Is breakfast the most important meal of the day? As with almost everything in endurance sports nutrition, nothing is simple. This is a popular topic, you’ll easily find a plethora of articles in popular cycling, running, and triathlon publications. What we’ve found though is that some of the information from these sources may not be so accurate and trustworthy. For example, we found one article from a very popular endurance sport publication (that will remain nameless) recommending leftover pizza as a good choice for breakfast!
So let’s look at what the science says about breakfast. The University of Bath in the United Kingdom conducted an enlightening series of research studies entitled the “Bath Breakfast Project” that provide some extremely valuable insight around this topic. So here we have tried to condense some of their findings together with some of our own thoughts into this shorter piece that we hope provides some key takeaways and helps you decide for yourself how important breakfast is for you.
First we want to go over two questions about defining breakfast that nicely frame up the overarching question and hopefully allows you to appreciate the complexity of this question.
1. WHEN is breakfast? If we look at the word breakfast, a simple definition can be proposed – the meal at which you “break” your overnight “fast”. Simple enough, or is it? As we mentioned above, what if you wait until lunchtime to eat, is that then considered breakfast? For all intents and purposes let’s simply define breakfast as the meal you first consume upon waking. And for a lot of endurance athletes training happens in the morning, so defining breakfast in this way seems appropriate enough.
2. WHAT is breakfast? If you wake up and have a coffee with some cream before your morning workout is that breakfast? Or is it the veggie omelet you have afterwards breakfast? Again, let’s try to keep things simple and in the context of the endurance sport athlete. Let’s class breakfast as the first substantial meal you have in the morning. So what we are saying here is that a coffee with a little cream would not be substantial, but an omelet, a bowl of oatmeal, something more than 300-400 calories would be. And we should probably touch on the composition of the breakfast here. We have said something over 300-400 calories would be classed as breakfast, the composition of of this meal should be pretty balanced with proteins, fats, and carbs (see our blog post on portion sizes here for some more on this)…but this can get complex as we’ll delve into a little later in this article.
The IMPORTANCE of breakfast…Now that we have somewhat defined breakfast, and as you can see this was not easy, hopefully you can at least have a good picture in your mind of what we should be considering.
So to answer the question of whether or not breakfast is important we have to consider the individual. It is going to be virtually impossible to provide a single definitive answer that applies to everyone. Plus, there may actually be cases where breakfast might be important one day but not another for a single person! It’s really about context, so here are a few questions to ask yourself that can help you assess the importance of your breakfast.
- When is your workout? Do you exercise in the morning, afternoon, or evening? Maybe this will mean breakfast is more “important” for one person than another. And it’s not as simple as whether or not your workout is in the morning or later. How early in the morning is your workout? Do you have time, 2-3 hours ideally, before your workout to eat? If not your evening dinner might be a more “important” meal.
- What are the goals of the workout? Is the session a key workout or race? Is it a recovery session or relaxed group ride? Is it a workout specifically designed to promote endurance adaptations? All of these factor into the “importance” of the pre workout meal, and also the composition of that meal. An easy late afternoon ride or run probably doesn’t warrant as much thought into your breakfast as an 11am start time for a 100 mile gran fondo or marathon. A high intensity interval workout may require some extra thought about the quantity and quality of carbohydrates being included in your breakfast, whereas you may benefit from excluding any carbohydrate and focusing more on protein for an easy recovery or endurance ride.
- What are your long term goals? Are you training for a particular event or race? What stage in your training plan are you at? Maybe you don’t have performance goals, and your goals are centered around overall health, well-being, or weight loss. Again, all of these factor into the importance of breakfast. Someone who is trying to lose weight may benefit from morning exercise in a fasted-state (i.e. skipping breakfast), whereas someone in a key stage of their race-day training plan working on high intensity efforts may benefit from a well composed breakfast containing quality carbohydrates to enhance their training adaptations.
As you can see, not so simple right? We hope that this has helped you assess your own lifestyle and training so that you can determine how important breakfast is to you. It’s really about assessing when your workout is, what the goals are of a particular session, and also your longer term performance and health objectives.
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