By Steph Saullo
Many Masters swimmers spend their early-morning hours before work in the pool. Some skip a preworkout meal, others take a few minutes to gobble something when they wake up.
So, which is best?
Fill up the Tank
Training on an empty stomach can hinder your performance. You might have heard the analogy that your body is like a car and food is your gas. This is the reason you should eat before an activity—food gives you the much-needed fuel to perform.
Your body can only store so much fuel—specifically glycogen, its storage form of carbohydrates—and it uses this energy while sleeping. When you wake up in the morning, most of your stored liver glycogen has been used, leaving not much to work with if you are about to engage in a strenuous activity. Without re-fueling before exercise, your body will utilize remaining carbohydrate and fat stores, but you also run the risk of using protein (e.g., that precious muscle) to fill in the gaps. Exercising on an empty stomach leaves you without adequate energy to put in a good workout.
Pre-exercise fuel helps your body maintain normal blood sugar and helps prevent fatigue, light-headedness, blurred vision, and lack of concentration, which are all associated with low blood sugar. Low blood sugar may also cause poor reaction times and poor coordination and cause you to slow down in general.
Wake Up and Eat
Eating something is usually better than not eating anything. If you aren’t accustomed to eating before an early-morning activity, think about your training volume, intensity, and the amount of time you’ll put in.
If you’re about to engage in a large amount of high-intensity training, you’ll want to eat something. If your training session goes beyond 60 minutes, it would be in your best interest to eat before starting. If it’s going to be a light day and you ran out the door without eating, it probably isn’t going to jeopardize the workout.
Assuming you have less than an hour in the early morning before hitting the pool, consider food that is mostly carbohydrate and lower in fat and fiber. Items such as fruit, fruit juice, fruit snacks, a piece of toast or waffle with jam, cereal (one that is lower in fiber), or applesauce are good options. If you have more time, you might consider oatmeal or other hot cereal with raisins or cranberries.
If you happen to include some protein or fat along with a source of carbohydrates, it isn’t a big deal but keep it to a minimum, especially when you don’t have much time. Protein and fat take more time to digest, so the carbohydrates won’t be as readily available.
If practice takes place in the afternoon or evening, ensure you take in adequate calories, including sufficient carbohydrates and protein, leading up to your workout and then grab a carbohydrate-filled snack an hour or so before to top off your glycogen stores.
But I Can’t
Do you fall in the I-can’t-eat-before-practice camp? Eating before a workout requires rehearsal, so if you tried it once and weren’t successful, you should try a few more times before ruling it out.
Additionally, you might have to experiment with different foods and the exact timing to determine a strategy that works best for you and your digestive system. Start with small amounts of food, make sure your pre-activity food choices are lower in fat and fiber, and consider a liquid calorie option if you’ve tried many foods and are struggling to find what works best. And remember: Each person is unique. What works for your friend might not be the best choice for your pre-exercise routine.
If you continue to have difficulty or you just cannot make the time, you may also eat more the night before to help fuel that morning workout. Like improving your fitness or speed in the pool, adjusting to pre-exercise fuel doesn’t happen overnight.
Steph Saullo is the performance dietitian at RITTER Sports Performance. She is a registered dietitian nutritionist, has a Master of Science degree in food and nutrition, and specializes in nutrition for athletes of all ages and levels. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @StephSaullo or like RITTER Sports Performance’s Facebook page for updates and tips.