Exercising before breakfast

It’s long been a question among exercise professionals – should you exercise before breakfast, or is it better to get some calories in before you work out? Recent research suggests that exercise before breakfast can have some benefits – especially for men.

Researchers in New Zealand, led by Associate Professor Dr Steve Stannard, worked with two groups of novices for a month. The subjects pedalled up to 75 minutes a day, with some of them eating a high-carbohydrate breakfast first, while others training with their stomachs empty. Researchers then conducted blood tests to assess the effects of the training and the eating protocols on their fitness and weight loss.

So was exercise before breakfast beneficial? What the researchers found was that those subjects who trained without having breakfast first had a greater ability to store glycogen – an advantage for athletes. They also had a greater ability to burn fat.

Researchers concluded that because the subjects who trained without eating breakfast were stressing their bodies a bit more during training, they showed a faster rate of adaptation, and consequently improved performance levels.

Interesting as this research is, it does need to be put into the context of other findings. For while it appears that training in a glycogen-depleted state can have benefits for endurance athletes, it does not help athletes who are strength training.

Maximise Your Strength Training

To maximize the benefits of strength training it is essential that your body has sufficient fuel to work out effectively – working out without sufficient calories in your body will comprise your workout, and will therefore actually reduce its effectiveness.

Similarly, for competitive endurance athletes who need to train hard, the positive adaptations that can occur from working out on an empty stomach are likely to be offset by the diminished performance during the training session. Therefore it is recommended that athletes in training use this method judiciously, perhaps once a week.

Don't forget there may also be some benefits to that strong espresso in the morning. Research has shown that caffeine can help your sports performance with most benefit being for endurance and longer races.  The actual amount is 3-4 mg of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight.

In Summary

Finally, as Dr Stannard noted, these findings only apply to men – women should eat breakfast before a workout, as they tend to get more from exercise if they take a moderate amount of carbohydrates before they start working out.

The bottom line? For men whose main aim is to lose weight, performing their cardio workouts on an empty stomach can have positive adaptations and increase weight loss. However, for all others, this technique should be used with caution.

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