If you go out for a run before the sun comes up or take a 5 a.m. spin class, it can be tough to figure out whether it’s best to eat breakfast before or after an early-morning workout (or both). With so much said about the importance of both pre-workout and post-workout meals, it feels like an awful lot of food and calculation is being 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 Smith, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the founder of 360 Family Nutrition. “While not everyone will require eating something before a workout, for some, it might be beneficial to eat a small carbohydrate-rich snack.”
And, some people may prefer eating small amounts before and after working out, Smith noted.
Though 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-workout and post-workout meals.
The benefits of eating before a morning workout
You do need fuel to exercise. Research suggests that eating or drinking carbs before exercising can improve workout performance and may enable you to work out longer or at a higher intensity, said Carol Espel, director of fitness at Pritikin Longevity Center.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating carbs and protein one to four hours ahead of working out — but that’s not always feasible if you’re exercising at 5 a.m.
Some people have enough energy stored from what they ate the night before to sustain their early workout, said Cat Kom, a fitness expert and founder of Studio Sweat onDemand. “It’s all about intuitive eating and intuitive exercise, and being in tune with your body,” Kom told HuffPost. “There’s 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 working out, you may want to eat something beforehand. If you’re a seasoned exerciser, you may not. 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 hop into a HIIT workout. I always suggest that my clients try different things to see which works best for them.”
The most important thing is to pay attention to how you’re feeling during your workout, Kom explained. Do you feel nauseous? Lightheaded? Do you feel like you have enough energy to work out at the intensity level that you prefer?
If you eat before exercising and feel sick to your stomach, try skipping your pre-workout meal. If you don’t eat and feel lightheaded or struggle to make it through your fitness routine, try eating a little something next time.
“It’s important to experiment and determine what eating pattern works best for your body,” Smith said.
Several other factors also might influence when to eat, Smith said. For instance, nutritional and fitness goals, medical history, length and intensity of physical activity, and the timing of your last meal.
“If you’re not a fan of eating before a workout and it doesn’t affect your performance, then certainly don’t force yourself to eat something,” Smith said.
Pre-workout hydration matters more than eating
Opting to eat before your morning workout may be a personal choice, but Kom said everyone should aim to drink water first thing.
Research suggests that drinking water before breakfast helped people reduce their overall calorie intake throughout the day. Studies also show that hydration plays a key role in fitness performance, injury prevention and recovery.
When you’re dehydrated, your energy levels will tank and your workout will suffer. Kom suggested drinking about 16 ounces of water in the hour before exercising.
“The second I get up, I’m drinking water,” she said. “I’m drinking water on the way to the gym and when I’m working out.”
What to eat before you work out
If you choose to eat before exercising first thing in the morning, it’s best to avoid foods that are high in fat and protein, as they can take longer to digest, Smith said. And don’t eat too much.
The goal is to avoid getting a stomachache and to minimize nausea, Kom noted.
“In general, you want to eat carbohydrate-containing foods, such as dry cereal, dried fruits, peanut butter with fruit, or oatmeal with milk and fruit,” Smith said.
You should always have a post-workout meal
A post-workout meal is crucial, whether you eat before exercising or not. The Mayo Clinic suggests eating carbs and protein within two hours of exercising.
“After exercising, your body immediately begins to rebuild glycogen stores and regrow muscle proteins,” Espel said. “Fueling these processes soon after you exercise can help your body get this done faster.”
Choose unprocessed carbohydrates and protein, she noted. Think: Whole grain bread, peanut butter with a banana, fruit and yogurt, a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with vegetables, or a recovery smoothie.
“This can maximize protein and glycogen synthesis, stimulate metabolism, and most importantly, enhance recovery,” Espel said.
Even if you’re not trying to gain a tremendous amount of muscle, you need to eat protein. It provides essential amino acids that your body can’t provide on its own.
According to a story previously published by HuffPost, a generally healthy person who’s not very active should consume 0.8 grams to 1 gram of protein for each kilogram of body weight a day (that would be about 68 grams of protein for someone who weighs 150 pounds), and a super-active person would require about 1.2 grams to 1.7 grams per kilogram per day (82 grams to 116 grams of protein for a 150-pound person).