Jenni Falconer: Running on empty

Our woman pounding the pavements looks into whether it’s worth exercising on an empty stomach

The other day I recorded an episode of my podcast, RunPod, with fitness guru Jason Vale, who is passionate about health, sport and nutrition. However, 20 years ago this wasn’t the case. He describes himself back then as overweight, someone who gave in to vices and who struggled with severe psoriasis, a condition which covered his entire body. One day, he decided that enough was enough, and made the decision to improve his routine to boost his health and, in doing so, he changed his life.

Nowadays, Jason is the epitome of good health. He’s in great shape, works out regularly, loves running and, more importantly, is now an expert in what is required to boost your immune system, improve your fitness, give you the essential daily vitamins and nutrients, while also making sure you’re fully fuelled for your daily activities. So, when I posed the question to him about whether or not you should eat before exercise, he gave me his honest opinion.

Would you exercise on an empty stomach? There are two camps – those (including Jason) who just do it and don’t think about it, as it really isn’t an issue to them, and then there are others who believe you need adequate fuel in order to get the maximum benefit out of your chosen exercise.

Of course, it’s not wise to complete a marathon on an empty stomach, without any sustenance to keep you going, but what about an five-mile run, a yoga or Pilates class, or a gym session? Well, within reason, Jason believes that there is no harm in working out on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, because the chances are you’d have eaten something the night before; you’re not starving and it won’t do you any harm.

Fasted cardio is the term used to describe the process of exercising when your body is no longer processing food and it takes on average around four to six hours to reach this state, at which point you’re essentially working out on an empty stomach. This is certainly not for everyone and there are plenty of advantages and disadvantages.

Personally, I like fasted cardio – I want to get out of bed, head to my radio show and then run home afterwards. Bear in mind that I finish my show by 6.30am, so it’ll probably make more sense to you why I wait to eat and don’t want a big breakfast at 2.30am! However, if I’m marathon training and running longer distances, then there is no way I would have the energy to maintain a run of this length or longer, without something to give me a little more stamina.

After a night without eating, your body could potentially burn a greater percentage of fat when you’re working out, as your store of carbohydrates is low. Our glycogen levels are often depleted in the morning, and the fasted state may help our bodies prioritise or burn more fat. On the other hand, if these levels are completely depleted, it can be bad for your body and may start eating into your muscle. However, since most of us have an evening meal within a few hours of going to sleep, and bear in mind we might not get that highly-sought after eight hours of sleep (I certainly don’t!), the chance of actually fully emptying your glycogen stores while in the land of nod is highly unlikely.

So, if you do exercise on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, you will most likely have a supply of glycogen still in your body, and your body won’t be obsessed with digesting a huge amount of food and can instead supply the muscles with a decent amount of oxygen and, in doing so, potentially burn even more fat. Interestingly, if you take vitamins, they could be absorbed better, or at least faster, at this time.

There are certainly pros and cons to each, but there is no right or wrong. It’s always best to listen to how you feel and give your body what it needs so that your workout can be as enjoyable and as beneficial to you as possible. Sometimes, a snack is all you need to satisfy a little hunger – I often grab a banana, but an apple or some nuts can work well, too.

These items are easy to digest, but remember if you want to eat, if you feel you perform better with food in your system, don’t deny yourself, perhaps just avoid a heavy meal! Do what’s right for you.

Health & Wellbeing