As runners, we naturally love to talk about what to eat before running. For example, what should you eat before your run, and how should you refuel after? Are there any strategies that you can use to optimize your nutrition before you even step out the door?
While you read through these recommendations, remember 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’re embarking on a short run or a handful of intervals on the docket, you won’t need to eat too much, if anything, before you get started.
Your meals from the day before, or whatever you’ve eaten already that day will provide sufficient energy, so there’s not much need to supplement with food in this case.
However, if you’re waking up first thing to train 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 too much to make you feel full or heavy, but it will prevent you from having to deal with a growling stomach while getting warmed up!
We mentioned that 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 carbohydrates in our diets. We’re not advocating for going on a pasta or French bread binge, though. Rather, include whole foods like oats, quinoa, veggies, and fruits in your diet to keep your muscles ready to go.
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 want to have something in their stomach.
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 hill or tempo repeats, then some fast-acting carbs beforehand might be a good idea.
A banana, dates, or a fig bar are a few great ideas for you in that case. If you’re getting this run in first thing in the morning, try putting a little 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 what to eat before running. For runs longer than that 90-minute mark, you’ll definitely want to make sure to eat something beforehand. Depending on how soon you’ll be leaving on your run will affect your decision.
In addition to what to eat before running, 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 training effort, 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.”
Generally speaking, you’ll want to take in 30-90g carbs/hour depending on your effort level. 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?
Some runners prefer real food for those longer efforts. Stand-bys include peanut butter pretzels, granola bars, boiled potatoes, and the tried and true banana. Other runners prefer easier-to-digest calories such as gels or chews. Experiment to discover what works best for your stomach and keeps you fueled for optimum performance.
Even among training runs, there will be days where your baggie of pretzels just isn’t cutting it. In that case, reach for a 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 what to eat before running on 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 a 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. Remember to eat before your race starts, but also have practiced what you’ll be eating on the course, as well.
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.
Interested in learning more about potential nutrition mistakes? Coach Elizabeth has a whole program dedicated to educating you, the runner, on ways to optimize your nutrition both out on the road (or trail!) and in the kitchen with her Healthy Habits Nutrition Challenge. Check it out for a month of motivation and fueling tips!
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.
As our Coach Elizabeth says, “Water is the forgotten nutrient.” With 50-70% of your body being water, it’s essential to maintain proper hydration levels. Daily hydration with plain water is a fine strategy to keep that level where it should be.
Gearing up for a run or drinking during the run might require a little more effort, though. Think about including a supplement for your water that contains electrolytes like sodium and potassium to keep your body properly balanced.
We’ve have plenty more resources for you! Check out all our nutrition videos for even more helpful hints from Coach Elizabeth. If you’re interested in training with us, come join our running community!