Running on an empty stomach: understanding the effects

Running on an empty stomach refers to the practice of jogging or running in the morning before consuming breakfast. Typically, this means engaging in physical activity soon after waking up, approximately ten hours following the last meal of the previous day, usually dinner. Various runners adopt this routine for practical reasons, such as it being the only available time to exercise before their workday begins. Others pursue it for its potential benefits related to sports performance or overall wellness. But what exactly are the effects and benefits of running on an empty stomach? In this article, we delve into the concept of fasted running, providing insights and information on this topic.

Why run on an empty stomach in the morning?

Running on an empty stomach is commonly undertaken soon after waking up. This timing allows numerous runners to incorporate their exercise into a hectic daily routine, providing an invigorating start to their day.

Waiting two hours post-breakfast for digestion before running could necessitate an exceptionally early start to the day. This is not always feasible, especially on weekdays. However, weekends offer more flexibility, allowing for a leisurely breakfast around 7:30 to 8:00 a.m., followed by a run at 10 a.m.

Running on an empty stomach for fat burning

What happens to the body when running on an empty stomach, particularly in the morning after approximately ten hours without food? Typically, this state results in low blood sugar levels, as there is minimal available glucose. Additionally, muscle glycogen stores, which provide energy for muscle activity, are at their lowest. In this scenario, fats become the primary energy source for the runner.

Upon waking, the liver offers a modest reserve of glucose in the form of hepatic glycogen. However, this reserve quickly diminishes with physical exertion. During a run on an empty stomach, the body shifts to utilizing fats or lipids (such as triglycerides or fatty acids) as fuel. This shift not only supports the continuation of the exercise but also ensures the maintenance of the body’s vital functions. 

Adapting to running with low blood sugar

Training your body to increasingly rely on fat reserves as a primary energy source can significantly enhance your endurance and resilience to drops in blood sugar levels. This adaptation is particularly beneficial for marathon runners aiming to delay the onset of the notorious ‘marathon wall,’ which often occurs around the 30th kilometer, and for trail runners who face long distances with varying terrain.

Running on an empty stomach for weight loss

The approach to losing weight by running on an empty stomach is one that requires patience and is met with varying opinions among experts. Running before eating may potentially increase metabolic expenditure, enhancing the body’s efficiency in utilizing its reserves for energy, which can contribute to weight loss even when not actively running.

However, it’s important to note that the immediate weight loss observed right after a morning run is predominantly due to water loss through sweating, not necessarily fat loss. On average, running for an hour can burn between 600 and 900 calories, a significant energy expenditure that can contribute to overall weight loss over time when coupled with a balanced diet.

For those who practice intermittent fasting, running on an empty stomach aligns with the fasting period, providing additional benefits by allowing the intestines some downtime. This break can be particularly advantageous for digestive health, especially for individuals whose intestines might be stressed or affected by less optimal dietary choices, such as the consumption of industrial, acidifying, or pro-inflammatory foods.

Practical advice for running on an empty stomach

  • Hydration: Immediately upon waking, drink water or herbal tea. Opting for warm water can enhance hydration as it is believed to hydrate more effectively.
  • Allow time to wake up: Give yourself 10 to 15 minutes after waking to ensure you are fully alert and your body is ready to move. This brief period allows your system to activate and prepare for physical activity.
  • Warm-up: Focus on warming up your ankles and joints specifically. Engage in one or two dynamic stretches to increase blood flow and flexibility, reducing the risk of injury.
  • Duration and pace: Aim for a running duration of 30 to 50 minutes. Maintain a basic endurance pace during your run, which is characterized by the ability to hold a conversation comfortably. This pace ensures you are working within a safe and effective intensity range, especially when your body is running on empty.
  • Intensity: Recognize that running in the morning, especially on an empty stomach, might naturally feel more challenging. Therefore, avoid high-intensity interval training or overly strenuous cardiovascular efforts. It’s often harder to perform at high speeds first thing in the morning.
  • Gentle start: Consider beginning your run with a gentle walk for the first 2 minutes. This approach serves as an additional warm-up, gradually waking up your muscles and preparing them for the exercise ahead.

Moderating fasted runs and preparing for energy needs

It is advisable not to run on an empty stomach daily, but rather to limit this practice to a maximum of once every two days. Such a schedule helps prevent the body from depleting its carbohydrate and fat reserves excessively, which would otherwise lead to the undesired consumption of protein reserves and the production of an abundance of metabolic waste. Running without prior food intake can induce fatigue due to these factors.

To mitigate risks during initial fasted runs, it’s wise to carry some form of quick energy, such as sugar, a cereal bar, or a portable compote. These items offer a readily available carbohydrate source in the event of experiencing symptoms of hypoglycemia.

Familiarizing yourself with your body’s responses and exercising caution are paramount. During the first few fasted runs, it’s prudent to remain close to your starting point. Additionally, avoid running on an empty stomach when feeling overtired. This cautious approach allows you to safely assess and adjust to how your body handles running under these conditions.

Refueling after your morning run

After completing your morning run, it’s crucial to focus on recovery nutrition. An ideal post-run breakfast should be rich in proteins and fruits. For instance, including an egg for protein and a banana for quick energy and potassium is an excellent choice. This breakfast takes advantage of the post-exercise “anabolic window,” a period when your body is optimally primed to absorb nutrients, aiding in recovery and muscle building.

Aside from the practice of running on an empty stomach, incorporating fasting periods of 24 or 48 hours occasionally can offer benefits by allowing your digestive system to rest and helping to detoxify your body. During such extended fasts, it’s advisable to avoid physical activity. Consider implementing these fasting periods during a yearly break from running, perhaps spanning two or three weeks.

Engaging in a run in the morning, especially before a day filled with work or other activities, is a fantastic way to boost your mood and energy. It sets a positive tone for the day ahead, allowing you to start with a sense of accomplishment and happiness 😊

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Mailis Durif-VarambonMailis grew up in the mountains, where she went hiking and biking every weekend. She loves outdoor activities where she can relax at the end of the day. At RunMotion Coach, she is responsible for community management.