Parents and athletes frequently ask for advice about eating before morning workouts. Some say it’s just too hard, and some experience gastrointestinal distress when they eat beforehand. But often, eating before a morning workout is not the problem. It’s that athletes may be eating the wrong foods or combination of foods, or perhaps timing their pre-workout fuel poorly.
Why Fueling Morning Workouts Is Important
During sleep, the body is in a fasting state for eight to 10 hours overnight. Without fuel coming in, the body needs a way to maintain blood sugar levels. To keep blood sugar from dropping too low, the liver breaks down its stores of carbohydrate (called liver glycogen) and releases glucose into the bloodstream in small doses throughout the night. This means that when you wake up in the morning, liver glycogen stores are at their lowest point and you are at your most dehydrated over a 24-hour period. While your muscles are able to use the carbohydrate stored in muscle (as muscle glycogen), you still need to keep your blood sugar stable during exercise.
Eating first thing in the morning replenishes liver glycogen stores, thus providing a fuel source for the liver to maintain blood sugar levels during exercise. Without this fuel, the liver must make blood glucose from other substrates such as proteins, even the proteins from muscles. This is definitely not desirable for an athlete, and is also a very inefficient way to make new glucose.
Athletes should aim to eat within 30 to 60 minutes of waking up and at least 30 minutes prior to exercise. Eating as soon as possible after waking up allows more time to digest a light meal or snack prior to starting a workout. If you have some fuel in the tank, you can train harder than if your tank is empty, and training harder translates into more robust training outcomes.
Below are tips to get you through those early-morning workouts.
1. Don’t skimp on sleep! Recovery is an essential part of any training program and allows the body to regenerate and repair the day’s damage while preparing for the next day’s challenges. Most young athletes need between eight to 10 hours of sleep per night, so if you can, try to get your athlete to bed earlier when they have an early-morning workout.
2. Eat and hydrate within 30 minutes of waking up. This allows your body enough time to digest those nutrients before starting an exercise session. It helps to allow at least 30 minutes for your food to digest before exercising, so the sooner you eat after waking up, the more time you will have to digest your pre-workout meal or snack, and the better you will feel during your workout. You may have to wake up five to 10 minutes earlier. For example, if you wake up at 6:30 a.m. to train at 7 a.m., it may help to wake up at 6:15 or 6:20 a.m. to allow enough time to eat and digest.
3. Try simple, easy-to-digest carbs such as:
Banana plus a small amount of peanut butter or other nut butter
Slice of toast or ½ bagel spread thin with nut butter
½ to 1 cup applesauce
Whole-grain waffle spread thin with nut butter
4. If the athlete really struggles to digest solid foods early in the morning, try drinking about 20 to 24 ounces of a sports drink instead. Look for options containing 15 to 20 g of carbohydrate per 8 oz serving. You can also make a pre-workout “shooter” by mixing 8 to 12 oz of 100% orange juice with a half scoop of vanilla whey protein. Liquids are often easier to digest than solids and may offer a great solution to early morning fueling. When trying the pre-workout shooter, make sure your whey protein powder is NSF Certified For Sport, which indicates that it is free of substances banned by sports organizations such as the NCAA, International Olympic Association (IOC) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Noel Williams, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a Performance Dietitian at Children’s HealthSM Andrews Institute Sports Performance Powered By EXOS. She earned both her BS in Nutrition and Dietetics and her MS in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition from Montana State University. She conducted her Master’s research on cardiovascular and metabolic demands of Rocky Mountain Elk Hunting. Noel is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and has taught workshops on developing positive eating behaviors in children in partnership with Montana Team Nutrition. She is also a part of the following professional organizations:
•Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
•Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
•Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (SCAN)