One of the most common questions we get at Power Athlete about nutrition is how to properly fuel an early morning workout. Do you eat real food or a shake? What about coffee? Can you just take a scoop of pre-workout straight to the dome? As with everything in the nutrition realm, the short answer is, “it depends.” But, with that in mind, we can start to peel back the layers on this issue to help you craft the strategy that’s going to effectively fuel your fire while you beat the sun out of bed.
The First Question
Are you training for a sport or working out? In a lot of ways, the answer to this question is going to change everything about your nutritional strategy. If you’re training for a sport, meaning you’re cashing checks, getting school paid for, or striving to earn a scholarship based on your performance, the needs of each training session are greater than if you’re working out. Training requires you to wring every last drop of stimulus out of the session and fuel your body to soak in every ounce of adaptation. Working out means you need to move that big ass pile of dirt, but it doesn’t matter if you use a spoon or a shovel. Working out allows a bit more freedom because your life will go on regardless of how great of a workout you had. The stakes are a little higher with training, and that is reflected in the priority your fueling and recovery strategies will take.
For the sake of this article, we’re going to treat fueling for performance as top priority. This is because if you are not someone training for a sport, the timing of your morning nutrition doesn’t matter as much as you may think. The two biggest issues that matter for that scenario are daily caloric intake and total macronutrient load. Whether you get them before or after training isn’t going to change things drastically. Will training fasted mean you don’t have as high of output? Not necessarily. If you’re someone who isn’t already lean (>12% or >22% body fat, men and women), body composition will likely have a larger impact on your performance than the availability of carbs or protein. If you’re not performing a glycogen depleting task, such as the LATT protocol, you’ll be alright. Your mind might make you think you’re not firing on all cylinders, but metabolically you’ve likely got all the fuel you need. The average man stores the equivalent of 625g of carbs in their blood, muscle, and liver. That’s plenty to get through an hour of Jacked Street.
So just exactly WHAT should we aim to get in before training. Regardless of the training session timing, we want to get some of each macronutrient in. Our philosophy is to “book end” training sessions with a large percentage of your daily carbs. While it will vary depending on the number of meals you are eating during the day, you should aim to get half of your carbs in during your pre-training and post-training meals. While we stack the carbs around training, your protein should be evenly split throughout the day to maintain a steady anabolic stimulus. To alleviate some of the volume necessary for the pre-training meal, we can introduce a shake during the workout that will allow you to “pull” some of the carbs and protein from that pre-training meal. For midday workouts this isn’t such a big deal, but if you’re hitting the alarm at 4:30am to get into the garage by 5am, this may make your life easier.
Fats are where things become tricky. For most workouts, we’re not looking to fat as a primary fuel source. Typically, we’ll prescribe it based on how long before your training session you’re getting to feed because the digestion and absorption of fat is markedly slower than the other two macros. Since we’re talking about early morning training here, we would likely want to pull fats from the menu completely so that they don’t interfere with the uptake of carbs and protein. Seems easy enough, but if we still want to find whole food options that is going to limit our protein sources. Even if we are passing some of these macros off to our workout shake, we’ve still got some protein and carbs to take care of.
Now you know what goes into the decision, it’s time to decide what to eat. Like I mentioned, we want to utilize whole food sources as much as possible. And remember that we are viewing this from the lens of a competitive athlete because this matters mostly for training and not so much for working out. With the mindset of an athlete who is training, we need to remember that it’s about meeting your macros which sometimes means utility over comfort. That being said, we’re going to avoid the need to eat grilled chicken with rice early in the morning. We’ll try to stick to foods that would be considered “breakfast foods” by most.
To start, breakfast meats (even the “lean” ones) contain a decent amount of fat. If you’re working out, go for it. But if you’re an athlete, especially one who’s leaning, and you want to save your fats for later I would suggest putting a hold on the ham or bacon. Instead, you can turn to things like fat-free greek yogurt or cottage cheese to cover your proteins. At 14g and 15g of protein per serving, respectively, they are solid sources for morning proteins. They do bring some carbs with them as well which will help lighten the load from your carb sources. Speaking of carbs: you can add oats or fruit to the yogurt to create a parfait or just fruit to the cottage cheese. You could add oats to the cottage cheese but the texture is…interesting. With oats coming in at 28g of carbs per serving and fruits like blueberries (21g), bananas (24g), or peaches (13g) per serving, you might want to limit the amount simply because the fiber they bring with them. To balance your carbs, turn to a carbohydrate dense source like honey to keep it whole food centered. At 21g per tablespoon, there is a lot of carbohydrate bang for it’s buck there.
The “C” Words
In addition to our foods, whether they come in shake form or not, there are a couple more things that tend to make their way into our pre-morning workout nutrition. Creatine and caffeine. Creatine (creatine monohydrate), regardless of who you are, gets a green light. 5g a day until the day you die. Mix it in your yogurt, add it to your shake, pack it under your lip, whatever…just get it in your body.
Caffeine, on the other hand, isn’t so clear cut. Timing wise, it will take at least 30min to hit. So if you are taking any, you’ll want to get it in ASAP. More importantly, I would suggest you ask why you need it. Is it because you’re still tired when you wake up? If that’s the case, whether you’re an athlete or not, just go back to sleep. If you’re tired at the very beginning of your day, caffeine will only serve as a bandaid while the other underlying issues are limiting the actual benefits you’re getting from training. You’ve got some sleep and recovery issues that need your attention and the first step is cancelling your sleep debt.
Are you drinking it to take training to the next level? If that’s the case, I’m not against it, but I’d ask if you’ve been systematic about the approach? Have you tested different levels and their effects? Do you even know how much you’re getting? Caffeine, like a lot of drugs, can turn from good to bad pretty quickly. Developing a proper strategy to maximize its effect will do wonders for your training, but overdoing it can make meeting the rest of your nutritional and recovery needs a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
From Plan to Action
Listen, you can figure this stuff out. It’s not necessarily rocket science, but it will take a little work. All the information you need is there on the nutrition label. That being said, all the pieces you need to build a house are available at your local Lowe’s. But I bet you aren’t going to build your own house any time soon. Why not? Because you’re not an expert in carpentry. Why would you trust a pro with helping build a house but not with helping build and fortify your body? That’s where we come in. If building a nutrition plan is like building a house, we’re on an Amish level of carpentry. The problems you face is where we find ease and enjoyment. If you’re looking to solve nutritional issues, look no further than our team of nutrition experts.
PODCAST: EP 375 – The Crew Talks Wearables and the Whoop Band
RECIPE: A 2,400 Cal Breakfast Casserole by Luke Summers
BLOG: Your Guide to Metabolic Investing by Ben Skutnik
BLOG: Pre-Workout: The Truth Behind The Hype by Ben Skutnik
COACHING: Power Athlete Nutrition Coaching
Ben grew up a football player who found his way into a swimming pool. Swimming for four years, culminating in All-American status, at a Division III level, Ben grew to appreciate the effects that various training styles had on performance and decided to pursue the field of Exercise Physiology. After receiving his M.S. from Kansas State University in 2013, Ben moved on to Indiana University - Bloomington to pursue a PhD in Human Performance. While in Bloomington, he spent some time on deck coaching swimming at the club level, successfully coaching several swimmers to the National and Olympic Trials meets. He also served as the primary strength and condition coach for some of the post-graduate Olympians that swam at Indiana University.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.
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