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Training Tips

Nutrition and Fueling Before Morning Workouts and Races

By: Jim Rutberg  November 17, 2021

Getting up and getting after it is a great way to spend time on your bike. Make sure you are fueling that effort correctly.

For many cyclists, morning is the optimal time for training. Not only does it feel great to start the day with a great ride or workout, it is also one of the best ways to ensure that life’s daily complications don’t prevent you from riding later in the day. Whether you’re riding outdoors at sunrise or jumping on the trainer for a pre-dawn workout, fueling morning workouts can be tricky. Get the most out of your morning workouts with these nutrition guidelines and strategies.

How you fuel a morning workout depends on what you are trying to accomplish with the training session. Your long overnight fast presents both challenges and opportunities for fueling morning workouts. If you are starting your day with a hard interval session you will perform better with high carbohydrate availability, which can be a challenge because of your overnight fast. If your goal is to train with low carbohydrate availability, that same overnight fast can be quite useful.

Fueling for High Performance in the Morning

Your body is always using carbohydrate and fat (and a little protein) to produce energy. The relative contributions from fat and carbohydrate change with increasing and decreasing demand for energy. If you have a morning interval session, hard group ride, or early morning race start, you want to have high carbohydrate availability – meaning high levels of muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) and blood glucose. The good news is that in the 8-12 hours since you last ate, your body has been steadily replenishing your muscle glycogen. The bad news is that your level of liver glycogen, a primary source of blood glucose, has been declining. This means your muscles are ready for a great workout but your brain – which is more sensitive to blood glucose levels – isn’t ready to focus on training or racing. The orchestra is ready, but the conductor can’t find the sheet music. The challenge is to bring blood glucose levels up to fuel the brain without overloading the gut and feeling nauseated once you get on the bike.

Before early morning interval sessions…

If your goal is to be on the bike and into your 60- to 90-minute interval workout within 30 minutes of rolling out of bed, there’s not much time to consume and digest food. Thankfully, you don’t need much food prior to these workouts. The fuel for the workout is your muscle glycogen and fat stores, and those tanks are full. You just need to eat enough to bump up your blood sugar and boost your alertness.

There can even be an advantage to eating a small amount of food just before you start exercising. While exercising, insulin is not released because muscles can take in carbohydrate on their own. Sometimes, if you eat a lot of carbohydrate an hour or so before exercising, the timing is such that the insulin response pulls that glucose out of the blood and you can be temporarily hypoglycemic just as you start exercising. If you don’t have enough time to fully digest a meal, a small snack right before training may be a better choice.

Aim for 100-200 calories, primarily from carbohydrate (25-50 grams = 100-200 calories). Examples include:

  • SungoldTM Kiwifruit Cashew Toast (recipe from our sponsor, ZespriTM)
  • Banana with peanut or almond butter
  • Toast with peanut or almond butter and honey
  • Energy bar or packet of energy chews (try these bars and these chews from our sports nutrition partner, Skratch Labs)
  • Oatmeal with berries and brown sugar
  • Sports drink (bonus that it provides calories, fluid, and electrolytes at once)

What about coffee? If you normally consume coffee, then have a cup before an early morning workout or ride. The caffeine can help with improving alertness and cognitive function.

Nutrition and hydration during morning workouts

During morning workouts that last 60-90 minutes you will have enough glycogen stored in your muscles to power a high-quality workout. As a result, you won’t need to consume calories during your ride, which is good because these morning workouts are often hard interval sessions. Cyclists struggle to eat during hard workouts, not only because of the effort, but also because the food often upsets their stomach.

Although you have enough carbohydrate on board for a good workout, you will need to consume water to account for the fluids lost through sweat. A sports drink that is rich in electrolytes can also be used if you prefer, but save the carbohydrate-rich sports drink for a longer ride.

Before morning race starts

For early morning race starts you must figure out which works best for you: waking up early enough to eat a complete meal around 2-3 hours before the race or consuming a smaller meal or snack right before the start. A lot of this comes down to personal preference, how early is ‘early’, race day logistics, and the event’s expected duration. You may want to treat short, early morning races like a local MTB, cyclocross race, or criterium similarly to the early morning workouts above. On the other hand, on the morning of a long gravel race, gran fondo, or endurance MTB race, it may be worth waking up early to consume a more complete meal. If you go this route, the rule of thumb is to consume 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight if you’re eating 4 hours before the race, or 3 g/kg if it’s three hours before, 2 g/kg 2 hours before, and .5 - 1 g/kg an hour before. Note: that’s the timing of ONE meal, not hourly consumption leading up to the start. The earlier you eat before the start, the more fat, protein, and low glycemic index carbohydrates you can or should include. The closer you eat to the start, the more your meal should focus on easily digestible carbohydrates.

During longer races and events that start in the morning, you will want to consume carbohydrate during the event to help conserve muscle glycogen and fuel hard efforts. Your hydration and nutrition strategy for these events will vary, and should be practiced during training.

Training with Low Carbohydrate Availability in the Morning

There is another scenario that may turn the overnight fast into an opportunity rather than a challenge. Training with low carbohydrate availability – meaning you’re starting workouts with purposely limited carbohydrate stores – may have some advantages for optimizing the way your body uses fat for fuel. Instead of riding long enough to deplete glycogen stores and then riding additional hours, some cyclists create that condition by training in the afternoon or evening to deplete glycogen stores and then consuming little or no carbohydrate before going to bed. Between the low carbohydrate intake and the overnight fast, you’ll wake up in the morning with lower-than-normal levels of muscle glycogen, which leads to the opportunity to train with low carbohydrate availability. Rides in this fasted state should be kept to low intensity endurance rides that are primarily fueled by fat. Be sure to eat a meal that’s rich in carbohydrate, protein, and fat after a ride like this.