A run starts long before you hit the road. Getting ready for a run is key and one essential part is providing your body with energy. What you eat before a run can make or break your running performance. For me, finding the best food to boost my energy was a game-changer.
Choosing the perfect pre-run food can be a challenge. Me, I made countless mistakes when I first started running and I know many of you are still trying to figure it out.
What you should eat before running mainly depends on two factors: the type of run and personal food tolerance. Let’s explore what you should and shouldn’t eat before running as well as the best time to eat.
Should You Eat Before Running?
First things first: Should you even eat before you run? As with most things in life, there is no one size fits all answer. While there are some runners out there that like to run on an empty stomach, it is generally recommended to eat beforehand.
Why? Your body needs to be fueled in order to perform. Without the needed energy, you may experience sudden fatigue, dizziness, cramps, and prevent yourself from maintaining intensity and pace. Fatigue, in turn, will also increase your risk of injury. The purpose of eating prior to a run or workout, just like stretching, is to maximize your performance and to minimize injury potential.
If you ever do run on an empty stomach, be sure to stick to light, short runs that do not exhaust your body.
What’s The Best Thing To Eat Before A Run?
The ideal pre-run fuel is easily digested and supplies energy for your run. Therefore, it should be high in carbs. Carbs are your body’s main fuel source because they are quickly turned into energy. There are two types of carbs that you need to differentiate between; complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates.
Though both types are turned into glucose in the body providing you with energy, there is a major difference: complex carbohydrates provide longer-lasting energy but also take longer to be digested. Simple carbohydrates, on the other hand, can be broken down more quickly but don’t last as long. Typically, consuming complex carbohydrates is the better choice if you allow your body enough time to fully digest before hitting the road, trail, or treadmill. Here are some examples of complex and simple carbohydrates:
- whole-wheat (bread, pasta, flour)
- whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, barley)
- legumes (black beans, lentils, chickpeas)
- starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas)
- processed foods (pastries, cookies, candy)
- dairy products (ice cream, chocolate)
In addition to being high in carbs, a pre-run meal or snack can be moderate in protein and low in fat. Proteins support muscle and joint health; fats serve as an important backup energy source for when you’re depleted of carbs. I like to follow the 60-30-10 rule, meaning my diet consists of 60% carbs, 30% lean proteins, followed by 10% quality fats. If you want to add proteins and fats to your snack or meal, consider these healthy options:
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
- Fish (tuna, salmon)
- Nuts (almonds, pecans, peanuts, cashews, etc.)
- Seeds (sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, chia, flax, etc.)
- Oils like made of vegetables, olives, canola
My 5 Favorite Pre-Run Snacks
Do you want to get the most out of every mile? Try some of these quick, delicious, and easy-to-make snacks to fuel up before running:
- Oatmeal topped with a banana
- Rice cake with peanut butter
- Whole wheat bagel with cream cheese
- Whole wheat toast with almond butter spread
- Yogurt with granola
In addition to eating right before any workout, I also like to step my running preparation up a notch by taking my favorite pre-workout nutritional supplement by Rootz Nutrition. It’s healthy, tasty, and effective – give it a try and let me know how you like it!
If you are new to supplements and feel overwhelmed by the choices, don’t worry. I have a great overview of the best supplements for runners that worked wonders for me.
What You Shouldn’t Eat Before A Run
The same way that good nutrition will boost your performance, poor nutrition before running will have a negative impact on your running performance.
Avoid foods that are high in fat and fiber. While some fats can be healthy in moderation and an essential part of a balanced diet, not all fats are created equal. You should avoid saturated fats before running as well as minimize the consumption altogether. They are harder to be broken down by our bodies. High amounts of saturated fats before a run or workout can trigger digestive distress and make you feel sluggish.
On the same note, high fiber foods have a lot of health benefits. Unfortunately, however, they are hard to digest making it a less ideal choice before a run. While they are generally good for you, high fibers will prevent peak performance. In the hours leading up to a run, try to avoid:
High fiber foods
How Much To Eat Before Running
Just as much as quality matters, quantity does too. How much you should eat depends on the type of run. Are you going for an easy run or a long run? Generally speaking, you don’t want to eat too heavy before a run. Give your body something that can be easily digested. Eating too heavy shortly before running can lead to cramping and tiredness as your body will spend lots of your energy on digestion.
If you are going on a short or low-intensity run, I recommend having a light snack beforehand. We all have tight schedules and often squeeze in a short run here and there. A pre-run snack will help replenish depleted glycogen stores. Go for something easy to digest, like a banana or whole-grain crackers.
A longer run, on the other hand, requires more energy than short runs. Accordingly, prepare for the journey by consuming a larger snack or meal. Rice, oats, or any whole grains paired with a small amount of protein for more endurance.
Don’t forget to pack a mid-run snack! I like to use energy gel for boost or an energy bar.
When To Eat Before Running
You may still have one question left: How long before your run should you eat? It’s the combination of what and when that contributes to a successful run. Answers to this question are rather subjective. Personally, I like to eat some oatmeal and a banana about 20 minutes before a run. However, what works best for me doesn’t necessarily work best for you.
There are some general guidelines you should follow if you’re still figuring out the best time to eat before your run. Ideally, you don’t want to kick off your run on a full stomach. As discussed, your body will spend too much energy on digestion instead of running. So always be sure to allow your body to digest prior to getting your miles in. If you are new to running, this can be a general rule of thumb for you to start:
- Large meal: 3-4 hours before a run
- Smaller meal: approx. 2-3 hours before a run
- Snack: 30-60 minutes before a run
From there, you can always adjust your schedule. If you’re feeling good, you can stick with the time or try to move the meal a little closer to your run. Whenever you experience any discomfort or lack of energy, slightly increase the time between meal and workout.
The Bottom Line
Everyone is different so it’s important to listen to your body. It can be a process to figure out what and when to eat before running but I know you will get there! Trial and error are key in finding the right nutrients and time window to eat. Believe me, for runners like us, simple changes in our nutrition can go a long way!
For those of you who want to learn more about runners’ nutrition, I recommend the book “Run Fast. Eat Slow.”. It’s a great, helpful read and available on Amazon.
What’s your experience with eating before running? Do you have a go-to snack that you swear by? Please let me know in the comments below! Simultaneously, feel free to reach out for any coaching advice and be sure to follow my journey on Instagram for daily tips and motivation boosts.