In my last blog post, I discussed the vital importance of fueling workouts, rather than exercising on an empty stomach. The benefits aren’t limited to athletic performance – they also include fat loss, higher energy, and improved body composition.

But do you exercise in the morning? Do you struggle to find time to eat before workouts? Do you prefer the feeling of not having something in your stomach when you exercise? In general, do you struggle with fueling early morning workouts?

Generally, it’s optimal to consume both carbs and protein 2-4 hours before exercising (like a protein smoothie with fruit and oats, or a Greek yogurt with cereal). But for many people, this simply isn’t an option – because you’d have to set an alarm for 3 AM to eat something, and then go back to sleep until your workout.

This is my life, too – in this season of my life (#toddlermom + work), I have to work out before the sun is up to make sure that it gets done.

The temptation is simply to jump out of bed and get into a workout without breakfast. It’s fast. It’s convenient.

But in my last blog post, I explored why fasted exercise does not lead to better results.

(Or at the very least, the results are marginal, and only in very specific populations.)

In today’s blog post, I’m going to tackle some common issues with fueling early morning workouts, to make it easier for you to crush workouts, get faster and stronger, and see the body composition changes you’re aiming for.

Rather than getting into every single possible problem, I’m going to present solutions that conveniently solve most of the issues at once.

Let’s dive in!

Solution #1: Make your pre-workout snack small.

Sometimes, people are resistant to eating before they exercise because they have experienced eating too much shortly before exercise, and they don’t like the feeling.

This is understandable, because over-carbing before a workout (who’s seen the episode “Fun Run” from The Office?) can make for an uncomfortable exercise session.

If you only have 30 minutes max (or even less) before you exercise, literally a banana or a liquid protein shake is all you need. Any food you take in should be simple and preferably carb-y. It’s also great if you drink some water with your fuel if it’s a solid food like a banana or bagel.

Within that 30-minute window, we’re just looking for a little bit of food that’s not loaded down with fiber and/or fat (which will make it harder to digest). You shouldn’t feel full.

Solution #2: Fuel for your specific workout.

If you’re exercising for less than an hour, the pre-workout snack is just a top-up for the workout, and then you’ll re-fuel afterwards for recovery. If you’re exercising for more than an hour, you’ll need to re-fuel during the workout. For my endurance runners, I recommend gels, because liquid calories are generally absorbed more quickly.

But the type of workout also matters – not just the duration. For cardio, taking in carbohydrates prior to exercise is especially important. Because liquid calories are easier to digest than solids, I sometimes recommend Vitargo to my endurance athlete clients.

Solution #3: Hydrate.

Hydration is often forgotten, but it’s an important part of exercise fueling.

Keep a water bottle with you if you’re strength training or cycling. For running, stop for water breaks whenever you can. If you’re on a treadmill, put a bottle on the console. Don’t skip those hydration breaks!

Solution #4: Plan ahead.

Planning will take care of most of these issues. I know (from experience) that people aren’t intending to exercise fasted in the morning. It’s simply that they wake up, they have 15 minutes to get into their workout, they don’t have anything convenient to eat on hand, and so they just move on. Then it becomes a habit.

Taking that extra step to buy a bunch of bananas, or putting pre-made protein shakes in the refrigerator (like Core Power), can make a world of difference. Keep in mind that the most basic pre-workout fueling can simply be a piece of bread or a half a bagel! You just need to have the foods in the house.

In other words, fueling starts at the grocery store.

Solution #5: Explore possible issues and keep an open mind.

If you’re not fueling because you feel sick in the morning, it’s worth investigating and experimenting.

Early morning nausea is sometimes – ironically – because of low blood sugar. Experiment with what’s called “mechanical eating” (eating when you don’t feel like it, but because it’s helpful). Even if you feel a little off, have something very simple, like a piece of bread and a little water, and get to your workout. Your body may get used to eating something in the morning.

If this stomach discomfort persists, get it checked out. Conditions like acid reflux, GI issues like gastroparesis, and other issues like anxiety can play a role in early-morning nausea.

It’s worth investigating because if you feel sick in the morning, it’s possible you shouldn’t be working out at that early morning time until the GI issues are resolved. You may consider moving workouts to the afternoons or evenings, even if it’s a struggle, because the logic of heading into a hard workout on an empty, nauseous stomach is questionable. How much of a benefit could challenging exercise possibly be if you’re feeling so unwell?

Summary

If your fasted workouts are due to garden variety “I didn’t have time to eat” or “I didn’t know what to eat” reasons, the solutions listed above should take you a long way.

Also remember to eat a combination of carbohydrates and protein within 60 minutes after exercise, as well. A normal, high-protein, carbohydrate-rich meal should do the trick. If a meal isn’t forthcoming, have Greek yogurt with fruit and cereal, or a protein smoothie with fruit and/or oatmeal. Even a protein bar with a banana would be great! Don’t wait too long, because particularly for carbohydrates, there is a 60-ish minute window that closes post-workout, during which carbohydrates are the most beneficial for recovery.

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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