More than anyone, athletes should never start the day or begin their workout without a solid breakfast. But when you're running out the door to get that workout in before heading to the office, it's convenient and easy to make do with a piece of toast, a glass of juice, or a power bar on the fly. Or how about when you're traveling? "Continental breakfasts" at most hotels consist of pastries, bagels, pancakes, and coffee. This kind of sugar overload does more harm than good and leads into a daily spiral of stomach grumbling, cravings, and lower productivity. A well-balanced breakfast is essential, but many of us don't really know what that is, or how to get it when we have such busy lives.

IMPORTANCE OF A BALANCED BREAKFAST

toasted bread with fried egg and tomato

Numerous studies have shown that skipping breakfast hurts academics, sports performance, workout effectiveness, and overall health. Athletes need a well-balanced breakfast to jumpstart the metabolism, particularly before a workout. This doesn't mean you need to stuff yourself; we're going to give you some great options for easy-to-prepare, effective breakfast meals to get your day started off the right way.

The first meal of the day should provide the right combination of fiber, fat, protein, and carbs. If you get this combination down on a regular basis, you will feel an amazing difference in energy, concentration, alertness, and cognition. We all know what happens when we load up on sugar-laden pastries, donuts, and cereals first thing in the morning. You may get a momentary burst of energy and concentration, but that rush of energy is destined to end in a "sugar crash."  A sugar crash and athletic performance do not go hand in hand.

WHAT DOES A HEALTHY BREAKFAST FOR ATHLETES CONSIST OF?

 lady on a running field

A balanced breakfast should contain 500 to 750 calories, roughly half from carbohydrates, 25 percent from protein, and 25 percent from fats.

COUNT THE CARBS

We need lots of carbohydrates, and they can be a double-edged sword. The key is to choose carbohydrates that come from a plant (fruit, potatoes, brown rice) and avoid the ones manufactured in a plant (bread, crackers, packaged desserts). Carbohydrate is our body’s primary source of fuel. After we eat carbohydrate-rich foods, our body absorbs it in the form of energy (glucose) which goes straight to our muscles and brain. Carbohydrates provide our body with quick energy. Endurance athletes need to focus on high-carb foods as part of their balanced breakfast, particularly long-distance runners.

The best sources of carbohydrate include fruit, oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, all starchy vegetables such as sweet and purple potatoes, and legumes. Whole grain cereal such as oatmeal and whole grain breads such as 100 percent whole wheat or rye bread are great choices as part of a balanced breakfast. Also, opt for whole fruit over fruit juice. Whole fruit has the added benefit of fiber, which enhances digestion, and delivers more antioxidants within their skins and pulp than juices, which often contain added sugar.

POLISH OFF THE PROTEIN

We cannot live or thrive without protein. Protein serves as the primary building block in our body. It goes into the construction of our skin, bone, muscles, and cartilage. Our body also uses protein to make enzymes, hormones, and to build and repair tissue. For athletes, quality protein is critical for the maintenance of lean muscle mass. The best examples of protein in a balanced breakfast include farm fresh eggs, chicken, milk, cheese, peanut butter, meat, and yogurt. (Most of these foods also contain healthy fat.) Also look for nuts and seeds which are found in many types of natural granola and cereals.

THE SKINNY ON FAT

This may fly in the face of what you were brought up believing, but good-quality fat is critical for human health. Fat helps to protect our organs, produces hormones, and helps our body absorb certain vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamins A, D, E, and K. Did you know that after moderate-intensity exercise of 30 minutes, our body switches from primarily burning carbohydrates for energy to calories primarily from fat? Athletes need fat to sustain energy and performance. Good sources of fat are avocados/avocado oil, olives/olive oil, coconut oil/coconut butter, nuts/nut butters, seeds/seed butters, and ghee.

DON'T FORGET THE FIBER

Most of us know that fiber keeps us "regular," but what does this mean? If you visualize fiber as a sticky sponge that removes "gunk" from inside the body, you're on the right track. Every day, our bodies are exposed to countless toxins, poor quality air and water, and processed, chemical-heavy food. A build-up of these toxins over time often leads to chronic illness, fatigue, and sluggishness.

