When they say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, they're so right – especially if you're an athlete. Your body needs the energy of a good breakfast to give you the energy to run and to recover afterwards, whether you run early in the morning or later in the day.
As a dietician, I counsel several dedicated athletes, many of whom start out by saying that they know they need a balanced diet, and they know what is healthy and what they should be eating. But at the same time, they confess to a lack of understanding about how to eat to maximise the benefits of their exercise regime.
Some of these athletes tell me that their typical day involves skipping breakfast, grabbing a greasy toasted sandwich for lunch on-the-go, training on an empty stomach, binge eating at dinner and snacking on ‘junk' until bedtime. Not only does this erratic routine rob their bodies of the necessary nutrients for optimum health, but also the energy required for high-quality workouts. And it all starts with breakfast – or rather, the lack thereof.
Breakfast is, without question, the most important meal of the day, as it gets you ready for action for the rest of the day and provides your body with the fuel it needs to perform at its best. And the secret to breakfast success doesn't just lie in knowing what to eat but also knowing how to eat.
The reason is simple: the timing, structure and combinations of your meals have a massive effect on your digestion, metabolism and blood-sugar levels, which determine your energy balance throughout the day. The more balanced your blood sugar levels are, the more efficiently you can fuel your muscles and avoid the risk of fatigue, which may lead to a weakened immune system and possible injury.
Remember that your body uses the glycogen stored in your muscles to provide the energy required for exercise and the body produces glycogen by breaking down the carbohydrates you eat. So carbohydrates are the vital fuel for training – and the more training you do, the more fuel you need.
Protein is just as essential in your diet, as it is needed for building and repairing muscle. New research shows that by adding a small portion of protein to a carbohydrate eaten after exercise, you can increase the uptake and restocking of fuel in the muscles.
As the cliche goes, what you put in is what you get out. Skipping breakfast is like forgetting to put petrol in your car, so be sure to support and complement your exercise regime with a quality eating plan. And don't forget to balance your carbohydrate and protein intake to ensure that you get the most out of your training and produce nothing less than a quality result.
PUT INTO PRACTICE
Consider these two common running scenarios: Joburgers who wake up at a crazy hour and exercise before work and Capetonians who have the luxury of a late summer evening to train after work. For the early birds, a recovery breakfast is necessary after their early morning training sessions, while the later risers, who train in the afternoons or evenings, should consider a fuelling breakfast.
THE RECOVERY BREAKFAST
Your muscles are most receptive to replacing depleted glycogen stores within the first two hours (but especially within the first 30 minutes) after a workout. Refuelling your muscles with glycogen not only helps immediately with the recovery of any damaged muscle but also wards off potential dips in blood sugar levels later in the day, which is a common cause of sugar cravings and energy lows.
Recovery breakfasts should ideally be a combination of quick-releasing energy foods (high-glycemic-index carbohydrates) and slow-releasing foods (low-glycemic-index carbohydrates) to supply both rapid refuelling energy for muscle recovery, as well as some slower, sustained release energy for blood-sugar balance over the next few hours.
Great recovery breakfast ideas:
- Fruit smoothie: liquidise one cup of 100% litchi juice, one small banana, 1/2 cup yoghurt, two tsp mixed seeds, 1/4 cup raw oat bran and crushed ice.
- One to two slices of bread with scrambled egg and 1/2 cup 100% fruit juice.
- Toasted bagel or hot cross bun with peanut butter and honey, with 1/2 cup low-fat milk.
- Low-fat muesli mixed with low-fat milk or yoghurt and honey.
- Wholewheat ProNutro with low-fat milk and a piece of fruit.
- Original Oat-So-Easy with cinnamon, raisins and milk.
THE FUELLING BREAKFAST
A hearty breakfast is important for people who exercise later in the day. It not only tames hunger and promotes structured eating throughout the day, but also provides the fuel needed for strenuous workouts.
Research had shown that athletes who ate breakfast, and then enjoyed an energy bar five minutes before a noontime workout, were able to exercise 20% harder at the end of an hour-long exercise test. This was compared to a scenario when they did not eat breakfast or a pre-exercise snack before the physical challenge. When tested without having breakfast but having eaten the pre-exercise snack, they worked only 10% harder.
Fuelling breakfasts should focus more on slow, sustained release energy (low-glycemic-index carbs) to supply a constant stream of fuel throughout the day, thereby avoiding drops in blood sugar levels and, in turn, energy dips.
Great fuelling breakfast ideas:
- Fruit smoothie: liquidise 1/2 cup 100% apple juice, one cup berries, 1/2 cup yoghurt, two tsp mixed seeds, 1/4 cup raw oat bran and crushed ice.
- One to two slices low-GI bread with scrambled egg and 1/2 cup low-fat milk.
- Toasted whole wheat bagel or high-fibre banana bread with peanut butter and honey, with 1/2 cup low-fat milk.
- Low-GI muesli mixed with 1/4 cup raw oat bran and low-fat milk or yoghurt.
- Wholewheat ProNutro with low-fat milk and a boiled egg.
- Slow cooked oats with cinnamon, mixed seeds and milk.
Remember, to reach that finish line; you need a head start with a wholesome breakfast. Also, beginning your day with breakfast is the best and easiest way to develop a proper, healthy eating pattern that will benefit your running. Whatever you do, don't skip that first meal of the day.