If you’ve ever rolled out of bed and immediately lined up on the mug-oh-buzz treadmill in hand, then you’ve unknowingly tried fasted cardio. Training on an empty stomach is not always intentional. But fitness professionals say there are reasons to try it— especially if you have endurance or body recomposition goals in mind.
What is Fasted Cardio?
The type of exercise and the time elapsed since your last bite matter here. To qualify as fasted cardio, the workout in question must be rhythmic, single-structure movement like cycling, running, or rowing, says a certified strength and conditioning trainer and personal trainer. Josh Schlottman.
And how long do you need to have given up food? According to John Gardner, NASM-certified trainer and CEO behind the fitness platform To start up, this is the time it takes for your stomach to empty and your digestive system to be in the “off” position. “Depending on how fast your digestive system is working or the last thing you ate, your body could be fasting in four to six hours,” he says. However, the best results usually come from training after a 12-hour fast. Most often: On an empty stomach in the morning.
Caffeine lovers, fear not: it is kosher to consume coffee (without cream or sugar), pre-workout, and water before a fasted cardio session, according to Schlottman. In fact, it might be best to: One of the biggest hurdles people run into with fasted cardio is having low energy levels. “Having caffeine can help give you a boost of energy to continue your workout,” he says.
First things first: is fasted cardio safe?
As long as you’re healthy, you should be able to try fasted cardio. However, if you have a pre-existing medical condition, Gardner suggests talking to a medical professional. “Fasted cardio can be extremely dangerous for people with any medical condition affected by low blood sugar,” he says. You should also skip it if you feel lightheaded or lightheaded when trying to exercise on an empty stomach, he adds.
It could support your body recomposition goals
If you are looking to reduce body fat percentage, fasted cardio can be beneficial. When you exercise after eating, your body uses the calories you just consumed as energy to fuel your workout, Schlottman says. “When you’re fasting, your body doesn’t have fast carbs or other calories that it can easily use for fuel,” he says. Instead, it must turn to glycogen, which is how carbohydrates are stored long term in the muscles and liver. Once your glycogen stores are depleted, the body turns to fat stores for fuel, he says.
The result? You burn more fat. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that people who ran on a treadmill on an empty stomach burned 20% more fat than those who ate first.
It could increase your stamina
Fasted cardio can also support your endurance goals. In effect, this causes your body to rely less on using fast-burning carbs and sugars for energy, and instead use fat for fuel, Schlottman says. Because your body has far greater stores of fat than glycogen, this ability can prevent endurance athletes from “jostling” or “hitting the wall.” Indeed, in a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology people who exercised in a fasted state saw more endurance gains than those who exercised at the same intensity in a fed state.
Keep in mind…
Beware, burning fat for fuel is a less efficient process, so the same workout at the same intensity feel harder, sports dietitian Natalie Rizzo, RD, previously told Well + Good. Not everyone can happily train on an empty stomach. If exercising without eating is so miserable that it keeps you from exercising, forget about it and just grab this pre-workout snack.
Rizzo also warns that everyone’s body reacts differently, and doing cardio workouts regularly on an empty stomach over a long period of time could lead to vitamin deficiencies, mood swings and decreased immunity. Be sure to listen to your body and adjust your strategy if you think fasted cardio workouts are backfiring.
Also, “make sure you eat plenty of carbs and a balanced post-workout meal to recharge your energy and give the body the fuel it needs,” says Gardner. Not eating after a fasted cardio session will interfere with your ability to recover properly, he says. Which could undermine any gains you might have made otherwise.
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