Do you want to train at your best or build muscle?
If your answer is yes to either of these, then having breakfast will help you train harder for longer compared to training on empty.
It will also help you recover faster after your workout – you won’t end up as depleted as you would’ve been if you had skipped breakfast. Training hard or long on an empty stomach and low energy stores also means your body’s stress response will be higher. Your immune defence could become lower as a result and you’ll most likely need longer recovery time. This is not great, particularly if you’re doing several hard training sessions in a week or do more than one session in a day.
In this scenario the timing of your post-workout snack is also critical and could help boost recovery and performance. Have a meal, snack or drink that is high in carbs and has some protein, as soon as possible after your workout. Then continue with a pattern of regular wholesome meals and snacks for the remainder of the day.
Eating protein only is not an effective pre-workout breakfast
The best pre-workout meal contains a good source of carbs, as it is the nutrient closest linked to sustaining training intensity and performance; and it helps to spare muscle protein. Adding a small amount of protein to your carbs can help with muscle building, if that’s your goal. Science has shown that you only need a small amount of protein – as little as 6g* – to dampen or minimize muscle protein breakdown.
*6g of protein = small matchbox size piece of meat or biltong, or ½ cup milk
Do you want to burn fat or lose weight?
If your main goal is burning fat or losing weight, and not necessarily performance, then doing a moderate-intensity session on an empty stomach might help you burn a bit of extra fat during the exercise session. However, there’s a big misconception about how big and worth-while this effect really is. Firstly, the amount of body fat you can tap into and burn during exercise is actually quite limited – you use some, but not a lot. The real benefits of exercise for weight loss comes more from how well it helps to raise your body’s metabolic rate and to build or maintain muscle mass. Both of these factors help with fat-burning, throughout a 24-hour period. Secondly, skipping breakfast and exercising on low energy stores makes the exercise feel harder than it really is. You will not be able to push hard or long enough to raise your metabolic rate as much as with a bit of fuel in your tank before the exercise session.
In this scenario, the timing or use of a specific post-workout drink is less of an issue – so you don’t need that smoothie or energy drink. It would suffice to simply follow a regular eating pattern, at least 3 main meals, and practice portion control so you don’t end-up putting back double the calories you’ve just burned.
It’s more than just eating before or after a workout
In addition to the scenarios described above, your overall success also depends on how adequately you’re matching your overall food intake (amount and type) to your goals and needs the rest of the day.
Photo by Dušan Zidar