by Nancy Clark, MS, RD
Runners commonly train early in the morning in order to get to work or classes on time. Parents may get up at 5:00, to fit in their run before the kids get up. Many of these runners report eating nothing before their exercise session. My stomach isn't awake. ... It's too early to even think about food. ... I get reflux if I eat. But other runners report they have better workouts when they eat something simple like an energy bar. The question arises: What's the best way to fuel for early morning runs?
Before answering that question, let's first address the physiological goals for fueling before morning workouts.
1) To change the stress-hormone profile. Cortisol (a stress hormone) is high in the early morning. This puts your body in muscle-breakdown mode. Eating carbs + protein can switch to muscle-building mode.
2) To provide energy and prevent low blood glucose with the consequences of feeling light-headed, dizzy, and needlessly fatigued.
3) To be adequately hydrated. Dehydration slows you down.
If you are making the effort to get up early to train or compete, you might as well get the most out of your efforts! In a fueling study, athletes had dinner the night before and then did a 60-minute exercise test the next morning. They performed 6% better in the 10-minute sprint to the finish when they had some fuel (carb) compared to having had nothing; 6% better when they had adequate water (compared to minimal water), and 12% better when they had both fuel + water (a sport drink). (1) Twelve percent better means running an 8-minute mile in about 7 minutes. Powerful, eh? You can only race at your best if you train at your best...
Your body can digest pre-exercise food and use it to energize your run as long as you are running at a pace that you can maintain for more than 30 minutes. In a study with athletes who ate dinner and then nothing before the next morning's hour-long exercise test, those who ate 180 calories (sugar) just five minutes beforehand performed 10% better in the last 15-minute sprint compared to when they ate nothing (2). Grab that granola bar or swig of juice!
If you are tempted to skip pre-run food so you can lose weight by burning more fat, think again. Yes, pre-run food will contribute to burning less fat at the moment, but that is irrelevant. The issue is not whether you have burned fat during exercise but if you have created a calorie deficit by the end of the day. Eating excess calories after a fat-burning workout gets you nowhere.
All of this means consuming some pre-run food and fluid will enhance your workout—assuming you have trained your gut to tolerate it. If you are worried about intestinal distress, start small (a few crackers) and work up to a handful of crackers, and then add, let's say, a latte. For workouts longer than 60 minutes, the recommended intake is about 200 to 400 calories within the hour before you train. That recommendation obviously varies according to body size, exercise intensity and duration, and personal tolerance to food.
If you have been exercising on empty, you will likely discover you can run harder, feel better, and get more enjoyment from your workouts. Research subjects who ate 400 pre-exercise calories were able to exercise for 136 minutes until they were exhausted, as compared to only 109 minutes with no breakfast (3). Big difference! After learning this, one of my clients reported he was done with avoiding food before his run in the name of intermittent fasting. "Not eating is slowing me down and taking the fun out of my workout."
Early morning options
Here are some options for fueling your early morning workouts so you are adequately hydrated and fueled.
• Eat a quick and easy snack with about 200 to 400 calories (depending on your body size and workout intensity). Some popular options include: English muffin, toast, bagel or banana (with peanut butter); oatmeal, a smoothie, Fig Newtons, or granola bar. Coffee is OK; it's a functional fluid that boosts performance and yes, helps with hydration.
• Wake up 4 hours before important training session or races, eat a simple breakfast (bread + peanut butter), and then go back to bed. This is a common practice among elite athletes. As one marathoner explained, "I don't want to have food in my stomach when I'm racing. If a race starts at 8:00 a.m., I'll get up at 4:00, eat a bagel with peanut butter and a banana, and then go back to bed. At 6:00, I'll get up, have some coffee (to help me take a dump and wake me up), and then get to the race start. Because I never really sleep well the night before an event, getting up at 4:00 isn't terribly disruptive." In comparison, another athlete reported she used to wake up two hours before her 6:00 a.m. practice to eat. She became too sleep-deprived and decided she needed sleep more than food. She started eating a bigger bedtime snack.
• Eat your breakfast the night before via a bedtime snack, such as a bowl of cereal, or yogurt with granola. If you have dinner at 6:00, you'll be ready for a bedtime snack by 9:00. Choose quality calories; this is your breakfast that you are eating the night before. Limit the cookies and ice cream!
• Fuel during your workout. If your stomach isn't awake when you first get up, it may be receptive to fuel when you are 30 minutes into your run. Be sure you have some fuel with you: sport drink, dried pineapple, gels, chomps, gummy bears—whatever is easy to carry and simple to digest. You want to target about 30 to 60 grams carb (120 to 240 calories) if the workout lasts 1 to 2.5 hours, and 60 to 90 g carb (240 to 360 calories) if the workout is longer than that..
What about "training low"?
If you are highly competitive and have mastered the sports nutrition basics (eat a diet with 90% quality foods; fuel evenly during the day; have no disordered eating behaviors), you might try training low (with depleted muscle glycogen and/or low blood glucose) once a week or so. To do this, eat primarily protein for dinner after a late-afternoon workout. The next morning, train without having eaten carbs. Exercising depleted like this is not fun, but it stimulates cellular changes that can be performance enhancing if you need to get to the next level (4). Novice and recreational runners, however, first need to work on the basic ways to improve performance: surround your workouts with food, and fuel wisely the rest of the day.
1. Below, P. et al. Fluid and carbohydrate ingestion independently improve performance during 1 hour of intense exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 27:200-210, 1995.
2. Neufer P. et al. Improvements in exercise performance: effects of carbohydrate feedings and diet. J Appl Physiol 62(3):983, 1987
3. Schabort, E. et al. The effect of a preexercise meal on time to fatigue during prolonged cycling exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 31(3):464-471, 1999.
4 Hawley J and Burke L. Carbohydrate availability and training adaptation: effects on cell metabolism. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 38(4):152-60, 2010.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and Food Guide for Marathoners offer additional information. They are available at http://www.NancyClarkRD.com. For her popular online workshop, visit http://www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.