We runners love to talk about food! What to eat during a run, and how to refuel after a run. But what about before the run? With a few simple strategies, you can optimize your fueling and nutrition before you even step out the door. These tips will also help you minimize the risk of the dreaded GI issues or bonking halfway through your run.
As you read through the following tips, do keep in mind that every runner is different. What works for your running buddy may not be ideal for you. Some trial and error may be required to figure out what works best for you!
If you’re lacing up to get in a shorter training session, your fueling strategy is pretty simple. Whether you’ve got a short run or a handful of intervals on the docket, you won’t need to eat much, if anything, before starting.
Since this workout will last less than an hour, your body will typically already have all the energy it needs to put in the work. Where does this energy come from? Glycogen is the main fuel source for your body in this case. This is basically a stash of sugar, or glucose, that is stored in your muscles and liver. As you exercise, your body draws on this energy to keep the engine running.
Having sufficient glycogen stores is one reason why it’s important for runners to get adequate amounts of high-quality complex carbs in their diets on a regular basis. We’re not advocating for going on a pasta or French bread binge. Rather, include foods like oats, quinoa, veggies, and fruits in your diet to keep your muscles ready to go.
Your meals from the day before, or whatever you’ve eaten for breakfast or lunch will have topped off your glycogen stores, so there’s not much need to supplement with food pre-workout.
However, if you run first thing in the morning and prefer to have a little something in your stomach, then try something simple like a banana or a few bites of yogurt. It won’t be so much that you feel full or heavy, but it will prevent you from having to deal with a growling stomach while getting warmed up!
For runs between 60 to 90 minutes, you’re in a bit of a gray area. This is where that “one size fits all” mentality really doesn’t cut it. For some runners, they may prefer to head out on an empty stomach. Other runners know they’ll get hungry halfway through their run, and prefer a pre-run snack.
The intensity of the workout or run is another consideration. If you’re going out for a lower intensity 90-minute run, the meal you ate a couple of hours ago might be enough to carry you through. If that same 90-minute run will include some intense hill repeats or tempo repeats, then some simple carbs beforehand might be a good idea to maintain your energy level.
A banana, some dates, or a smoothie are some great ideas for you in that case. If you’re running soon after waking up, try putting some peanut butter on that banana for some extra calories and staying power. Add a small handful of almonds to the dates and you’ve got a great pre-run snack.
This is where a runner has a ton of options for their pre-run fueling! For runs longer than that 90-minute mark, you’ll definitely want to eat something beforehand. Your time to departure will affect your decision.
In addition to eating before the run, you’ll also want to think about eating during the run. Remember those glycogen stores we talked about earlier? They won’t get you through the entirety of your run, especially if you’ll be out for a couple of hours or longer. You’ll need to supplement with additional calories during the run. To avoid hitting “the wall.”
The general rule is that you’ll want to take in 30-90 grams of carbs/hour depending on effort. If you’re keeping the pace and intensity a bit lower, then you can get away with lower carb intake during that long run. If your route will include some big hill climbs, or you’ll be pushing the pace, you might fall on the higher end of that range.
With such a wide range of needs, what’s a runner to do? Experiment!
Some runners prefer real food for those long-distance runs. Stand-bys include peanut butter pretzels, granola bars, boiled potatoes, and the ever-present banana. Other runners prefer easier-to-digest calories such as energy gels, chews, or a sports drink. What works for you and settles well in your stomach will vary from runner to runner.
Even among training runs, there will be days where your baggie of pretzels just isn’t cutting it and you instead reach for the gel packet instead. Knowing what you can use for backup is just as important as the rest of your nutrition strategy.
One of the biggest rules for race day: Don’t try anything new! This goes for new clothing and shoes just as it does for food and nutrition. By race day you’ll have practiced what works for you. Whether you’re in the camp that prefers an empty stomach before starting a run, or if you’re the type (like me!) that needs to eat a little something beforehand, stick with the tried and true answer for yourself.
Put your race in the same category of run as mentioned above. A 5k race could definitely be considered a short run. On the other hand, a half-marathon will be a 2+ hour effort and falls into the long run category. Eat early enough so your digestive system isn’t stressed with a full belly before your race starts, just as you practiced on your training runs.
Just as there are some great recommendations for the best options to eat before a run, there are similar recommendations of what to not eat before a run.
No matter the length of your training run, whether it’s a half-hour jog around the block or a 4-hour suffer-fest in the mountains, hydration is critically important for ALL runners. If you start off your run dehydrated, you’ll be fighting an uphill (pun intended!) battle during the run. You’re much better off getting and staying hydrated before you even put your shoes on.
An easy way to remember to hydrate throughout the day is to aim for 4-6 glasses of water before 2pm, and another 4-6 glasses of water after 2pm.
We’ve got plenty of more resources for you! Check out all our nutrition videos for even more helpful hints from Coach Elizabeth, and come join our running community by downloading the mobile app!