When you jump out of bed at the buzz of your 5:30 a.m. alarm for an early morning workout, eating breakfast might be the last thing on your mind. But after fasting all night, your energy stores are depleted — and the last thing you want to hear during a grueling workout is your stomach growl.
While simple carbohydrates found in sports drinks, energy gels and cereal provide a quick source of energy, they might not sustain you through a longer workout. Pairing these energy-boosting carbohydrates with a small amount of fat and protein is the best way to ensure sustained energy while working out. Adding in a dose of protein floods your bloodstream with amino acids right when you need them the most, allowing for muscle-building optimization. Healthy fats slow the digestion process, promoting a gradual release of energy throughout a longer workout.
The size of your pre-workout meal will vary depending on the length of your workout and your energy needs. Going for a long or high-intensity workout? Consider a more energy dense meal, but keep in mind it may take 3-4 hours to fully digest. A lower-intensity workout will require less energy. Aim for a small meal that can be digested in about 2–3 hours. But, if you’re working out early in the morning, you won’t have 2 hours to spare. Consider a blended option, such as a smoothie. They digest quickly because the blender has already done a lot of the work for your stomach. Another quick option is a 100–200 calorie snack (like many of the examples below); these will take you less than an hour to digest and won’t weigh you down.
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Just can’t eat breakfast early in the morning? While you may be used to running on fumes, your performance may be suffering. Luckily, your gut can be trained to accept a light morning meal. Start small with a snack that will be easy on your stomach, such as a banana or a piece of toast. Gradually add onto this meal until your stomach can tolerate it. A little change in eating habits can make a huge difference in your performance!
If you’re ready to amp up your a.m. fuel, check out what dietitians eat before their morning workouts!
Fruit is a key RD go-to. (Are you surprised?) Tara Gidus Collingwood, MS, RDN, the sports dietitian for the Orlando Magic eats a half or full banana before she heads out for a morning run. Fruit, whether it is fresh, frozen or dried, has quickly digestible carbohydrates that can fuel a morning workout, and it offers a light option if you’re not an early morning eater. For a more filling alternative, Ashley Munro, RD, of A Pinch of Grace, likes to stuff 1–2 dates with 1 tablespoon almond butter “because it’s quick and easy on the stomach.”
2. HOMEMADE MUFFIN
If you’re heading out for a longer workout, you need enough fuel to sustain you. Pair a hearty homemade muffin, such as these Almond Butter Banana Oat Muffins, with a small smoothie or a fresh piece of fruit. Freeze these muffins and heat in the microwave or defrost on the countertop overnight for a grab-and-go breakfast.
You can’t go wrong with a classic bowl of warm oatmeal. Packed full of carbohydrates and fiber, oats will give you sustained energy throughout your morning workout. There are endless possibilities for mix-ins, including nuts and nut butters, dried or fresh fruit, yogurt and protein powder. Angie Asche, MS, RD,owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition, uses overnight oats as her go-to early morning pre-workout meal. Simply add oats, milk and a handful of berries or sliced banana to a sealed Mason jar. Place the jar in the fridge overnight for a quick breakfast in the morning. Need some inspiration? Give this High Protein Chocolate Banana Overnight Oats recipe a try.
Smoothies are both easy to make and full of the nutrients necessary for an intense workout. This Tropical Superfood Smoothie provides a boost of antioxidants from superfoods that aid in recovery from the natural stress of exercise. Smoothies can be as simple as a blend of fruit or can include protein powder and vegetables to provide nutrients from all food groups. Try adding Greek yogurt, chia seeds or nut butter. There are endless combinations to experiment with.
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5. ENERGY BOWLS
These bowls are similar to a smoothie except you can sit down and enjoy them with a spoon. Energy bowls are the perfect combination of energy-dense carbohydrates blended for easy digestion prior to a long workout. The easy preparation is an added bonus at 6 a.m. This Green Energy Bowl blends energizing carbohydrates with walnuts and chia seeds for sustained energy that provides a punch of protein.
6. YOGURT PARFAITS
Greek yogurt is ideal for athletes; it provides less added sugar (if you opt for plain) and is higher in protein than traditional yogurt, while also providing a great source of probiotics and bone-strengthening calcium. Parfaits are an optimal pre-workout snack that’s easy to digest while providing key nutrients from a variety of food groups. Try this Peach Parfait to energize your next early workout.
7. TOASTER WAFFLES
Waffles are versatile and easy to prep ahead of time. Simply choose your favorite waffle base (such as bananas, protein powder or whole grains). You can even experiment with different types of flour, like coconut flour for a grain-free option. If you are gluten-free, check out these Gluten Free Blender Waffles. Freeze extras and pop them in the toaster on busy mornings.
