It’s 6am and you have been hitting sleep on your alarm for 30 minutes. Now, it’s time to get up, get dressed and run out the door for practice, lift, training, class, work, or wherever you are headed. Sound familiar? When we are crunched for time in the morning, the last thing on your mind is Breakfast. It turns into a small bar, a piece of fruit, or nothing at all.
When you are an athlete, your morning meal (or lack of) can make a huge impact on your energy, performance, and sets the tone for the rest of your day. Are you wondering how you can better fuel for your busy day ahead? Are you an athlete and following the intermittent fasting trend or skipping your morning meal due to time?
This article will help reinforce the benefits of breakfast for active individuals, teach you how to create your morning meal with 5 simple steps, and give you some balanced breakfast ideas to get your day started on a positive (and delicious) note!
What are the Benefits of Breakfast?
The benefits of eating breakfast are well known, but this has been questioned recently with the rise of intermittent fasting. Almost 50% of kids skip breakfast, and many continue skipping this meal as adults. For athletes, this trend is not helpful for improving performance because of the effect on cognition, health, digestion, and overall nutrient intake.
In children, teens, and adults, eating breakfast seems to have a positive benefit for cognition compared to skipping it. This is especially seen when performing skilled tasks that require attention, executive function, and memory, something required of most team sport athletes, or skill based sports like golf, tennis, or gymnastics.
Eating breakfast is also associated with less problems for weight management and better health overall. Staying healthy and improving health is a reason many of us become athletes, or choose to be physically active in the first place!
Other benefits of eating breakfast include the ability to eat smaller meals for better digestion, or to curb your appetite and avoid overeating at other meals. This can get in the way of training if you’re running off the field to use the bathroom, having to miss practice, or cut your exercise short for any of these digestive issues.
One of the most important benefits of breakfast is specific to athletes, because it’s an opportunity to fill up your tank after a night of no food or drink and get the most out of your training. We know athletes need lots of carbohydrate or “carb” to improve performance, they require plenty of quality protein to build and repair muscle after training, and they need more fluid to keep up with sweat losses and perform at a high level.
Without a balanced breakfast meal that includes quality protein, carb, and fluid at baseline, youare missing an opportunity to repair damage from training, speed up recovery, get stronger, and improve performance in your sport.
There is a lot of information out there, but eating breakfast doesn’t have to be complicated. If you are awake, so is your body, which means it’s time to fill up your tank! Follow the 5 steps to create your morning meal and you are ready to tackle the day ahead!
When Should an Athlete Eat Breakfast?
Timing and quantity of breakfast will depend on when you wake up, and when your first training session is that day. If you have nothing scheduled until late in the day, ideally you will eat soon after you wake, to allow for more time to get enough energy from food to fuel your performance.
Athletes should focus on eating small, frequent bouts of protein foods throughout the day (every 3 hours). This helps with muscle protein synthesis (the natural process of producing protein to repair muscle damage caused by exercise). This is especially important 24-48 hours after resistance training or lifting weights. Missing protein at breakfast is a missed opportunity for your muscles to heal, grow, and prevent soreness.
When you are awake and moving, your body uses carbohydrates in the form of glucose (circulating in the blood), and glycogen (stored in liver / muscles) as it’s preferred source of fuel for your brain and body. We know that these sources of energy are particularly important if you’re looking to improve your sports performance. When you first wake up in the morning, your body has used all the available glucose, and has tapped into your stored form of energy, glycogen, while you sleep.
To perform better in your sport, it is important to eat carb foods once you wake up to replace stored glycogen and increase your available glucose. Glucose is used as energy for exercise, and can be consumed right before, and during training to improve performance.
Similarly, when you wake up, you have limited fluid available. We know that performance is significantly impacted in many ways by dehydration. If you’re starting training already dehydrated having skipped breakfast, it’s hard to keep up and perform your best. To help, start your day with at least 16 oz of water.
Sports nutrition goals for most athletes are focused around increasing carbohydrate (or energy) for exercise, getting enough protein for muscles, and being hydrated for your training. Each of these steps starts with eating a balanced breakfast soon after waking in the morning.
A few easy strategies to improve your performance in the morning;
- Try to eat within 1, no more than 2 hours after waking.
- If you don’t tolerate larger meals in the morning, try eating 2 mini meals to limit GI issues.
- If you are going right to training and you can’t eat breakfast, drink or eat something with 30 grams of carbohydrate that is easy to digest like a piece of fruit, 16 oz sports drink , or 1 ½ sports gel / waffle.
5 Steps to Create your Morning Meal
A balanced breakfast can be created with just 5 easy steps! Use this checklist as you’re putting together your breakfast in the morning, and you can easily get all the nutrition you need to tackle the day ahead and see improvements in your game.
Step 1: Start with a carb
Choose carbs high in fiber like whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, brown rice, sweet potato, oatmeal, quinoa when you have more time between meals and training (3-4 hours or more). Choose quick-digested carbs like fruit, sports drinks, white bread, pretzels, crackers, jelly, when you’re eating right before (within 1 hour) or during training.
The amount of carb will depend on training difficulty, body composition, type of exercise, weight goals, and period of training. The amount of carbohydrate you include with your breakfast will also depend on how close you are to your meal, ranging from 1-4 grams per kilogram (of your body weight). Ask a sports RD for an idea of how much you will want to eat.
