I mentioned yesterday how difficult hack squats were on Wednesday morning compared to how I lifted two days before, and found myself wondering if weightlifting on an empty stomach within an hour or so of waking up might be the problem.
I didn’t get an answer from anyone, either here on my own blog, or on Lethally Fit’s blog spot where I also passed on my query (she’s been under the weather, and so probably hasn’t spent much time visiting her blog).
So I did what I always do, turned to Google. I picked the top four search results and came up with some interesting answers.
Of course when you consult a discussion forum, you get many competing results, so no help there.
Livestrong.com provided a short and sweet (not literally sweet) answer:
When you’re lifting weights, your body will be utilizing primarily carbohydrates as fuel; protein facilitates recovery and the muscle-building process. As a result, Northern Arizona University Athletics recommends consuming a small meal consisting of low-glycemic carbohydrates and a quality protein before your workouts. Carbohydrates that are low glycemic provide you with a steady supply of energy because they take longer to be digested, which is ideal before your workouts.
By “small meal,” they mean, for example, “a bowl of rolled oats with a scoop of whey protein and some peanut butter, milk and sliced banana” consumed about 60 to 90 minutes before actually lifting, which should give your body enough time to digest.
I hate working out on a full stomach which typically results in “abdominal pains from gastrointestinal distress.”
They also said something highly relevant to me:
If you lift weights first thing in the morning, eat a banana and whole wheat bread at least 30 minutes before you begin.
That seems to be the statement that best describes my situation, since I get out of bed anywhere from 3:30 to 4 a.m. and am at the gym ready to lift by 5.
But Livestrong tends to write for the person doing an “average” workout, especially older folks. What about older folks like me, who like to “push it” a little?
For the answer, I consulted an article published at my old standby source, Bodybuilding.com.
Actually, Matt Danielsson, the author of this 2007 missive, wrote something about doing Cardio first thing in the morning I wish I’d known about before now:
…this is THE time to get some fat burn going. As you haven’t had any major meals for several hours, there’s very little carbs floating around in your system that can be used as fuel instead of bodyfat. Bad news is, as there’s little carbs around, the body doesn’t mind cannibalizing some muscle mass along with the bodyfat. Yikes! Frontal assault on objective one!
Uh-oh. Is part of my problem with hack squats that I’ve been burning off muscle mass during my 40-minute cardio sessions three days a week because I’m hitting the elliptical on an empty stomach (except for water and coffee)?
The answer has several parts, and this is just for cardio day:
The task here is to spare the muscle, and further stimulate bodyfat to be used to fuel the workout. The first part is solved by gulping down a protein drink with at least 40 grams of high-quality protein (preferably Whey, which is high in L-Glutamine). This way, the inevitable lost protein is taken from your bloodstream, not your biceps (keep in mind that muscle IS protein!).
The second part can be done a couple of different ways. First off, drink plenty of water!! Water is an absolute necessity to make this happen! Secondly, pop a couple of fish oil or flax seed oil capsules. Getting a couple of grams of “good” fats can help jump start the fat burning process in your body. Also, if approved by your physician, caffeine/ephedrine-based fat burners can do wonders in both releasing stored bodyfat into the bloodstream, AND crank up your metabolism to burn even more calories.
As for the timing, try to get your protein drink, fish oil, and fat-burn pills into your system about an hour before the workout. In other words, it’s a good strategy to do this first thing as you wake up, and then do the normal morning chores until it’s time to head for the gym. 45 minutes is the bare minimum you want to allow for the nutrients to enter your bloodstream.
So, to recap a quickie early morning breakfast before doing cardio:
- Whey Protein
- Fish oil tablets
- Coffee (the heck with caffeine pills)
I do the water and coffee every morning before going to the gym, and usually protein and fish oil tablets (along with the rest of my supplements) with and after breakfast after my cardio session.
But that’s just for ab and cardio day. What about eating first thing in the morning before serious (for me) weightlifting?
