It’s 5.55am and you’ve already hit the snooze button, um, twice. You still need to exercise, have a shower, read the paper and get to work. Is it really necessary to add breakfast to the morning workout agenda? And, if so, when?

We all know the benefits of a healthy breakfast, but whether you eat it before or after your morning cycle or run depends on many factors. One consideration is the length of the workout. You’re likely to have enough glycogen stored away to fuel a run around the block or a spin class, so eating beforehand is not required. However, if you’re pounding the pavement or cycling longer than 60 minutes, ‘breaking the fast’ is recommended.

 But, timing is key. A general guide is to eat a meal 3-4 hours before exercise, or a lighter snack about 1-2 hours before. Why? Food consumed before exercise is only useful once it has been digested and absorbed. This means you’ll want to time your food intake so that the sufficient fuel becomes available while you exercise to avoid excessive muscle breakdown during and after working out. And just in case you’re wondering, by the time morning comes, the energy from last night’s dinner has already been burnt up.

Okay, so if getting up at 4am is never going to happen, opt for a light snack about an hour before exercise (see my diet plan below). 

Still not happening? The timing of your evening meal can also influence your need for a morning snack before exercise. If you eat an early dinner, then consume a late-night carbohydrate-rich snack before bed.

What to eat?

For most exercise sessions, the emphasis should be on carbohydrates and fluids. If you can eat close to exercise, opt for a snack that provides at least 70 g of carbohydrates. The type of carb is also key. Foods with a low glycemic index (GI) cause a slower, sustained release of glucose during exercise, maintaining blood glucose levels for a longer period. Steer clear of high-protein and high-fat foods, as these take longer to digest in the short term, increasing the risk of stomach discomfort during exercise. 

The following options are suitable to eat 1-2 hours before exercise:

  • Fruit smoothie
  • Small bowl of breakfast cereal with low-fat milk 
  • Toast, muffins or crumpets with jam or honey*
  • Pancakes with syrup or honey
  • Sandwiches or rolls with low-fat fillings
  • Fresh or canned fruit*
  • 1 piece of fruit and fruit-flavoured yoghurt*
  • Suitable for an evening snack

Options if there is less than 1 hour before exercise:

  • Sports drink (also consumed during exercise)
  • Liquid meal supplement

Options the night before:

  • Pasta with vegetarian or another low-fat sauce
  • Rice dish, eg risotto, with a low-fat sauce 

Bottom line: Everyone is different. Do what works best for you. Nonetheless, your food and drink choices should enable you to perform at your best without experiencing either hunger or gut discomfort.
Kathleen Alleaume

Kathleen Alleaume is an accredited exercise physiologist and nutritionist and founder of The Right Balance