The Athlete’s Kitchen
Copyright: Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD
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.
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.
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.
4 Hawley J and Burke L. Carbohydrate availability and training adaptation: effects on cell metabolism. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 38(4):152-60, 2010.