As a competitive rower, I regularly show up for weekday crew practice at 5 a.m.
That means the alarm sounds off in the dreaded fours -- an unearthly hour for nearly anyone. I cherish my sleep, so I leave just enough time to throw on my clothes and dash out the front door.
Though this bleary eyed morning routine has become second nature over the past five years as a rower, I made one major change just a few months ago. These days, I set my alarm a couple of minutes earlier, giving myself time to slather peanut butter and jelly on a piece of bread. I gobble down my first breakfast on the short drive to the boathouse. Right after practice, I eat a banana on my drive back home. After showering? Breakfast number three, which usually includes orange juice, coffee, and a big bowl of cereal.
I began adding immediate pre and post-workout food to my diet after consulting with Dr. Emily Cooper of Seattle Performance Medicine earlier this year. For most of my rowing career, I'd simply rolled out of bed and headed to practice without any sort of food. After all, it was 4:45 in the morning, and I didn't feel one bit hungry. I'd eat once I returned home following my workout.
Upon analysis of blood results and exercise performance testing, Dr. Cooper suggested that my timing of eating might be quite off. By regularly performing vigorous exercise without fuel right before and after, I was sending my body into starvation mode. My early morning metabolism was effectively going into hibernation, Cooper told me.
I wondered how I could ever feel hungry enough for a small meal so early in the morning, but I told her I was game to try. Cooper suggested something like a peanut butter sandwich, or a smoothie -- anything with a mix of protein and carbohydrates. The combination would power my muscles and give me energy through the workout. Then, I needed to eat a snack again immediately after putting the boat away, in order to help my body recover. She promised me I'd be ravenously hungry a short time later, and ready for a full breakfast.
That first week, I felt quite unenthusiastic about eating so much food so early in the morning. I forced myself to do so anyhow. And then a funny thing happened. I began waking up hungry. Every morning, I looked forward to that pre-5 a.m. meal.
Even more interesting, the increase in early morning eating did not reduce my hunger later on in the day. If anything, I wanted more food. Indeed, a subsequent visit to Seattle Performance Medicine showed I was actually losing weight. My three breakfasts had boosted my metabolism so much, I needed to eat more food the rest of the day.
I also observed a change in my strength during crew practices. Though I'd never noticed feeling drained and tired by the end when I wasn't eating beforehand, the food addition told me otherwise. I'd been operating with a half empty tank, especially during those final race pieces or power strokes of the day. With my small early morning breakfast, I gained the energy to compete for much longer.
These days, I eat as soon as I rise from bed, regardless of the hour or what my plans are for working out. I'm simply hungry. I've asked a number of other athletes and crew team members about their own fueling habits, and I've found a large number follow my former habits. They wait until after early practice, reasoning that they aren't that hungry and can last until 7 a.m. without a meal.
Just give early morning eating a test run, I encourage them. It may make the difference between a half speed workout and a fully energized session. And, like me, they may discover the true joy of three breakfasts.