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Food Timing for Morning Workouts

By Marni Sumbal | Feb. 25, 2014, 1:19 p.m. (ET)

oatsWe all know that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and can set you up for a successful (and controllable) day of eating with great mental focus, alertness and energy. 

One of the common struggles I come across with athletes and fitness enthusiasts is how to fuel in the morning with early morning workouts. 

Common concerns:
-Will I gain weight if I eat before my workout?
-I feel like I'm always snacking in the morning and never feel full.
-I have GI upset if I eat before my workout.
-I can't seem to recover from my workout.
-I do well until mid-afternoon and then I can't stop eating!
-I'm always rushing to get my workout in in the morning and then get to work (and take care of family). 

Here are a few of my recommendations for timing your nutrition with your workouts for the early morning workouts (remember, tweak for your own individual needs and goals — log your lifestyle to reflect on what's working/not working):
-I recommend eating a breakfast meal after your workout if you are working out within 90 minutes of waking.
-I recommend a small snack (if tolerated) before your workout, around 20-60 minutes before. Water is recommended to help with digestion (8-12 ounces) and coffee/tea is fine as well.
-During your workout, if around 60-90 minutes, water should meet your fluid needs, electrolytes may be needed if you are working out vigorously. There's nothing wrong with 20-25 grams of carbohydrates if you feel it will help your workout.
-I recommend a small snack post workout, primarily protein (ex. milk, yogurt, egg, protein powder) of around 10-15 grams before your real meal. 

By prioritizing your nutrition around your workout in the morning you may find that you are more satisfied throughout the morning until your lunch. I recommend planning a mid-afternoon snack. Typically, most people go more than five hours between lunch and dinner meals and thus, will benefit from a planned "mini meal" snack mid-afternoon to help with overeating at dinner or late-night snacking and cravings. 

Here's a sample of my morning eats earlier this week: 
5:30 a.m.: Wake up, walk Campy (my dog), drink coffee and glass of water
5:50 a.m.: Eat 1/2 cup cheerios with 4 ounces organic skim milk and one spoonful chia seeds (my other staple pre-workout snack is 1-2 Wasa crackers with 2 teaspoons natural peanut butter and 4 ounces milk for shorter workouts)
6:45 a.m.: 3,000-yard swim (1,000 warm-up. MS: 6 x 300s. Odd swim Desc. Even paddles/buoy recovery. Rest 45 seconds in between. 200 cool down). Water during workout.
7:45-8:15 a.m.: Strength training. Water during workout.
8:15-8:45 a.m.: Get ready for work. 
8:45 a.m.: Driving to hospital (work); 4 ounces skim milk + 8 ounces water + 10 grams whey protein powder and 1 Wasa cracker with smear of nut butter (prepared in morning)
9:30 a.m.: At hospital, working. Oatmeal creation which satisfied me until lunch at 12:45 p.m. I am not one to watch the clock so when I feel like my body is biologically hungry — whether 11:30 a.m. or 1 p.m. — I eat.  

This may look like a lot of eating (not complaining) but I make fueling around workouts (and during) a priority and then once that's checked off, it's time to focus on nourishing our body for immune system protection. It’s important to make balanced meals and enjoy those meals.

Some of the other benefits of nutrient timing (that I experience and are common for the athletes I work with):
- We are not late-night snackers
-We don't experience any type of uncontrollable cravings later in the day or in the evening 
-We recover well post workouts 
-We don't struggle with energy during workouts (or rapid fatigue)
-We don't experience GI upset during training/racing because of teaching the gut how to tolerate nutrition before/during workouts

FYI: This routine was not developed overnight. It took a lot of tweaking, reflecting, research and trial and error to find what works for me, my goals and my lifestyle. As an athlete and health-conscious individual, my goal is to adapt to training and keep my immune system healthy as I live a busy life helping others. When I work with other athletes and fitness enthusiasts, I always focus on the lifestyle first and the individual goals. Also, I'm a real food enthusiast as you know but sport nutrition has its place. My body recovers best with whey protein and as a high-biological protein, it offers more to my body and health than just recovery. Also, for workouts over 90 minutes, I always have a sport drink with me providing at least 25 grams of carbs — and during my Ironman prep, I train with around 250-300 calories per hour during cycling and always run with some type of liquid fuel off the bike. 

To reap the benefits of training and to keep myself healthy, I really enjoy seeing food for fuel and for health. Below is the oatmeal recipe I enjoyed post-workout.

Berry Almond Oatmeal

1/2 cup dry oats
Handful chopped strawberries and blackberries
1 tablespoon unsweet coconut shredded
1 tablespoon ground flax
1 tablespoon chopped almonds
1 tablespoon raisins
10 grams protein powder

Cook oatmeal as directed. Stir in fruit, coconut, flax, almonds, raisin, cinnamon and protein powder. Enjoy!

Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, LD/N is the owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition, LLC and works as a clinical dietitian at Baptist Medical Center Beaches. Marni holds a master of science in exercise physiology, is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and a seven-time Ironman finisher. She enjoys public speaking, writing, plant-strong cooking and traveling. She recently finished her third Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, with a PR of 10:37:10. Learn more at

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.