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Should you eat before a morning workout? – Kelly Jones Nutrition


You’re not hungry when you wake up, but are starving right after exercise or later in the day. You read about fasting in the media, consider it, and then hear it’s not great. You feel like you should eat before training, but social media has made you fearful of carbs. No matter why you’re questioning if you should eat before a morning workout, this article has you covered with the science (and practicality) behind what’s best as well as suggestions for what to eat if you, in fact, should be eating.

Fueling Exercise

Muscles are fueled by stored energy as well as the energy eaten just before or even during exercise. The stored energy is either glycogen, stored carbohydrate, or fat, stored as itself in muscle cells or as fat tissue. What’s eaten before or during exercise supplies energy to the bloodstream that can then be used by the muscles and the brain (among other cells) during activity, especially if your muscle stores of carbohydrate start to drop.

If you’re engaging in activity above 65% of your max effort, your muscles prefer to use the stored muscle carbohydrate as fuel. It’s the most efficient way for the muscles to maintain a moderate to high intensity during exercise, meaning that without enough, intensity will drop and so will your mental energy and will to continue moving. Side note: other than walking, gentle yoga, and light weight training with rest, most activity is going to get you above that 65%! This means eating adequate carbohydrate at your meals and snacks each day is helpful to maintain muscle carbohydrate stores and therefore your exercise intensity and duration.

The other main source of energy for muscles is fat. Fat fuels muscles for lower intensity movements (such as walking, yoga, or light mat pilates) and helps supply some energy for any longer duration activities, alongside carbohydrate. It won’t fuel those higher intensity movements (>90% max effort) though, and since fat is stored in adequate amounts in the body, it is not a nutrient that needs to be prioritized in food sources in the hours before you start exercise. 

Two smaller sources of energy include certain amino acids and creatine-phosphate. The former is not preferred to be used at all – we want to preserve protein and amino acids for muscle repair and growth as well as metabolic functions. For the latter, there’s a lot to cover, so stay tuned for our next article on it! In short, it offers energy for max effort movement between 3-18 seconds. 

should you eat before a morning workout

When should you eat before a morning workout? Why?

  1. You wake up hungry.
    Hunger is a clear sign your body needs energy and nutrients from food. If you’re hungry before a workout, it likely also means your blood sugar is on the lower end of normal and will decline more during exercise as you struggle to hit the intensity you prefer and try to convert not only fat, but also muscle protein into energy. You may also wind up with excess stress hormone release to start your day, potentially setting you up for irritability, poor productivity, and erratic eating patterns.
  2. Your workout is moderate to high intensity and over a half hour
    Once you get past even 20 minutes of high intensity activity – like a speedy run, power-packed peloton ride, or non stop weight circuit – your body will have fueled off of muscle carbohydrate and blood sugar may start to decline since you haven’t eaten since yesterday. Your body will also feel that stress from the workout and want the reassurance that you’re providing it with enough energy to keep powering through.
  3. Your workout is low intensity but will last over an hour
    After you’ve been moving for an hour, as may be the case with a long walk or yoga flow, your body is likely feeling hungry and ready for food. If you plan to head out for over an hour, or there’s a chance you may move for longer, bring a carb rich snack, such as dried fruit, to keep blood energy levels stable and prevent excessive hunger afterwards.
  4. You have two workouts in a day or trained hard the evening before
    For athletes and those training for competitive events, two a day workouts may be the norm. Or, maybe your work schedule lends to a later workout one day and an early morning one the next. In these cases, your recovery window is much shorter and you don’t have the time to replenish muscle energy stores over the course of several meals and snacks. Eating before a morning workout, even if it isn’t your most intense, means supplying adequate energy for that training session and your next one or ensuring that you can continue to recover from last night’s workout while making the most of this one.
  5. You can’t maintain the intensity you want until the end of your workouts
    If you consistently struggle to maintain a high intensity through the end of your workouts or aren’t recovering as well as you feel you should be, you may be underfueled even without feeling very hungry. Different people may feel hunger in different ways and poor energy levels or progress with your training program and fitness goals are a sign something is inadequate. Check out the food, fitness and hunger log we use with our 1-1 clients to learn more about yourself.
  6. You’re stuck in a cycle where you usually overeat later in the day
    If you feel like you either lack an appetite or “successfully” try to eat less earlier in the day only to eat an oversized dinner and snack excessively through the evening, chances are you need to eat more earlier in the day. Anytime we have clients deal with binge eating or overeating at night, their desires to eat more later in the day diminish as soon as they start to emphasize eating more early in the day. Get your day started on the right foot by providing your body with energy before you need it versus the other way around.
  7. You’re trying to gain muscle
    Protein, protein, protein, right? Not so much. Yes, you absolutely need to eat more protein to gain muscle, but eating “enough” protein won’t matter if you don’t eat enough calories from carbs to fuel your muscles and your brain. Consistently eating adequate energy from the time you wake up to your last meal of the day ensures the protein you consume can be used for muscle building versus as an energy source.

