Learn exactly what are the best foods to eat before running to fuel your best workouts!
If you are an early morning runner, you probably head out the door as soon as your shoes are tied. There’s no time to eat a meal and wait for it to digest. And then risk contemplating why you got up so crazy early in the morning when the rest of the world is peacefully sleeping…and then go for your run.
But there are benefits to eating before a run, even very early in the morning, and on today’s Run to the Top, I’d like to go over exactly what you should eat before you head out the door, no matter what kind of run, or what time of day.
Do You HAVE to Eat Before a Run?
Before we go into what you should eat to fuel your run, we should probably start with whether or not you need to eat anything at all. Millions of runners wake up every day and head out for their run completely fasted, or quite literally running on empty.
Many would argue that you don’t need any fuel at all for a normal, easy run that is less than 60 minutes. After all, you’ve got plenty of stored glycogen in your muscles and a virtually unlimited supply of fat that will get you through an easy run. While that is true, it is still a good idea to put something in the tank, even if it’s early in the morning.
I talked with sports dietician Meghann Featherstunn earlier this year and she is passionate about the reasons why all runners should fuel, especially if you are training hard. Even for an easy run.
“I highly, highly, highly recommend that before any run you are eating something,” she says. “When we are waking up and working out immediately in the morning that’s when it’s most important to eat. Our body is in a catabolic state where muscle is breaking down, then we go for a run and break it down even more. We have had this prolonged state of our body breaking itself down. There’s some really great research out there that this is terrible for our hormones. We are in this majore caloric hole and our bodies hate that.”
What Foods are Best?
So it’s pretty clear that we do need to eat, but what types of foods should we choose?
When trying to figure out what you should eat to fuel your run, the first thing you need to determine is what kind of run you are about to have. An easy 30 minute jog is going to have different fuel requirements than a long run, marathon, or hard speed session.
I’ll go over the differences in more detail in just a minute, but unless you are running very slowly for a very long period of time, what all your runs have in common is that carbohydrate-rich foods will help fuel you the best.
Many health-conscious runners get a little worried when I tell them to eat simple carbohydrates, but remember you are not about to sit on the couch! You are fueling for performance and everything you eat will be used for fuel, not stored as fat.
Even with experts like Meghann practically begging runners to eat something before a run, it can be tough to do, especially if you have a sensitive stomach. The best way to deal with that is to experiment with very small amounts of foods that are quick to grab and easy to digest until you find out what works for you right out the door.
And once you find it, make sure that you always have it in the house ready to go.
What makes a perfect quick pre-run food? Something that is high in carbohydrate and low in just about everything else like protein, fat, and fiber.
For an easy run first thing in the morning, try starting with a half a banana, a fig bar, a banana, or a date. Maybe grab a handful of Cheerios or munch on a couple of Saltine crackers.
Some runners do well with fruit juice or applesauce, while others find the fructose hard on their stomach.
Meghann’s favorite choice is a graham cracker or two or a simple white bagel. Again, the trick is to start very small and build with each run, because just like your muscles, the stomach can be trained. Morning runners might have to try getting up a few minutes earlier, but it will be worth it when the day comes when you can truly eat and run.
If you are running at a different time of day, there’s no need for extra fuel if you’ve eaten in the last 1-3 hours for a shorter easy run.
Fuel for Long or Fast Runs
But as you start to plan your fueling for longer and faster running, the equations will look a little different and I’ll go over that right after this.
As I mentioned earlier, what you eat and when you eat it before a run will depend on when you ate last and the type of run you are about to do. The tougher or longer the run, the more important it is to get both the timing and the food just right.
Like most aspects of training, finding the optimal time to eat before a run is an individual preference. But in general, the harder you have to run, the earlier and more substantial you should eat. This is to ensure that you not only have enough fuel on board, but you don’t have a lot in your stomach to cause issues.
Now there are some runners that can eat just about anything within 30 minutes before a run and they are good to go. If that’s you, you’re amazing. But if you are like most runners, you’ll need to play with the timing to figure out what’s best for you.
A good rule of thumb is if you have a long run or workout that is going to take more than 90 minutes to complete, you will need extra fuel. Yes, it’s true that you have about 2 hours of fuel stored in your muscles and liver, but your brain will start to protest by slowing you down long before the two hour mark.
Snacks or Mini-Meals
I recommend trying to eat a medium sized snack or a mini-meal about 90 minutes before your hard run. The exact calorie counts will look different for every runner, but it could be roughly in the 200-400 calorie range.
That could be a bagel with hummus, a small PB and J, or even something super simple like a bowl of rice with soy sauce for sodium and flavor, maybe with a drizzle of tahini or a few slices of avocado for a little extra staying power. A classic morning long run breakfast is oatmeal with maple syrup with maybe a few blueberries sprinkled on top.
As you might have noticed, these mini-meals are not entirely carbohydrates. They have a little fat and protein as well to help keep you from being hungry again right as you start the run.
Many runners turn to commercial bars, gels and powders for pre-run foods and if you like the convenience of those, there’s not really anything wrong with that because you will burn it all off in your run. But in general, I’d say save the specialty products for the run itself and eat whole foods before and after.
Trial and Error
Now if you’ve tried fueling before a hard run before and you just can’t stomach it, remember that the stomach can be trained, but you will have to experiment.
- Start with a small snack 2 hours ahead of your hard or long run.
- If your stomach handles it well, next time, try moving the same snack forward 15-20 minutes.
- But, if you experience stomach issues, push back the timing of your snack 15-20 minutes and maybe tweak the recipe a bit.
- Keep moving forward or backward 15-20 minutes per run until you find the closest time you can eat before you have any issues.
This way, you’ll know exactly what foods sit well with you and exactly when to eat them on important workout days and race day.
These are just some sample ideas of what you can eat before a run to stay energized and prevent stomach issues. While eating before a run is highly individualized, with a few simple experiments, you can find the optimal pre run meal or snack for you, even if you run first thing in the morning.
By fueling properly and not eating too little or too much before you head out for your long training runs, you can maximize your training and start seeing results sooner. If you want to learn exactly how to fuel during the marathon, you can learn how to do that here.