Our bodies don't digest or absorb fiber, so when we eat high-fiber foods (such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains) it shoots through our intestines, grabbing all the "gunk" it can and then disposing of it. Acting as an intestinal cleaner, fiber prevents toxic waste from building up inside our bodies. As an athlete, this is critical because toxic build-up leads to inflammation. Inflammation leads to slower recovery and poor performance.

The best examples of foods which are great sources of fiber include chia seeds, flax seeds, fruit, veggies, and legumes. Whole grains typically contain a moderate amount of fiber. For a balanced breakfast to give you the best results, think "high-carb, high-fiber." The goal is to replenish the muscle glycogen you lose after each training session, and this combination will also help you manage your weight. It'll also help you concentrate better on work, training, errands, or other tasks you need to get done before lunch.  

WATER IS ESSENTIAL

ed sheeran drinking water

Beyond the obvious fact that we need water to stay hydrated, it also regulates your body temperature and lubricates your joints. A good rule of thumb is to start with one or two glasses of water as soon as you wake up. Squeeze some lemon or lime juice in the water for added flavor.

COFFEE ISN'T BAD

Good news for those of us who enjoy our cup of joe! Drink one cup of coffee or black or green tea with your breakfast. Coffee and tea have antioxidants that boost immunity and help prevent disease. Caffeine can also provide energy, enhance metabolism, and promote endurance.

ATHLETE BREAKFAST SUGGESTIONS

person slicing species on green chopping board

Here are some easy and convenient balanced breakfast ideas for those of you on the go. These examples have enough calories to kick-start your day without overeating before your workout.

OATMEAL

If you're on a time crunch each morning, oatmeal is a convenient, healthy solution as part of a balanced breakfast. Try adding peanut butter, almond butter, or bananas to regular oats and top with cinnamon. You can even cook the oats the night before you go to sleep. Soak 1/2 cup of oatmeal in almond milk, egg whites, or even water, and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, mash in a banana and add a heaping scoop of vanilla protein powder. Using oats, you can have the guilty pleasure of "protein pancakes" and still get the nutrients you need as part of a balanced breakfast. 

VARIATION WITH EGGS

asparagus egg breakfast

The sky is the limit with possibilities for egg dishes, egg sandwiches, and burritos. Try scrambled eggs mixed with turkey bacon, an avocado egg sandwich, or a healthy breakfast burrito with egg whites and veggies.

FIVE-MINUTE EGG SANDWICH

Blend two eggs with a half-cup of milk in a bowl. Add some butter or olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Place the bowl in a microwave for five minutes. While the eggs are cooking, put two slices of whole grain bread in a toaster. The toasted bread and eggs should be done at nearly the same time. Use a spoon to remove the eggs from the bowl and slide them between the two slices of toast. Have a banana or other fruit such as grapes with the sandwich, and you'll have a convenient well-balanced breakfast. (580 calories)

SOME MORE GREAT BREAKFASTS

  • A handful of nuts or seeds with raisins, a glass of milk, string cheese, and a buttered whole grain bagel (690 calories)
  • Apple slices topped with peanut butter, buttered whole grain toast, and a glass of milk (455 calories)
  • Banana with a cup of plain yogurt mixed with nuts (435 calories)
  • A bowl of whole grain cereal and milk, topped with raisins and nuts, and a glass of milk (635 calories)
  • Two hard-boiled eggs, buttered whole grain bagel, orange slices, and string cheese (610 calories)
  • High-calorie meal for athletes who want to gain muscle mass: oatmeal, two eggs, a banana, two glasses of whole milk, and a handful of almonds (885 calories)

CONCLUSION

running athletes on a running field

Think of this as a job. You spend a lot of time, energy, and perhaps money on your physical health. The types of fuel you put into your body are just as important as the hours you spend lifting weights at the gym or engaging in cardiovascular activities and sports. Spend the time to learn what kinds of food you should be eating when you wake up. You will see an enormous difference in the way you feel and how your body responds to your workouts.

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