What to Eat Before a Run: How to Fuel Well and Avoid Awkward Pitstops

bowl of granola

Not sure what to eat before a run? These tips will help you understand what to eat before and after running and how to time it right.

Further complicating this pre-run eating puzzle is that no cookie-cutter plan applies to everyone—not even when cookies are involved. Still, knowing a few guidelines that apply to most of us will help you decide between that cookie and that banana. (Spoiler alert: Resist the cookie and peel the banana.)

When to Eat Before a Run

alarm clock

Exactly when you eat before a run is just as important as what and how much. Timing is everything. Eat too much too soon before a run and you’ll end up with a gassy case of runner’s bloat or an urge to dash to the bushes. Eat too little and you end up with not enough gas; you’ll figuratively run out of gas before the run ends. No good.

“Eating before running is the best way to ensure you have enough energy to hit the duration and intensities you’re after,” says Lori Nedescu, MS, RD, a certified sports dietitian, nutrition consultant and past winner of the Space Coast and Whitby Marathons. “Most runners can get away with a small meal about two hours prior to running. But focus on easily digestible carbohydrates with a small amount of fat or protein to provide both immediate energy and lasting satiety [feeling full].”

Early-morning runners don’t have that luxury because they’re asleep two hours before running. Nedescu advises them to eat a small, easily-digestible carbohydrate snack about a half-hour before the run—right after they roll out of bed. She adds, “The more you practice eating before running, the better your body will be able to handle it.”

What to Eat Before a Run

pre run mini meal

Here are some sample pre-run mini-meals:

  • Two hours before: Bagel with nut butter and jam washed down with a glass of water or a sports drink.
  • Two hours before: Granola or cereal with almond milk and a banana.
  • A half-hour before: Banana, rice pudding cup, energy bite, sports gel or a sports drink containing 30 grams of carbs.

How Much Should You Eat?

Balance and moderation are the keys to success in just about everything related to running (and life). The way this axiom applies to pre-run eating is that it’s best to eat something but not too much. But how you size up how much to eat depends on a host of factors.

“These include not only how much time you have before the run,” says Nedescu, “but also what you’re eating, your body size, the run’s duration, the run’s intensity and even the weather.” For example, if you’re a six-foot, 200-pound runner looking to eat something two hours before a long, slow run on a hot day, you will need more fuel and hydration than a five-foot, 100-pound runner in the last hour before a speed workout on a cool day.

“Figuring out your best fueling plan requires being in tune with your body and experimenting a little to see what works best,” notes Nedescu. “It’s best to err on the side of too little rather than too much because running causes so much movement to the stomach and blood is diverted away from digesting to working muscles. A large volume of food in the stomach when you head out can create problems.”

For those reasons, calorically and nutritionally dense foods such as the sample mini-meals listed above are ideal. Each supplies the energy your body needs in a small package. And if you err on the “hungry” side going into the run, you can always satisfy your caloric needs mid-run by squeezing down a sports gel.

If digestion problems continue to plague you even after trying different foods, beverages and quantities, as well as fiddling with the timing of when you eat, Nedescu recommends working with an experienced sports dietitian.

Here’s What You Shouldn’t Eat

The list of items you should avoid eating before running is longer than the list of acceptable foods. “Every runner is different, but many will experience digestive problems if they take in high-fat, high-fiber or spicy foods in the last one to two hours before running,” says Paula Mrowcynski-Hernandez, RD, a Los Angeles-based certified sports dietitian for Ola Nutrition and Sugar Runs Coaching runners and a Boston Marathon qualifier.

Here are some of the items best avoided, especially in large quantities, when your run is imminent:

  • High-fat foods: Fried food, cheesy foods (such as pizza), avocados.
  • High-fiber foods: Salads, broccoli, beans, nuts.
  • Spicy foods: Spicy Asian or Mexican dishes, foods that are heavily seasoned.

Think Before You Drink

runners running

Figuring out what and how much to drink before running can also be more challenging than running itself. The ingredients in some beverages can cause gastrointestinal problems. Taking in too much of any liquid can do the same, may cause a side stitch, may require a bathroom pitstop, or at the very least, may result in the liquid annoyingly sloshing around in your stomach with each step. But drinking too little can lead to dehydration and the accompanying symptoms of thirst, dry mouth, fatigue or even muscle cramps. Drink you must.

“In the four hours before running, drinking 10 to 20 ounces of water or a low-sugar electrolyte sports beverage is about right for a 150-pound runner,” says Mrowcynski-Hernandez. To ensure you’re properly hydrated, she suggests a simple urine check. If it’s pale yellow, you’re good to go. If it’s a darker shade, you need to drink more. If it’s clear, you’ve overdone it so stop drinking.

“Highly concentrated sweet drinks such as juices, energy drinks, smoothies, sodas, and beverages that contain dairy or protein powder may not be tolerated well by the body in the last hour or two before a run,” she notes. That’s why drinks that aren’t so carbohydrate-rich—even water—are better when your run draws closer. Alcoholic drinks should also be avoided during that time because they’re diuretics and can contribute to dehydration (not to mention weaving down the road). Coffee can also cause these problems. “Each runner is unique in terms of which beverages they can drink,” she notes.

What to Eat After a Run

breakfast

So you chose the right foods and beverages to consume leading up to the run and you made it through the run with no stomach problems, no pit stops and energy to spare. Now you can eat or drink whatever you want, right? Well, not quite.

“After runs of more than an hour or high-intensity workouts such as speed intervals, try to eat a meal or gulp down a shake or a drink that combines carbs and protein within an hour,” says Mrowcynski-Hernandez. Carb grams should roughly triple protein grams, she says—so, for example, a 150-pound runner should ideally take in about 70 grams of carbs and about 25 grams of protein in this post-run meal. Two examples that fit these criteria:

  • A brunch consisting of three scrambled eggs, two slices of toast and an eight-ounce glass of juice.
  • A smoothie made with 10 ounces of milk or a milk alternative, one large banana, one cup of berries and a 20-gram scoop of protein powder.

After most runs, however, it’s okay to simply listen to your body—a cliché, but it’s always good advice—as long as you try to eat healthily and not too much.

Author bio: Bob Cooper is a former executive editor of Running Times and a former contributing editor to Runner’s World. The finisher of 45 marathons and ultramarathons currently runs, bikes and kayaks in San Anselmo, California.

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