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Dietitian Gabrielle Maston tells us why – and how – we should fuel our body before early morning training.
Training first thing in the morning is a good way to exercise before the day’s busy schedule can derail your workout plans. Ideally, you’d be up for a few hours so that your body temperature has a chance to rise and the fluid that has settled in the discs of your spine overnight has some time to get moving. Add to this the fact that for many of us, the stomach is still in shutdown mode after a night in bed, making eating difficult when we first get up. Unfortunately, the reality is that most of us will take those extra hours (and every extra minute!) to sleep, even at the cost of preparing and/or eating properly before training.
Do you have trouble facing food first thing? If so, then you probably feel a bit queasy at the idea of eating and exercising straight after you jump out of bed, but your stomach can be trained! Start by having a few mouthfuls of anything you feel you can keep down, even if it’s just a piece of fruit or dry crackers, a liquid meal such as a protein shake or even just half a glass of milk. You’ll get used to eating in the morning, it just takes practice.
You may be eating too late in the evening or bingeing on large amounts of food at night which can curb your morning appetite. If so, cutting back on your eating at night will see you hungrier in the morning.
I have a rule for all my clients, whether they’re athletes or not: eat breakfast immediately after waking up or at least before 8am. This gets the metabolism ‘power house’ going so that we can start burning fuel and fat first thing in the morning. This is often misunderstood by people who are training for weight management/fat loss – they tend to think that it is better to fast before training. This is not the case – you should still always eat before morning exercise in order to get the best metabolic gains. Eating a low GI (‘complex’ carbs) breakfast in the morning has been shown to help you improve and regulate eating patterns better for the whole day, compared to not eating early morning. It also prevents the tendency to binge eat after your morning workout because you get starving hungry.
For the athletes, there’s another issue. If you skip breakfast and then train, your performance declines by 15% on average. If you’re competitive about a sport or you’re trying to build muscle, then this means your morning sessions won’t be effective enough to create any improvement in performance.
The nature of your breakfast pre-training should vary depending on what you are doing.
If you are doing moderate to high-intensity cardio-based training, you need higher levels (1 oz.+ of carbohydrates to fuel your workout. Some options are:
If your session is particularly intense, at least have something small (1/2 oz. = 1 fruit) just to get energy flowing. In many people, lactate production during high-intensity training can cause bowel upset or you may feel sick to the stomach while training if you eat too much before training and/or eat too close to training time. This will of course hinder your performance! Experiment a little with foods until you work out what foods stay down well and still provide the energy you need – but know your limits.
Strength training requires 2.5g leucine (an amino acid) to get muscle synthesis (a size increase or a rebuilding of individual muscle cells) started pre-workout. You could get this from a scoop of protein powder or 600ml of skim milk. For this type of workout, it’s good to have a high-dairy breakfast or foods from other high-protein sources, such as eggs, chicken, tuna, etc.
Sometimes people think that there’s such little time between getting out of bed and training that it’s not worth eating in between. However, there is no minimum time required between eating and training in the morning – your body can process food even during training, so eat when it suits, especially if your goal is weight loss.
Competitive athletes will probably want to get a little fussier. If this is you, then you should preferably eat one hour before training in order to make the most of your food in terms of nutrients and energy required for your training. Even if you miss this window, you can still take action. Cardio athletes can use high GI (‘simple’) carbs that will absorb into their system faster (e.g. fruit juice or a sports drink), while strength training athletes can use branch-chain amino acids (BCCAs) for the same reason.
BCAAs (around 10g or up to 0.1g per pound bodyweight) prior to training will also produce a ‘muscle sparing’ effect – that is, they will prevent excessive muscle breakdown. Bear in mind that a stand-alone BCAA product will provide very little or no energy, so you will need to have something else after training to refuel you. Alternatively, protein powders made with whey provide calories plus they are very high in BCCAs.