Whatever you’re training for—5k, 10k, half marathon, ultra, an active life—it is essential you fuel your body properly. What to eat before running is one of the most common questions beginner through to experienced runners ask. If you’re a beginner, you haven’t cemented your routine to know what to eat before running. Experienced runners are often looking to fine tune their diet to get the most of their runs. Running on an empty stomach or a belly full of the “wrong” thing can make you end your run short from cramps, lack of energy or a headache.
The important thing to note here is that there is no silver bullet, no superfood that works for everyone. There are best practices, and that includes parameters outside of the actual food, like timing, energy source and what to eat. Finding what works best for you is like uncovering a secret. You’ll know what to eat before running once you’ve discovered a snack or meal that works for you. Once you figure it out, stick to your routine. Best case scenario is that you will find several things you like to eat before running. This way if you’re out of town for a race and you can’t access that bread and cashew butter you like, there’s no need to panic.
When to eat?
When to eat before running can be just as important as what to eat before running. Again, all runners are different. You need to experiment with your routine to see what is best for your body. Some runners like to eat 15-20 minutes before they hit the road, while others need a few hours to digest. Since many races are early in the morning, it’s likely ideal if you can get into the habit of eating an hour or less before you lace up. Try to determine how close to your run you can eat. In general, the bigger the meal, the more time you’ll need to digest. If you’re talking about a meal, two hours or more is a good guess, whereas many runners do small snacks with a much smaller window.
You can determine your ideal time by doing some of your own experimenting. Try having your meal or snack an hour before you run and write down how you feel. Move that time around to closer and further away from your run, recording how you feel each time. After collecting a month or so worth of data, determine the timeline that is best for you.
Carbs vs Fats
When you’re doing long runs or intense workouts, it is essential to eat before your run, and sometimes even during. During harder training sessions and races, your body uses carbohydrates as its main energy source. Since your body can only store a fairly small amount of carbs, it is important to keep that supply topped up. During low intensity exercises like jogging or walking, your body burns fat as its main energy source, so something high in protein is better than a carbohydrate.
What to eat before running
If you can, plan to eat before a harder training session. In this instance, your body needs fuel from carbs. On days where you are doing lighter, low intensity training, something protein-packed is your best option. If you need to skip the snack altogether before a lighter training session, that is ok for some runners, too.
Some snack ideas before a run:
- Slice of whole wheat toast with nut butter
- Banana and some cashews
- Pretzels and hummus
- Energy bars
- Small serving of oatmeal
- Greek yogurt with nuts or granola
- Berries and cottage cheese
- Figs or dates
- Deli turkey meat and some vegetables
While running does give you a little more freedom in your diet, many runners overestimate the carbs they need to complete runs under an hour in length. Everyone is different, but the average person has enough glycogen stored in their muscles to run for something like two hours. Unless you’re looking at distances like the half marathon or above, it’s unlikely that you need to carbo-load the night before your run, or to fuel up with a goo at the halfway mark.
Look for foods that your body finds easily digestible, and avoid fatty or high fiber foods. These take longer to digest and can be felt long into your run. The perfect pre-running snack is a mix of carbs and protein, depending on the intensity.
Talk to someone about your distances, goals and experience to get the best insight as to what will work for you. Our run clinics feature guests from health fields, including a dietician. This is a great chance to ask questions about what to eat before running as it pertains to you.