Figuring out what to eat before a morning workout that ticks all the boxes—convenient, energizing, and not overly filling—is no easy feat. The ideal early bird meal will be something that gives you the fuel you need to kick butt during your morning workout, doesn’t take long to make, and accounts for the fact that you might not have much of an appetite. It’s a bit of a puzzle and one that you’re probably not prepared to solve right when your alarm goes off. So here’s what the research and a few experts have to say about what, when, and if you should eat before your next morning workout.
First, is it okay to work out before breakfast?
For some people, “eating very early in the morning can be particularly jarring,” San Francisco–based dietitian Edwina Clark, M.S., R.D., a certified specialist in sports dietetics, tells SELF. Or you might just not have time to eat, digest, and exercise before work in the morning. So, how bad is it to skip breakfast and go straight to the workout?
In general, it’s okay to work out on an empty stomach, says Tanya Freirich, M.S., RDN. In fact, some research points to the benefits of fasted versus fed workouts. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2016 found that low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise performed in a fasted state promoted fat burning more than the same type of exercise performed after eating. Similarly, a 2019 review paper published in Proceedings of the Nutrition SocietProceedings of the Nutrition Society concluded that a single bout of fasted exercise seems to promote fat burning and might even make you feel more satiated throughout the day. There’s limited research on the long-term effects of working out before breakfast, but the existing studies suggest it might have some beneficial effects on metabolic health.
However, there’s also research on the benefits of working out after breakfast. For instance, a meta-analysis published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found that if you do aerobic exercise for 60 minutes or longer, you’ll have better endurance and performance if you do so after eating. Plus, there’s plenty of research to suggest that exercising after you eat helps to curb a blood sugar spike from that meal.
“The general consensus is that there are benefits and drawbacks to both fed and fasted exercise,” Freirich says. “Depending on various factors—fitness level, fasting tolerance, goals, and type and duration of exercise—the advice may differ.”
What should you eat for breakfast before a workout?
If you’re someone who needs some fuel for their morning workouts, the number one thing you’re looking for is carbs, which provide a quick hit of energy and a boost to your glycogen stores, which are the reserves of glucose (your body’s fuel) that your muscles can dip into when you’re working out, as Jessica Jones, M.S., RDN, CDE, cofounder of Food Heaven, previously explained to SELF. That typically means fruit or grains of some sort.
The next question is usually: Should you eat protein before or after a workout? If you can stomach it, Jones recommends including a modest amount of protein (likely in the form of eggs, milk, yogurt, or deli slices) in your pre-workout meal. This is particularly important if you’re going to be breaking down your muscles with weight training. That said, it’s still crucial to get some protein after your workout too, as this can help with muscle recovery.
What should you not eat before the gym?
Most people will want to avoid eating tons of protein, as well as high amounts of fiber or fat, as these are all nutrients that can slow down digestion. It’s important to make sure your body has easy access to the energy it needs during your workout without setting yourself up for nausea or stomach upset, Cara Harb street, M.S., R.D., L.D., of Street Smart Nutrition, previously told SELF.
When should you eat before a workout?
Now that you know what to eat and what not to eat before you exercise, let’s talk about when to eat. The guidance on how long to wait after eating before you work out ranges widely, from 30 minutes to three hours, writes Jones. If you’re working out early in the morning, you probably don’t have three hours to kill. Generally speaking, eating a complete meal about 90 minutes before a workout should give you enough time to digest, Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles, M.S., RDN, certified specialist in sports dietetics, founder of Eat4Sport, and adjunct professor of sports nutrition at Columbia University, tells SELF.
But if you’re in a time crunch and only have about 30 minutes between getting something in your stomach and getting in the gym, a good rule of thumb is to opt for a smaller portion than usual, O’Donnell-Giles explains. Half an hour before a workout is also a good time to have a cup of coffee, if that’s part of your pre-workout routine (FYI: regular old coffee is probably going to be a better bet than all those pre-workout supplements you see advertised).
Here are 14 pre-workout breakfast ideas to try.
The truth is that the best pre-workout fuel looks different for everybody. It might take some experimenting to determine exactly what, how much, and when you should eat before you exercise. For some inspiration, we’ve rounded up a few things to eat for breakfast before your next workout. Plus, we’ve arranged them from lighter to sturdier options, so you can find something that works for you—whether you’re looking for a light breakfast snack or something more substantial.
Keep in mind: A lot of these pre-workout breakfast ideas (especially those early on the list) aren’t enough to keep you going until lunchtime. So you might need to eat a post-workout snack or a second breakfast containing protein and carbs to restore your energy and help your body repair and recover.
1. A few swigs of 100% fruit juice
Yes, we know that juice by itself is not a breakfast, but Clark says that this quick source of sugar can be a great choice for those who struggle with eating early but still want a little boost. Even just a small amount of carbohydrates can be enough fuel to offset the groggy fatigue you might feel right after rolling out of bed, Clark explains.
