Whether to eat before a workout continues to be a controversial topic.

On one hand, “fasted” exercising (e.g., fasted cardio) has become increasingly popular, with proponents saying it gives them more energy during a workout and leads to quicker results.

On the other hand, others praise their pre-workout meals for giving them the energy they need to sustain their workouts. Thus, you may wonder which approach is more effective.

This article reviews when you should eat before a morning workout and when you can go without food. It also lists a few great foods you can eat to power different types of morning workouts.

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Photography by Aya Brackett

Whether to eat before a morning workout depends on your goals, the type of workout and its duration, and your individual health.

After a long night of sleep, your blood sugar levels are lower than when you’ve recently eaten. This might make you feel sluggish and tired during your workout.

Therefore, a small snack before a morning workout may help increase your blood sugar levels and give you energy to perform your best (1, 2).

For many, working out soon after eating can cause stomach upset since the food has not had a chance to digest.

However, while it may be tempting to exercise in a fasted state, with no breakfast or snack since you woke up, this may hinder your performance in some types of exercise (1).

That said, most people can safely exercise without eating beforehand unless they’re exercising at high intensity for 60 minutes or longer (1, 2).

Those with specific performance goals or medical conditions may need to eat before working out. For example, people with blood sugar issues such as diabetes should make sure they’re properly fueled first.

If you have a medical condition, consider working closely with a healthcare professional to find the approach that’s best for you.

All in all, pre-workout nutrition is highly individualized. It’s most effective when you tailor it to your lifestyle, goals, and body. What works for one person may not work for another, so it’s important to experiment and see what works best for you.

Summary

For most people, eating before a morning workout is optional and depends on your goals, the type of workout you’re doing and its duration, and how your body responds to food. That said, a small snack may enhance your performance.

Choosing the right pre-workout fuel can help support a cardio workout, also known as cardiorespiratory exercise.

High intensity, short duration

Duration of 30–45 minutes or less.

High intensity, short duration cardio exercise mostly uses muscle glycogen as fuel. Most people have enough glycogen stored in their muscles to sustain this type of exercise without needing to eat (1, 3, 4).

Examples of this type of exercise include:

That said, if you’re exercising before breakfast, you may want to have a snack containing 15–75 grams of carbohydrates, depending on your preferences and your upcoming exercise session. Some athletes may want to consume even more.

Doing this 30–60 minutes before exercising may promote optimal performance (2, 4).

Foods you could fuel up with include:

  • toast with almond butter
  • whole grain crackers with cheese
  • a banana
  • milk or a plant-based beverage
  • figs with peanut butter
  • applesauce

For some people, exercising on an empty stomach doesn’t cause any issues. If you find that works best for you, then continue it. However, if you feel lightheaded or weak, it’s probably a sign you should have something to eat.

Moderate to high intensity, long duration

Duration of 60–90 minutes or more.

If you plan on exercising at a moderate to high intensity level for longer than 60–90 minutes, it’s probably best to have a small meal or snack first (1, 2, 3, 4).

This type of exercise might include:

  • running
  • cycling
  • rowing
  • cross-country skiing

During exercise, your body uses a mix of carbohydrates and fat as fuel. However, your body burns fat much more slowly than carbohydrates to fuel your muscles and sustain the workout (3, 4).

Therefore, opt for a small meal or snack that contains 15–75 grams of carbohydrates plus some protein. Eat at least 1–3 hours before your workout — this gives your body time to digest the food.

Foods you could fuel up with include:

  • a fruit smoothie made with milk and a banana
  • a small bagel with peanut butter
  • oatmeal with berries
  • scrambled eggs and toast

Low to moderate intensity, long duration

Light exercise makes fewer demands on your body. Therefore, you don’t necessarily need to eat as much beforehand.

Exercise in this category might include:

  • an hourlong walk
  • tai chi
  • a gentle yoga session

If you’re finding that you’re hungry in the middle of your workout, you may want to try having a small, protein-rich snack before you start. This will help curb your appetite without unwanted stomach discomfort.

Foods you could fuel up with include:

  • 1 cup (237 mL) of cottage cheese
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs
  • half a protein bar
  • a small protein shake
  • an omelet with vegetables
Summary

For workouts longer than 60 minutes, opt for a small meal or snack containing 15–75 grams of carbohydrates paired with a protein source. For low intensity exercise or exercise shorter than 45 minutes, you can have a small snack or go without eating.

Strength training requires greater bursts of power but actually requires less “fuel in the tank” than the activities described above.