First thing when you wake up, is to eat something that’ll give you a good load of carbs and protein. Oatmeal porridge, egg whites, a fruit, a glass of juice, and a glass of low-fat milk is THE power breakfast. Give yourself a variation of fast and slow carbs, and don’t forget to get some good fats in there as well. Allow for at least an hour to digest this food. You don’t want to go to the gym and find that your body is still busy trying to digest the breakfast.
Let’s see. That breaks down into:
- Fast carbs
- Slow carbs
- Good fats
That pretty much mirrors the advice I read at Livestrong.com and it’s something of an adaptation of the cardio day breakfast apart from the carbs.
Danielsson also has advice about what to eat immediately after lifting:
One thing the Weight Training shares with the Cardio, is the need for fast carbs (sugar!) immediately after the training. Remember – after a workout, your muscles are in a state of catabolism, and the only thing to save them from getting cannibalized is to feed the body something else to eat instead of your own muscles. And it has to be fast!
I usually blast down a protein shake the second I get home from lifting, but I can see I should probably include some fast carbs as well.
Here’s something he wrote in conclusion about mixing lifting and cardio in the same session related to food:
One thing I’d like to point out though, is that it is close to impossible to combine the two kinds of morning training in one session, with good results. If you do the “cardio breakfast”, you’ll burn fat alright, but when you try to hit the weights you’ll not be as strong as you could be, while sacrificing muscle mass for no reason. Likewise, a “weight training breakfast” will make the weight training part work fine, but when you step onto the treadmill (or whatever), you will burn mostly carbs (in your bloodstream), and very little bodyfat. In addition, by eating carbs, you’ll probably have triggered a release of Insulin, which in turn seriously hampers your ability to burn fat for hours afterwards.
Pick one, don’t mix it up. Designate different days to different types of morning training.
So, back in the day, when I’d do 30 minutes of weight training followed up by 25 minutes of cardio, at least according to Danielsson, there would have been no good way to eat and optimize both workout types. This is also why I favored weight training before cardio. Doing it the other way around made my lifts suck.
Looks like my current routine of alternating lifting and cardio days is more effective, both for building strength and muscle and for burning off fat. Good on me.
The last resource produced in the top four Google search results was Jason Ferruggia’s website.
From his About page, Jason describes himself thus:
I help guys get fit, get focused & live free. I believe in constantly challenging the status quo. I know there’s a more effective way to train & live; most people just haven’t been shown how. That’s what I’m here to do. I’ve been featured on & in ESPN, CBS, Men’s Health, Shape, Fast Company, & Details. I’m an adviser to Men’s Fitness, Schwarzenegger, LiveStrong, & Muscle & Fitness. And I’m obsessed with rhubarb pie & all things 90’s.
Apparently, he’s also obsessed with using ampersands (&) in his writing.
That’s the short version of his bio, in case you were wondering why to listen to his advice.
Here’s his basic message:
With only an hour to spare eating is a toss up. As long as you feasted and replenished your glycogen stores with a decent amount of carbs the night before you should be fine with no food. But don’t train completely fasted.
After you finish your Renegade coffee have ten grams of branched chain amino acids (BCAA). This will prevent any potential muscle loss during the workout.
THIS is the brand I use and recommend.
By the time you brush your teeth, shower, make coffee and drive to the gym you should be closing in on an hour. If not you will be by the time you get half way through your warm up.
Since Jason likes to recommend specific brands, I included the links in the quote above.
His suggestion is a bit different from the other two. Just coffee and ten grams of BCAA before the workout, with the caveat that you “feast at night,” so the carbs from the last meal of the day will carry over into the morning workout.
I’m going to have to play around with this a bit and see what works for me. The take away is to eat but not much, and to consume a combination (if I set aside Jason’s advice for a moment) of protein and carbohydrates, but just enough that they’ll be digested and not sitting in my stomach when I start my first weightlifting set.
I’ll just have to get organized when I first get up to put something in my gut while my brain is still rising to the surface of consciousness.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
The realization that all beginnings are difficult makes the task of beginning easier.
–Rabbi Shraga Silverstein