2. A glass of chocolate milk
The same qualities that make this drink a great post-workout snack also make it an excellent pre-workout breakfast. Rich in carbs and protein to power you through your session, chocolate milk is an especially good pick if you’re craving sustenance but are not wild about solid food early in the morning. (Try lactose-free or chocolate soy milk if you have lactose intolerance.)
3. A handful of cereal or granola
If a big bowl of cereal sounds like a lot, you can also just grab a handful of your favorite flakes, muesli, or granola. Clark says a small portion of ingredients like oats, corn or wheat flakes, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds can give you just enough carbs, fiber, and protein to sustain you.
4. A banana
The ultimate grab-and-go breakfast, this idea in particular is great for anyone who wakes up slightly nauseous, as bananas are especially easy on the stomach. Pairing it with a spoonful of peanut butter (or another nut or seed butter, like almond or sunflower) will provide some protein and fat to keep you going.
5. A slice of toast with jam
Clark says this is a good pre-workout breakfast because it’s easy to digest and even easier to make. If you like, you can beef up your toast by using a whole-grain variety (provided you haven’t noticed any stomach issues with fiber pre-workout in the past) or satiate more intense hunger by topping with a bit of nut butter. (Gluten-free toast works as well if you have issues tolerating gluten.)
6. A fruit smoothie
Smoothies are ideal before a workout because they’re packed with nutrients but go down fast and easy. And you can make your smoothie more or less filling depending on the ingredients you use. For instance, you could use only fruit and milk for a lighter smoothie—or for something heartier, add yogurt, nut butter, or protein powder.
7. A cup of yogurt
Yummy yogurt is yet another easily digestible way to give your body carbs and protein pre-workout, no chewing required. If you prefer to buy unsweetened, you can add some honey or jam for some additional quick energy in the form of sugar. (A handful of granola or sliced banana would be tasty too.) If full-fat yogurt is too much for your stomach right before a workout, give reduced-fat or fat-free a go.
8. A breakfast cookie or two
While you probably won’t have time to whip up a batch of cookies first thing in the morning, you can prep these the night or the weekend before. Breakfast cookies are often filled with a lot of the same good stuff that’s in granola, such as oats and other grains, fruit, honey, and nuts. Make them in bulk and store in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer to have on hand at all times.
9. A granola or protein bar
Compact, easy to eat, packed with nutrients, and portable, bars are pretty awesome. (O’Donnell-Giles always keeps multiple bars in her gym bag for all her pre-workout needs, while Clark is a fan of Kind Healthy Grains Bars.) Bars rich in protein are an especially great pick before weight-training workouts (although you’ll want to skip eating bars super-high in protein right before, say, a run, if they make you feel gross). And whether you buy them or make them yourself, there are endless flavor and texture options. (Just be sure to avoid varieties packed with added fiber, which might upset your stomach mid-workout.)
10. Oatmeal made with milk
This classic combo is packed with complex carbs and protein, says Clark. Whether you prefer instant packets, stove-top, or overnight oats, you can go plain or quickly customize with some brown sugar, raisin, nuts, or berries. If you are dairy-free, use soy or pea milk (instead of, say, almond) to get a little extra protein.
11. A mini bagel with a schmear of cream cheese
Mini bagels are the secret to satisfying your early-morning bagel cravings without overwhelming your stomach before a workout. If your stomach is okay with it, add a little cream cheese for a small amount of fat and protein. (Feel free to use a tofu-based dairy-free alternative if that better aligns with how you eat.)
12. A hard-boiled egg and grapes
Jones says hard-boiled eggs are a nice way to get an easy-on-the-belly protein hit before a workout—not to mention, they’re convenient and mild enough for the early hours. Add a side of sugary fruit, like grapes, a nectarine, or a banana, for some fast-acting energy if you are more on the hungry side.
13. A couple of deli-slice roll-ups
If you’re going to be doing aerobic exercise for more than an hour, make time for a slightly heavier breakfast before you get started. Slices of lean meat—turkey, for instance—are another way to get some easily digestible protein in before a sweat session, Jones says. Roll them up in a mini tortilla or wrap for a convenient and carb-y vehicle for your protein. If you’ve got the appetite and time to digest, you could also add a slice of cheese.
14. A mini egg frittata and toast
Small pre-made frittatas (or egg muffins) baked in a muffin tin are another great way to get your morning eggs without having to set your alarm any earlier. Often made with a little cheese, meat, and/or veggies, they’re good for a heartier pre-workout fuel-up. Make a batch of them during weekend meal prep, and grab one or two from the fridge on weekday mornings to eat chilled or briefly microwaved.