This breakfast staple can be made with a variety of grains to provide the carbohydrates needed to fuel your workout. If you don’t have time to sit down and eat them, they are easy to eat on the go, either plain or topped with a little nut butter. Check out this recipe for a Tart Cherry Greek Yogurt pancake that combines the recovery power of tart cherry juice with the protein boost of Greek yogurt. Jessica Levings, MS, RD, of Balanced Pantry, agrees. Her favorite pre-workout fuel is one homemade buckwheat pancake. “I make a big batch and freeze them so I can defrost a few at a time,” she says. “One gives me just enough energy for an hourlong run, plus it’s portable so I can eat it in the car on the way to meet my running buddy!”
9. EGG WHITE ENGLISH MUFFIN OR BREAKFAST SANDWICH
This may sound like too much to handle in the early hours of the morning, but breakfast sandwiches are easy to prepare ahead of time, wrap and freeze. Don’t forget to add the veggies; this is an easy way to sneak in a handful of leafy greens or bell peppers. In the morning, simply unwrap your sandwich and microwave for 60–90 seconds.
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10. AVOCADO TOAST
Avocados in the morning? Yes! They are perfect to combine with whole-grain bread for long-lasting energy that won’t leave you feeling overfull. This Avocado Toast with Kale Sprouts adds the powerful nutrient boost of kale sprouts.
11. SWEET POTATO TOAST
Have you seen this trendy new breakfast? Simply cut a sweet potato (round ones work best) into thin slices, then toast on high for 2–3 cycles. The sweet potato will be soft but not soggy and ready for your choice of toppings. Go sweet and add peanut butter, raisins or cinnamon. Or, try a savory version and top with an egg, avocado or cheese. Sweet potatoes are a great pre-workout pick because they are rich in carbohydrates, high in fiber and provide a boost of vitamin A.
12. BREAKFAST PIZZA
Pizza for breakfast? Why not! Pizza has a carbohydrate-rich crust, and adding eggs, cheese and vegetables can make it a satisfying and tasty way to energize in the morning. Breakfast pizza can be prepared at the beginning of the week and portions can be reheated daily.
13. ENERGY BITES
Energy bites are tasty and easy to grab if you are not a morning person. “I love energy bites before a morning workout,” says Edwina Clark, MS, RD. “They provide a little bit of protein and carbohydrate to fuel working muscles, without leaving you heavy and uncomfortable.” Have a sweet tooth? Here’s one of our favorite recipes for Cookie Dough Energy Bites.
14. BREAKFAST BURRITO
Instead of swinging by the drive-thru for a fast breakfast option, why not make your own? Breakfast burritos are a quick and easy way to incorporate carbohydrates, protein and whatever else you would like into a hand-held, energy-packed option. They can also be prepared ahead of time and frozen, making them a convenient heat-and-go meal.
15. HOMEMADE GRANOLA BARS
Make granola bars on the weekend then use all week. These Tart Cherry Dark Chocolate Granola Bars are filled with lasting energy plus a recovery boost from the tart cherries. If you are a heavy sweater or do high-intensity workouts, you may benefit from the added sodium of these granola bars. To reduce your added sugar intake, try homemade granola. Grab a handful while running out the door, or add it on top of a yogurt parfait or an energy bowl. Here is a fun, breakfast-inspired recipe to try: Blueberry Muffin Granola.
16. BREAKFAST COOKIES
Cookies for breakfast? Don’t worry, these aren’t your typical chocolate chip treat. Breakfast cookies are typically lower in sugar and made with ingredients like whole-grain flour, oats, nuts and dried fruit to make a condensed, energy-packed snack.
17. RICE CAKES AND NUT BUTTER
Rice cakes topped with nut butter, banana and chia seeds are a complete and easy breakfast. This option combines all the good stuff dietitians love: whole-grain carbohydrates, healthy fats, protein and fruit. “I always have two rice cakes with peanut butter, banana and a sprinkle of chia seeds about 45 minutes before a workout,” says Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN, of Bucket List Tummy. “It’s a great balance of carbs, with a tiny bit of protein to help sustain me but is easy on the digestive system.” She also adds 16 ounces of water.
18. BREAKFAST QUINOA
To switch up your usual hot cereal routine, try quinoa instead. Quinoa provides the benefits of a whole grain with the added bonus of extra protein. It can be prepared similarly to oatmeal with your favorite add-ins, or you can get creative and try these Roasted Quinoa Stuffed Pears.
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