What to Eat Before a Run

February 7, 2024

Nick Hancock
A woman holding a bowl of vegetables in her kitchen, preparing a healthy meal for herself.

Nick Hancock in the house, your friendly neighborhood UESCA and UK Athletics Qualified Running Coach. Ready to dish out some wisdom on a topic close to every runner's heart – what to eat before a run!

Think of it like picking the perfect playlist for your workout, but with food! Ever wondered why your runs feel like rocket launches on some days and slow crawls on others? Well, it's all about what you put in your belly. In this blog, I'll unravel the mystery of pre-run nutrition, making your life easier and your runs more enjoyable. I'll guide you to eat foods that ensure you make the finish line and avoid those stomach cramps.

Whether you're a seasoned marathoner or lacing up your new running shoes for the first time, I've got you covered. So, if you've ever wondered what fuels my runs, stick around, grab a few tips, and let's make every run a satisfying and energizing experience!

Why You Should Eat Before A Run

Getting the right food in your system pre-run is your weapon for boosting energy levels, gearing up for optimal performance, enhancing overall performance and recovery during your runs.

When you eat, your body turns the food into energy called glucose, which is stored in your muscles for later use. This stored energy helps you run longer without feeling tired too quickly. Plus, eating before running also helps control your blood sugar levels, preventing dizziness and weakness.

Eating before a run helps keep your energy levels steady and saves you from feeling like a deflated balloon halfway through.

A woman arranging fruit in a bowl.

How Long Before a Run Should You Eat?

The timing of pre-run meals depends on various factors, including the individual's digestive system, the size and composition of the meal, and the intensity of your planned run. However, there are some general guidelines based on scientific insights:

  • Timing for a Small Snack:
    Consuming a small pre run snack with a balanced mix of carbohydrates and a moderate amount of protein about 30 minutes to an hour before a run can be beneficial. This timeframe allows for the digestion and absorption of nutrients, providing a quick source of energy without causing discomfort during the run. Don't consume too much as it might lead to nausea, vomiting, and indigestion (source).
  • Timing for a Larger Meal:
    If the pre-run meal is more substantial, with a higher calorie content or a larger quantity of food, it's advisable to eat around 2-3 hours before running (source). This longer interval allows for sufficient digestion and absorption, reducing the risk of digestive discomfort during the run.
  • Consideration for Personal Differences:
    It's crucial to experiment with different timing and meal sizes during training to identify what works best for you.
  • Type of Run Matters:
    The nature of the run (e.g., a short sprint versus a long endurance run, like a Half Marathon) can also influence the ideal timing for pre-run meals. Shorter, high-intensity runs may require a smaller window between eating and running.
  • Hydration:
    Alongside timing, hydration is a critical aspect of pre-run preparation for endurance athletes. It is essential to consume adequate fluids before the run to maintain optimal performance and prevent dehydration (source).

It's important to note that individual responses can vary, and these recommendations serve as general guidelines. I often ask my clients to pay attention to their body's signals and help them adjust their pre-run eating habits based on personal comfort and performance goals!

A woman strolling in a park wearing shoes.

What Foods To Eat Before Running

The choice of pre-run nutrition is crucial for optimizing performance, and a balanced combination of macronutrients, including simple and complex carbs, carbohydrate intake, energy bars, energy gels, and healthy fats, can provide the necessary energy and support for a run.

Here's a blend of scientific insights and practical recommendations:

1. Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the body's primary energy source during exercise, stored as glycogen in muscles and the liver for readily accessible energy. Consume complex carbohydrates like whole grains, oats, or fruits about 2-3 hours before a run for sustained energy and stable blood glucose levels (source).

2. Proteins

Protein plays a crucial role in muscle repair and prevents muscle breakdown during longer runs. Include a moderate amount of protein, such as yogurt, nuts, or lean meats, in your pre-run meal or snack. Avoid excessive protein intake to prevent digestion slowdown.

3. Fats

While fats are a secondary energy source, they are essential for overall health, providing sustained energy release. Consume healthy fats like avocados, nuts, or olive oil in moderation to support absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

4. Hydration

Proper hydration is vital for maintaining blood volume, regulating body temperature, and preventing dehydration during exercise. Consume fluids before your run, focusing on staying well-hydrated without overloading the stomach. Water suffices for shorter runs, while longer runs may benefit from electrolyte-rich sports drink.

Incorporating more nutrients like whole grains, energy bars, and gels into your pre-run routine ensures a well-rounded approach. Experimenting with different foods and timing during training is important to discover what works best for your body, as individual preferences and nutritional needs vary (source).