However, having a small meal or snack before a strength training session can give you energy to sustain the workout longer and at a higher intensity. Otherwise, you may feel too fatigued or lightheaded to perform your best (4).

Ideally, you’ll want to eat a meal or snack with carbohydrates and protein. The carbohydrates will provide energy, and the protein will help with muscle growth and recovery (1, 2, 4).

If you’re susceptible to stomach discomfort, aim to have your pre-workout meal or snack 1–3 hours before your workout. Alternatively, eat a light snack that you find easy to digest 30 minutes before your workout.

Foods you could fuel up with include:

  • a sliced turkey sandwich (2 slices of bread, turkey slices, tomato, lettuce, and a condiment)
  • oatmeal
  • 1 hard-boiled egg and 1 cup (237 mL) of applesauce
  • beef jerky and 1/2 cup (125 mL) of orange juice
  • 1 cup (237 mL) of milk or soy milk
  • Greek yogurt and berries
  • a granola bar or half a protein bar
  • an egg sandwich (fried egg, cheese, and tomato on a toasted English muffin)
Summary

A pre-workout meal or snack before strength training may help improve performance, though researchers have found mixed results on this. It’s best if the food you choose contains both carbs and protein. Experts don’t recommend going without food.

If you have specific lifestyle goals, you may want to adjust your morning pre-workout nutrition.

Weight loss

Contrary to popular belief, eating fewer calories before your workout won’t give you better results. In fact, it may slow down your weight loss.

Athletes need enough fuel to perform their best. However, many other people trying to lose weight may exercise at low or moderate intensity for a relatively short duration (4).

If you’re one of these people, you may do just fine eating little to no food before exercising. Whether you eat before working out should be based on your preference and weight loss goals.

Before your morning workout, fuel your body with whole, minimally processed carbohydrate and protein foods such as:

Muscle growth

Beyond your genetics, you can build muscle through strength training and eating a high protein diet. Protein can help you build bigger, stronger muscles when you pair it with various forms of resistance training.

To continue to build muscle, you need to practice progressive overload, which means slowly adding more load (weight) or volume to your strength training routine.

If you aren’t properly fueled before your workout, you may not feel like you have the energy to challenge your muscles enough to stimulate muscle breakdown and repair (5, 6, 7).

That said, it is still possible to gain muscle if you work out without eating beforehand. Just make sure you meet appropriate daily nutrient intake goals, including consuming enough protein.

In the end, it’s up to your preferences.

If you choose to eat before working out to gain muscle, consider eating a small snack or meal with both carbohydrates and protein about 1–3 hours before your workout.

To eat enough protein throughout the day to support muscle growth, consider consuming about 0.6–0.9 grams of protein per pound (1.4–2.0 grams per kg) of body weight per day (8, 9, 10, 11).

Summary

For both weight loss and muscle growth, you’ll want to make sure you’re eating enough to fuel your workouts for optimal performance. If you’re exercising when you have low energy, your workouts will suffer.

Here are some tips to help you stay on track with your morning pre-workout nutrition:

  • Prepare the night before. To make your morning easier, have your meal or snack ready to go the night before.
  • Prep for the week. Spend 1 day per week planning and prepping your morning meals. This takes out the guesswork on the morning of your workout.
  • Skip the fiber. Though it’s important for overall health, fiber takes longer to digest, which may lead to stomach discomfort during your workout. If you do consume a significant amount, consider waiting 1–3 hours to give it time to digest before working out.
  • Don’t drink too much. If you drink too much water or other fluids before your workout, you may feel that unpleasant “sloshing” sensation as you’re working out. Take small sips of water before and during your workout.
  • Listen to your body. You know your body best. Play around with different foods and beverages that make you feel energized and help with your performance. In some cases, a very tiny snack might be all you need and want.
Summary

Make your morning pre-workout meals as easy as possible by planning and preparing them ahead of time. Try experimenting with different foods and drinks to find out what feels best to you.

Eating before your morning workout will help provide your body with the fuel it needs.

For certain types of exercise, such as strength training and long-duration cardio exercise, experts highly recommend eating a small meal or snack containing carbohydrates and a bit of protein 1–3 hours before you get started.

On the other hand, if you’re doing cardio exercise for 45 minutes or less, you can probably get by without eating.

That said, if you have blood sugar issues, feel lethargic or weak when you haven’t eaten, or feel better when you have eaten, then having a meal or snack is a good idea.

All in all, eating before a morning workout is highly individualized, and it may take some trial and error to see what works best for you.