Step 2: Pick a Protein
Choose complete proteins with all essential amino acids (especially leucine) after training for increased muscle protein synthesis. Complete proteins are primarily animal proteins such as milk, eggs, Greek yogurt, Cottage cheese, chicken, turkey, beef, tofu, or 3rd party tested whey or soy protein.
Mix in some plant proteins like beans, lentils, nuts, peas, nut butters, hemp seeds, 3rd party tested pea protein throughout your day for more fiber, and variety of vitamins and minerals in your diet. Athletes eating a primarily plant based diet can meet with a sports RD as there are special considerations for vegan diet. Plant based or not, an athlete should include a moderate source of protein at breakfast to help your body recover, and help you feel more full and satisfied for longer.
Step 3: Add Some Color
Colorful fruits and vegetables have a variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (natural compounds found in plant foods that promote good health). These foods may help reduce risk of injury to keep your training going, build immunity which is more relevant now than ever, and reduce inflammation to promote better recovery from training or injury.
While any fruit or vegetable will do the trick, a few superstar foods you might try with breakfast include; leafy greens (kale, spinach), bell peppers, broccoli, beans, onions, avocado, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cherries, oranges, kiwi, papaya, plums, or apples.
Step 4: Find the Fat
If not already on your plate, consider adding a healthy fat like avocado, olive oil, almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanut butter, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds or lox to boost your breakfast. Healthy fat means these foods contain less saturated fat, and more mono and polyunsaturated fats (like omega-3), which may have a role in reducing inflammation.
This food group can be modified to help with weight gain or weight loss in the off season, as fat is higher in calories (9 calories per gram). If eating before training causes you some digestive issues, try eating less fat (and less fiber) right before workouts to limit stomach problems. Healthy omega-3 fats like salmon, mackerel, anchovy, sardines, herring, trout can be included after training to help reduce inflammation.
Step 5: Think About a Drink!
After a long night of no food or drink, it’s important to make space for step 5 of your morning meal! Athletes need more fluid during the day than the average individual because of sweat lost during exercise, but if you start training dehydrated, you’re going to be a step behind your opponent the whole game.
The amount you need to drink before / during exercise is quite variable and should be individualized, but a good rule of thumb is; drink 2 cups (16 oz) 2-3 hours before training and 1 cup (8 oz) 15 minutes before.
It is okay to have safe amounts of coffee or tea in the morning, depending on your sport and tolerance. Caffeine is a natural way to improve exercise performance when used in moderation, but be sure not to consume too much, as it can cause jitters, and is a banned substance in some organized sport groups, like the NCAA.
5 Healthy Breakfast Ideas for Athletes
Wondering how you can put it all together? Below are 5 easy breakfast recipes that can be made in less than 5 minutes! Each of these follow the 5 simple steps and include a carb, a protein source, a fruit or veggie, some form of healthy fat, water, and are moderate in calories.
Portions can be adjusted up or down to match your training needs! If you are an athlete and wondering how much you should be looking for at each meal to help fuel your workouts, reach out to see if working with a sports RD could be helpful for you!
Avocado toast + eggs
(550 cal / 22g protein / 55g carb)
- 2 pieces whole grain toast
- ½ avocado
- 2 whole eggs
- 1 Tbsp everything bagel seasoning
- 16 oz water
(550 cal / 21g protein / 65g carb)
- 3/4 cup old fashioned oats
- ½ cup milk of choice
- ½ cup raspberries (fresh or frozen)
- 1 tsp chia seeds
- 2 tsp brown sugar (optional)
- 1/4 cup almonds / walnuts / sunflower seeds / pumpkin seeds
- 16 oz water
PB + banana wrap
(595 cal / 22g protein / 75g carb)
- 1 whole wheat tortilla or wrap
- 2 Tbsp almond butter
- 1 banana, sliced.
- 2 Tbsp chia seeds
- 1 cup milk
- 16 oz water
Fruit + yogurt parfait
(575 cal / 19g protein / 65g carb)
- 5-6 oz plain Greek yogurt (Low fat for most people)
- ½ cup granola (I like Grandy Oats / KIND / Bare Naked / Bola)
- 1 cup blueberries
- 16 oz water
(565 cal / 27g protein / 60g carb)
- 5 oz plain Greek yogurt or 1 scoop protein powder (3rd party tested)
- 1 handful spinach
- ½ cup pineapple
- ½ cup strawberries
- 1 Tbsp peanut butter / almond butter / Sunbutter
- 2 Tbsp chia seeds
- 2 cups milk of choice or Oatmilk
- 16 oz water
The Bottom Line
Eating breakfast for athletes is an important first step to improving athletic performance. Athletes have unique energy needs and diet trends don’t always make sense for people who are really active every day. Think of this meal as an opportunity to refuel your body’s stored form of energy, repair muscle damage, improve immunity, reduce inflammation, optimize your training, or if nothing else, just enjoy eating in the morning! If you’re looking to improve your athletic performance, follow this 5 step process to create your morning meal and get your day started on the right foot! If you’re looking for more help with your fueling plan, contact a sports RD to see how you can get the most out of your training with your everyday food choices.
In strength and wellness,