In short, a personalized, well-balanced pre-run meal enhances sustained energy levels and overall performance. Tailor your choices to suit your unique needs, ensuring an enjoyable and energized running experience.

A man in an orange shirt running on a track.

What To Avoid Eating Before A Run

There are quite a few things you should avoid eating before hitting the pavement. In my experience, steering clear of certain foods can make a significant difference in your pre-run comfort and performance. Here are some key considerations to keep in mind to ensure your runs are smooth, energized, and free from digestive discomfort.

1. High-Fat Foods

High-fat foods can slow down digestion and may lead to discomfort during a run. Fats take longer to break down, diverting blood flow away from working muscles.

Avoid consuming foods high in fats, such as fried foods or heavy sauces, in the hours leading up to your run to prevent potential digestive issues.

2. Spicy Foods

Spicy foods can irritate the digestive system, causing discomfort and potentially leading to indigestion or heartburn during a run.

Avoid spicy dishes or strongly flavored foods before your run to reduce the chances of experiencing gastrointestinal discomfort.

3. High-Fiber Foods

While fiber is essential for overall health, high-fiber foods may cause bloating and gas. These effects can be exacerbated during physical activity.

Limit the intake of high-fiber foods, such as certain vegetables, beans, and bran, before a run to reduce the likelihood of gastrointestinal distress.

4. New or Unfamiliar Foods

Introducing new or unfamiliar foods before a run increases the risk of digestive upset. The body may react differently to novel substances.

Stick to familiar and well-tolerated foods in the hours leading up to your run to minimize the chances of unexpected digestive issues.

5. Large or Heavy Meals

Consuming a large or heavy meal close to the run can divert blood flow to the digestive system, potentially leading to cramping and discomfort.

Opt for smaller, easily digestible meals in the hours before your run to promote efficient nutrient absorption without overwhelming the digestive system.

6. Dehydrating Foods

Certain foods, such as salty snacks, can contribute to dehydration, which negatively impacts performance and increases the risk of cramps.

Minimize the intake of dehydrating foods before a run and focus on hydrating with water or electrolyte-rich beverages instead.

7. Carbonated Drinks

Carbonated drinks can lead to bloating and gas, causing discomfort during a run.

Avoid carbonated beverages before your run to reduce the likelihood of gastrointestinal issues and promote overall comfort during exercise.

Individuals may have unique sensitivities to certain foods, and triggers for digestive discomfort can vary. Pay attention to how your body reacts to specific foods and tailor your pre-run nutrition based on personal sensitivities, avoiding items that consistently lead to discomfort.

A man hydrating himself by drinking water from a bottle.

What To Do If You Can’t Eat Before Running

If eating solid food before running is challenging, consider opting for liquid nutrition. Smoothies, shakes, or meal replacement drinks can provide essential nutrients in a more easily digestible form.

Prioritize hydration with water or electrolyte-rich beverages. Liquid nutrition not only supplies essential nutrients but also helps maintain adequate fluid levels, supporting your overall performance during the run.

Experiment with different liquid nutrition options during training to identify what suits your taste preferences and digestive comfort. Some runners find success with homemade smoothies, while others prefer commercially available liquid meal replacements.

Remember, the key is to find a solution that works for you. Listen to your body, experiment with various liquid nutrition choices, and tailor your pre-run routine to maximize comfort and performance.

Fuel Up, Run Strong, Live Deliciously!

In conclusion, remember the golden trio for a successful run: carbohydrates, found in whole grains, oats, and fruits for sustained power; proteins, from yogurt, nuts, or lean meats for crucial muscle support; and healthy fats like avocados, providing sustained energy release and overall health support. Consider the added boost of pre-run snacks, carefully chosen for a balanced mix of nutrients, optimizing your performance and fueling your run with the vitality it deserves.

Hydration is non-negotiable—maintain fluids with water or sports drinks. Timing is key, strategically planning your pre-run meal and snacks for optimal nutrient availability without discomfort. Embrace individual variability; experiment to discover what suits your unique needs.

Food is your energy source, and trust me, it doesn't have to be bland or confusing. As someone who's spent over two decades in the hospitality industry and conquered marathons and ultra distances, I've got some tasty insights to share.

For a feast of delectable recipes and personalized coaching to optimize your performance, dive into my cookbook and coaching services. Let your taste buds and training goals converge for a running experience that's both powerful and delicious. Grab your copy, lace up those shoes, and let's make every run a journey of culinary and athletic excellence. Happy running!

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