The Ultimate Guide to an Athlete Breakfast

As a Sports Dietitian who works with endurance runners, here is a problem I see all the time- runners not eating enough during the first half of their day. This leads to low energy, decreased performance and recovery, craving sweets and overeating at night. 

Starting the day with a well-balanced breakfast can fix this. You’ll feel better, get more out of your training and perform better.

Today we’re going to cover what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat for breakfast. I also put together a few lists of athlete meal ideas so you’ll be walking away with several options to try!

What is the best breakfast before a workout?

What and how much to eat before a workout depends on how long you have to digest before you start your workout.

What should you eat if you have breakfast <1 hour before a workout?

I recommend that athletes eat something before all workouts. This is the best way you can support your energy, performance and recovery. 

The best pre-workout for athletes is food (not pre-workout supplements). Food provides energy and all sorts of other nutrients. You’ll want to focus on eating carbohydrates before your workout because they provide energy for your body including your muscles and brain. 

The sports nutrition guideline is to eat 1 to 4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight 1 to 4 hours before a workout. It’s safe to say that 1 hour before, you can aim for 1 g/kg of carbs, 2 hours before, 2 g/kg and so on. 

But what should you eat before an early morning workout when you have <1 hour to eat and digest? This is a great question that I get asked often from athletes.

In this case, you don’t have very long to digest beforehand, so I recommend choosing a small snack of low fiber carbs. Your body can digest these foods quickly. Fiber and fat slow digestion so you’ll want to avoid a pre-workout snack high in these nutrients.

5 best snacks when eating <1 hour before a workout

  • Banana 
  • Applesauce 
  • Slice of white toast 
  • Waffle 
  • Carb-rich liquids like a cup of juice or a sports drink like Gatorade 

You’ll want to hydrate before a workout too. Drink 1-2 cups of fluids with your snack.

These options may fuel your body for a shorter workout that is <1 hour but when you are doing a longer workout (>1 hour), this will not be enough to sustain you through your workout. You’ll want to eat a bigger carb-rich breakfast then give yourself more time to digest.

What should you eat for breakfast if you have 2 hours before a workout?

If you have 2 hours between when you eat breakfast and when you exercise, you’ll want to make your breakfast bigger. Afterall, you have a longer time to digest. Aim for 2 g/kg of carbohydrates 2 hours before your workout. You can add some protein here as well.

5 best breakfast ideas for athletes when eating 2 hours before a workout: 

  • Waffles with maple syrup and a dollop of Greek yogurt 
  • Bagel with peanut butter, banana slices, honey
  • Cereal with berries, walnuts, milk
  • Toast with jelly, hard boiled eggs, mango slices
  • Cottage cheese with peaches, blueberry muffins 

With your breakfast, drink 1-2 cups of fluids and continue to take small sips leading up to your workout so you can go into your workout hydrated. 

What is the best breakfast for an athlete after a workout?

What an athlete eats after a workout can make a big difference in that athlete’s recovery. Your body needs nutrients in order to recover well. A well-balanced breakfast will help your body replenish your energy stores and repair your muscles after a workout.

Your breakfast should have grains/starches, protein, healthy fat and color (fruits and veggies). Grains/starches are your carbohydrate-rich foods. These provide your body with energy and will replenish glycogen (energy) stores after a workout. 

Protein repairs your muscles after a workout. Healthy fats help your body absorb certain vitamins and reduce inflammation. Color provides fiber, vitamins and minerals including powerful antioxidants that are helpful for recovery. 

Infographic summarizing the components of a balanced, healthy athlete breakfast for after a workout

5 best breakfasts for athletes after a workout

  • Whole wheat toast with mashed avocado and eggs, berries 
  • Oatmeal with walnuts and banana slices, Greek yogurt 
  • Whole wheat toast with cream cheese, spinach and smoked salmon, grapefruit 
  • Smoothie with oats, spinach, frozen berry mix, flaxseed, Greek yogurt and milk 
  • Omelet with bell peppers and spinach, potatoes, orange slices

These options also work great for breakfast on rest days and for breakfast on days when you have an afternoon workout scheduled. 

During your workouts, you lose fluid through your sweat. To replenish after a workout, drink 16-24 oz of fluid for every 1 lb lost during exercise. If the scale isn’t your thing, no worries! Add an extra water bottle or two throughout the day, especially if you’re a heavier sweater.

An important note on protein for recovery

Protein is made up of amino acids. There is an essential amino acid called leucine. This type of amino acid is essential to eat because your body can’t make it. Leucine is the “on-switch” for muscle repair and building.

Having leucine-rich foods on your plate can boost your recovery! Examples of high leucine foods are meat, seafood, eggs, dairy and soy like tofu and edamame. The good news is that the 5 breakfast examples listed above are all high in leucine.

What is the best breakfast for an athlete on-the-go?

If you’re limited on time and need to bring breakfast with you on-the-go, it’s smart to plan ahead. I recommend meal prep for athletes, especially for busy athletes! You’ll still want to make your breakfast balanced by including grains/starches, protein, fat and color. 

5 easy on-the-go breakfasts for athletes

Common athlete breakfast questions

“What if I’m not hungry before/after a workout?”

This is where practical hunger comes in. Practical hunger is when we might not be physically hungry (we may not have a growling stomach), but we want to eat anyway because we know it’s the best way to support our bodies. 

So if you’re not hungry before/after a workout, I’d recommend eating anyway so that you can get the most out of your training, feel strong during your workouts and recover well after training. 

“What should I eat before a race like a half marathon or marathon?”

You’ll want to figure this out and practice pre-race nutrition during training. Use the tips in this post to brainstorm several pre-race options and then test them out before your long runs. Also play around with the timing to determine what types of foods feel best in your stomach and when to eat before the race.

As an endurance runner myself, breakfast is something that I practice before every single long run. That way I can figure out a pre-race meal and the timing of that meal during training. This helps me get to race day with a nutrition plan that I feel confident with. More ideas of what to practice before race day.

Bottom Line 

What to eat for breakfast before a workout and the size of your meal depends on the time that you have to digest before exercise. If eating <1 hour before exercise, choose a low fiber, carb-rich snack. If eating 2 hours before exercise, choose a larger carb-rich breakfast with some protein.

The best breakfast for an athlete after a workout is a meal that includes grains/starches, protein (including leucine-rich foods), healthy fats and color. 

The best breakfast for an athlete on-the-go is one that has a balance of grains/starch, protein, healthy fats and color. Meal planning and meal prepping ahead of time is key. 

If athletes aren’t hungry before/after a workout, they should practice practical hunger and eat anyway because it’s the best way to support their bodies, performance and recovery. 

What to eat before a race is something an athlete should test out and practice during their training. That way, they will get to race day with a breakfast they feel confident in eating before the race. 

If you’re struggling with your nutrition as an athlete and are looking for help, check out our nutrition coaching services, our runner’s nutrition course and our library of runner’s nutrition classes.

Hi, I’m Emily!

Outside of running — I am a total foodie and nature lover who loves to travel and experience new things with her soon-to-be-husband and dog.