ask yourself how strenuous the activity is and if fat reduction is a top goal. And, perhaps even more importantly, experiment by training both fed and fasted to actually feel how your energy levels and performance are impacted. 

What Should You Eat for Breakfast Before a Workout?

One thing research (2) agrees on is that a pre-workout breakfast with the right mix of carbs, protein, and fat (your macronutrients) may yield good results when it comes to improved performance and a reduction in muscle damage. 

The macro breakdown will depend on the activity and your fitness level. “People who are more active are going to benefit from eating more clean carbohydrates than someone who is sedentary, in combination with healthy fats,” explains Cole. 

“Before working out, a smoothie is a great choice. It’s easier for your gut to digest than a big meal. After you’re done working out, eat something more substantial.” (See Cole’s go-to smoothie below).

So, what macros make up the ideal pre-workout breakfast? Experts often recommend a 40/30/30 (protein, fat, and carb) mix as effective in building lean muscle while still promoting fat loss. And as Cole mentioned, if you tend to train more than average—endurance junkies, we’re looking at you—you may want to increase clean, slow-burning carbs to better fuel long sessions.  

Because macro breakdowns are so individualized, feel free to get really specific with help of an app like My Fitness Pal or a free online macro calculator. 

As for when to eat your pre-workout breakfast? Try to eat your pre-workout meal two to three hours before training. This will help ensure proper digestion before intense activity so you can focus on gains (and not gut pain).

The more intense activity you do, the more likely you are to benefit from eating before working out.

Pre-Workout Breakfasts That Suit Your Training Style

Moderate to High-Intensity HIIT or Resistance (<60 minutes)

  1. A balanced smoothie (Try Dr. Cole’s go-to smoothie with collagen protein, spinach, blueberries, a banana and ice. “Have it about 30 minutes before your workout and the clean carbs from the fruit will give you a boost,” he says.)
  2. Plain Greek yogurt with granola and berries
  3. Omelet with veggies and cheese of choice
  4. Cottage cheese and berries
  5. High-protein breakfast cookie

 

Endurance – Cycling or Running (>70 minutes)

  1. Avocado toast topped or served with two eggs
  2. Protein pancakes topped with Greek yogurt
  3. Oatmeal with peanut or almond butter and chia seeds
  4. Egg scramble with veggies of choice and side of multigrain toast
  5. Breakfast burrito with scrambled, eggs, black beans, and peppers in multigrain wrap

 

 

What Not to Eat Before a Workout

“Even if your meal is clean, don’t eat a huge amount of food before going to the gym unless you are able to wait a few hours to allow your body to fully digest it,” says Cole.

You may also want to avoid fibrous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower that could cause gastrointestinal discomfort. Steer clear of meat-heavy dishes that require a lot of energy to digest, as they may leave you feeling sluggish and sleepy. And anything too high in sugar that gives you an initial energy spike may then come crashing down, zapping you of the fuel you need for your workout.

In the end, experimentation is the best tool to find your perfect pre-workout breakfast formula. Coupled with the expert tips listed here, tweak it until it fuels your ideal, high-powered morning sessions.

The Bottom Line

Eating breakfast before working out largely depends on your training style of choice and goals. The more strenuous activity you do, the more likely you are to benefit from eating before working out versus doing a low-impact exercise like yoga. If you do choose to eat before exercising, a pre-workout breakfast with the right mix of carbs, protein, and fat may yield good results when it comes to improved performance and a reduction in muscle damage. Ultimately, it’s about experimenting until you find what works best for you.

References:
  1. Zouhal, H., Saeidi, A., Salhi, A., Li, H., Essop, M. F., Laher, I., Rhibi, F., Amani-Shalamzari, S., & Ben Abderrahman, A. (2020). Exercise Training and Fasting: Current Insights. Open access journal of sports medicine, 11, 1–28. https://doi.org/10.2147/OAJSM.S224919
  2. Kerksick, C. M., Arent, S., Schoenfeld, B. J., Stout, J. R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C. D., Taylor, L., Kalman, D., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D., Arciero, P. J., VanDusseldorp, T. A., Ormsbee, M. J., Wildman, R., Greenwood, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Aragon, A. A., & Antonio, J. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 33. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4 

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