I’ve heard stories that some of the old masters would insist that martial arts training begin at the butt crack of dawn, as soon as you woke up and before you did anything – including eating breakfast. Seemed counterintuitive to me a bit – wouldn’t you want to eat and be well fueled up for a rousing workout? Granted you don’t want to stuff yourself too much and be too loaded down as you did your exercises. But still, I had always imagined that sports science would tell us to be properly fed before starting a tough workout.

Or maybe not.

According to this NYTimes article, a Belgian study compared a group of healthy, young men and how their eating habits influenced the results of their workouts in the morning.

For the study, researchers in Belgium recruited 28 healthy, active young men and began stuffing them with a truly lousy diet, composed of 50 percent fat and 30 percent more calories, overall, than the men had been consuming. Some of the men agreed not to exercise during the experiment. The rest were assigned to one of two exercise groups. The groups’ regimens were identical and exhausting. The men worked out four times a week in the mornings, running and cycling at a strenuous intensity. Two of the sessions lasted 90 minutes, the others, an hour. All of the workouts were supervised, so the energy expenditure of the two groups was identical. Their early-morning routines, however, were not. One of the groups ate a hefty, carbohydrate-rich breakfast before exercising and continued to ingest carbohydrates, in the form of something like a sports drink, throughout their workouts. The second group worked out without eating first and drank only water during the training. They made up for their abstinence with breakfast later that morning, comparable in calories to the other group’s trencherman portions.

This was a six week study, and at the end of it, the non-exercising group was found to have packed on 6 pounds and developed insulin resistance – the ability of your muscles to pull sugar out of the bloodstream. The group that ate before they exercised gained only half as much as the control group, and their insulin resistance was also elevated. Only the group that ate nothing before working out gained no weight and showed no signs of insulin resistance.

Now the caveat is that without food before the workout, and the workouts were designed to be intense in this study, your performance level during the exercise themselves would probably be diminished. But still, this is intriguing information. On the other hand, it’s something our old masters have told us before. And if you really think about it, it’s a practice that militaries the world over practice when they train recruits in bootcamp. Rouse you out of bed at the crack of dawn, make you do 50 pushups and run around the parade grounds before heading off to chow. Hmm…there must be some method to this madness.

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