Person who stretches in the morning, maybe about to go for a runPhoto: Indypendenz (Shutterstock)

Exercising in the morning has a ton of benefits: it wakes you up, gets you to a success before you have fully started your day, and makes sure you don’t forget to exercise later. But then there is the problem of breakfast.

Do you need to have breakfast before training?

No, but it helps. Some people find it harder to fast than those who have eaten before. However, this will depend on the person, the workout, and to some extent if you are used to exercising on an empty stomach.

For a simple workout like a light jog or a short workout, you may not notice a difference between exercising with and without breakfast. In that case, do what you prefer. But expect breakfast to help for:

  • High-intensity cardio or conditioning training such as fast running or real interval training with high intensity.
  • Long workouts, especially those longer than 90 minutes.
  • Any workout that makes you feel unusually tired, including heavy weight training.

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If you have enough time in the morning, you can wake up, have a normal breakfast, and then start exercising about an hour later. This routine works for many people, but some of us try to hit the streets or go to the gym as soon as possible after waking up. In this case, your food choices are more important.

What’s the best to eat?

Carbohydrates provide quick energy, especially when you eat them in a form that your body can process quickly. This mainly includes sugars and starches, which digest the fastest when not combined with high levels of fat, protein, or fiber.

In other words, this is different from what would normally look like a healthy meal. After your workout you have time for something that digests a little more slowly. But if you need to eat right before you workout, get something that contains mostly carbohydrates. Some traditional options are:

  • toast
  • A banana
  • Oatmeal or oats overnight

You don’t have to just eat carbohydrates if you don’t want to. You can also add some peanut butter to this toast if you want, or drink a yogurt that has both carbohydrates and protein. Experiment to see what hits the sweet spot between high carb and tasty.

What if i don’t want to eat carbohydrates?

That is up to you, but make sure you are aware of the potential implications for your training. If you’re on a keto or low-carb diet, it can make sense to put some of the few carbohydrates you eat right before your workout. And when using intermittent fasting as part of a weight loss strategy, you need to weigh the pros and cons of breakfast before exercising. Again, having a small snack can help you get more energy for your workout without completely derailing your diet.

Sometimes people practice fasting on purpose because it “burns fat,” but that’s only for technical reasons. If I want more money in my bank account, I can pay cash for something instead of using a debit card. But at the end of the day, no matter how I made a single purchase, my money is still all of my money. Choosing one payment method over another doesn’t make me richer.

Likewise, “burning fat” during exercise does not affect how much fat you have in your body at the end of the day. You can burn 200 calories of carbohydrates from your breakfast, or you can burn 200 calories of fat and then eat another 200 calories. The overall calorie balance matters, not the metabolic details of the substrate your mitochondria chew on during exercise.

What if I can’t eat first thing in the morning?

There are several solutions to this problem. First, you can be fine without breakfast; Some people prefer to exercise while fasting because it is easier and they accept easy fatigue. You may also want to wake up earlier to have time to digest a meal, or simply rearrange your workout to come later in the day.

But usually there is something you can eat if you want to. Drinks are often easier to bear than food. So try skim milk or almond milk and use the sweetened version (like chocolate milk) or add something like honey for extra carbohydrates. I used to think a “shake” had to be a big smoothie full of fruit, ice cream, protein powder, and peanut butter, but now my pre-workout job is just a cup of chocolate almond milk, with or without powdered whey, to get a start into the day’s protein.

If you really can’t eat before exercising, can you eat it? Long workouts can benefit from in-training diet. That usually means a workout that is longer than 90 minutes, but there is no law that says you can’t take your breakfast with you for a shorter workout. If you run, grab some of these Gel packs that marathon runners and endurance cyclists use during the races. When you do lift, mix up a shake and bring it with you to have a sip between sets.

Ultimately, the best breakfast is one that you only discover from experience. Don’t be afraid to try something new: if you’re currently exercising without breakfast, a few bites of toast in advance can make a difference day and night. Experiment and see what works for you.