When is it okay to workout fasted?

  1. You aren’t hungry and don’t get hungry during training
    But side note here, be sure you are in tune with hunger cues other than “that feeling” in your stomach! Learn all about them here.
    If you aren’t hungry during, don’t feel ravenous and overeat later, and feel comfortable with balanced meals throughout the day, keep doing what you’re doing!
  2. You maintain a high intensity through your entire workout
    High intensity means high stress. This is a good thing in some ways, as it causes your body to desire adaptation to enhance muscle strength, power, endurance and to enhance functions of your cardiorespiratory system. But, if that stress doesn’t come with adequate fuel and / or corresponds with lower than desired blood sugar, it can also means excess release of stress hormones and poor recovery. If you’re apprehensive, just try – you can always go back to not eating before, but at least you can have data on your energy levels during and after workouts from doing it both ways before making that decision.
  3. You’re moving 30 minutes or less or at a low intensity for under an hour
    No need to take the time to eat before unless you’re hungry. Enjoy your exercise session and be prepped to have a balanced meal with fiber rich carbs, protein, and color after wards.
  4. You don’t feel ravenous, overeat or have intense cravings for sweets or starch later
    Whether later in the day or in the week, intense – or even subtle – cravings for sweet or starchy foods and beverages may be a sign your body is looking to get energy in quickly to make up for deficits. Examples: mid-morning you can’t think about anything but a pastry even though you ate breakfast, you’re always reaching for coffee for “energy” mid afternoon on AM workout days, you can’t stop reaching for sports drink hydration packets or soft drinks, or the entirety of the bread basket doesn’t stand a chance against you. Give your body energy early and enjoy those other foods in amounts that actually feel normal and good to you at times that make sense.
  5. You plan to fuel during your training
    If you’re up and out the door for a run or ride, you may already have a product or food in your fuel belt to take in during training. So long as you ate enough energy and carbs the day prior and are ingesting enough energy during training to account for how long you’re spending, it can be okay to skip fuel. If you’re hitting high mileage though or training for a race, pre-workout carbs are recommended in addition to what you ingest during activity to help your body keep up with energy losses.

What should you eat before a morning workout?

If you fall into the category that really should prioritize fuel, but are still second guessing it, remember that training with limited carb stores will impair training intensity, duration, and even cognitive function and then may cause you to overeat later. You can also decide to commit to 1 or 2 weeks of pre-workout fueling, log any differences in how you feel (see log and examples of what to look for here), and make a decision about what’s best for you once you can actually compare. Maybe you realize you need a little something before a morning run, but not your morning lift – or you realize timing and length of workout make a difference. Women of child bearing age may even notice differences during their menstrual cycle and need morning fuel during the luteal phase only.

If you’re worried because you don’t want food sitting in your stomach or need something super close to training, we have you covered – there are plenty of compact options. Check out our suggestions below for what to eat depending on the amount of time you have before your morning workout.

What to eat 60-90 minutes before a morning workout:

  • Freezer waffle with peanut or seed butter
  • Homemade banana muffins and nuts
  • Small serving of oats and fruit
  • PBJ toast
  • Homemade protein bites
  • Oat & Honey Bar
  • RXBar AM
  • Trader Joe’s date nut bars
  • Clif bar nut butter or energy bar

What to eat 30-60 minutes before a morning workout:

What to eat with 15-30 minutes before exercise:

  • Ripe banana
  • Clif z bar or single energy bite
  • Dry cereal
  • Fruit smoothie

What to eat with less than 15 minutes before a workout:

Of course, with all of the above, be sure you’re well hydrated with adequate fluid the day prior and some the morning of.

Want more? Learn more about the details of fueling before and after a workout anytime of day.

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