Fueling early morning workouts can be particularly tricky. Both what you eat and when you eat have an impact on your performance and recovery. Some people might grab a banana or a piece of toast to eat in the car on their way to the gym, while others simply chug a shaker cup filled with pre-workout. But what’s the best way to fuel up for a crack-of-dawn run or strength-training session? The answer really depends on your goals, how much time you’ve between waking up and breaking a sweat, and what type of workout you’re doing. Use this quick guide to figure out your move.
to eat or not to eat?
Before we get into the details of the best foods to reach for to fuel your workout, it’s best to first decide if you’re going to eat at all. Generally speaking, if you’re working out for 60 minutes or less, are planning to do a moderate-intensity workout (think anything you can hold a conversation relatively comfortably while doing), and have eaten in the last 12 or so hours, then you should be just fine to work out in a fasted state without derailing any specific fitness goals you might have.
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In many cases, choosing to exercise fasted may allow you to tap into some of the varied health benefits we continue to learn that fasting has to offer. After all, fasting has been shown to positively affect everything from cellular health, to aging and disease risk, to weight loss and/or weight maintenance (as it prompts your body to rely on stored glucose—and then fat, depending on the length of the fast—for energy). Fasting overnight for a minimum of 12 hours seems to be the minimum effective baseline for experiencing benefits.
That said, if you’re working out for longer than 60 minutes or are doing very high-intensity exercise (like HIIT) for 30 minutes or longer, you’ll want to make sure you fuel up with food in order to reap the most benefits from your workout. (Just note that when it comes to HIIT, fueling needs can vary, so be prepared to experiment based on how you feel.)
What to eat
If fueling up is appropriate, next comes the matter of what to consume. There are a few specific priorities you’ll want to lean into here, including carbohydrates, protein, and hydration.
Carbohydrates provide your body with immediate energy. When you eat them, they’re broken down into glucose (a.k.a. sugar), enter your muscle cells, and power you with the ideal fuel for working out at your highest level.
Carbs are the body’s preferred source of energy for cardiovascular-based exercises like running and spinning. This is because these forms of exercise require significant energy and oxygen, and carbohydrates provide the body with an efficient and quickly-usable source of energy.
It’s important to note, though, that carbs are important for those who focus on strength training, too, because they’re often referred to as “protein sparing”. You see, when the body doesn’t have ample glucose or glycogen available for energy, it starts to break down muscle.
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Supporting research also notes the fact that consuming carbohydrates before exercise increases the rate of burn of energy stores during exercise. Your muscles typically store glucose in the form of glycogen and dip into these reserves as needed when you put them to work. Eating carbs before a workout ensures that you have extra glucose available to restore your glycogen levels as needed so that you always have a ‘full tank’ to continue working at your highest level. Conversely, when you don’t have enough glucose available during a workout, you’ll feel lethargic and more apt to throw in the towel.
Since you’re crunched for time when fueling before an early morning sweat, you’ll want to aim for somewhere between 20 and 40 grams of carbs.
Some quick and easy pre-workout carbohydrates to try:
- a banana
- peanut butter toast
- a granola bar
Now, if you’re working out with the goal of building muscle, protein is an important piece of your overall fueling strategy because it can aid in performance and helps to rebuild broken-down muscle fibers. (Regardless of your activity of choice, protein is also key afterward for recovery.)
While pre-workout protein is not for everyone, research supports the belief that drinking a protein shake (or consuming easily-digestible protein, like egg whites or a protein bar) before a workout can increase performance and strength and support lean body mass. A good rule of thumb is to aim for one to two grams per kilogram of body weight, which looks like 20 to 40 grams of protein in your pre-workout meal.
Of course, no conversation around workout fuel would be complete without addressing hydration. We typically wake up dehydrated after a night of sleep, so starting with eight 16 ounces of water with lemon and a pinch of mineral salt is a great way to rehydrate your cells quickly. The lemon not only offers flavor, but it also supplies powerful antioxidants and a boost of vitamin C, while the mineral salt offers important electrolytes—including magnesium, potassium, and sodium—that support key processes in the body and aid in hydration.
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If you find it hard to stomach solid food right after waking up, you can opt to sip on something that contains carbohydrates (and protein, if applicable) to fuel up and hydrate in the same shot. (Think a simple protein shake or energy gel.)
When to eat
Timing also is at play here. You’ll need at least 20 minutes—if not more, depending on your workout and body—to digest anything you eat before exercising. Since everyone is different, it can take some trial and error with food timing to figure out what feels good in your body before, during, and after your workout.
If you don’t have 20 minutes to spare to digest solid food, reaching for a sports drink, gel, or even juice can provide the body with some easily usable energy to fuel a high-intensity early-morning workout.
The bottom line
With this information and a clear understanding of your goals, you can make smarter choices around fueling early morning training sessions and know whether heading into your workout fueled or fasted best suits your needs. From there, after a little experimentation with different foods, you’ll have a dialed-in routine you can stick with confidently.