How to eat before a run is one of the most debated topics in the world of sports nutrition. Beyond the basic “to eat, or not to eat?” question, many athletes wonder what and what not to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat. Unfortunately, it can be tough to find a clear answer. There’s no shortage of information on the topic, and much of it is conflicting.
As a registered sports dietitian, I’ve helped athletes of all abilities address pre-run nutrition. The truth is, optimally fueling your body for a run doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Here are a few simple tips to help you get started.
Don’t underestimate the importance of hydration
If you go into a run dehydrated, you’ve already compromised the quality of your workout. That’s because water acts as a lubricant for your joints and muscles, freeing them to work more efficiently. It also allows energy to flow through your muscles and heart, which, of course, is necessary for running.
What’s more, hydrating before a run can help to prevent cramping, fatigue, and the dreaded “runner’s stomach.” In fact, your hydration will affect your gut just as much as your pre-run nutrition.
Eat easily digested, energy-producing foods
Generally, foods that are lower in fat and fiber, higher in carbohydrates, and moderate in protein are your best choice for pre-run nutrition. I recommend limiting fat and fiber because both are slow to digest, meaning your body can’t quickly break them down for energy. Instead, fat and fiber slosh around in your gut, which can cause you to bolt for a bathroom...or a bush.
Protein is important for fueling your muscles, but it isn’t their primary source of energy. This is why eating a small amount (around 10 grams) of protein prior to a run goes a long way.
Simple carbohydrates, such as fruit or refined grain products, are literally fuel for your body, including your heart and muscles. Without eating carbohydrate-containing foods prior to a run, you won’t have the energy to put in your best effort.
Don’t go into a run too hungry or too full
In other words, give your body enough time to digest your most recent meal or snack, but not so much that you go into a run with an empty fuel tank. Running while hungry can cause you to feel distracted and prevent you from putting in a good effort. On the other hand, running on a full stomach can lead to GI distress.
Figuring out the right amount of food to eat—and when to eat it—is a balancing act that will vary from person to person. A good starting point is to aim for eating 1–2 hours before a strenuous effort. That said, it takes trial and error to determine the best timing for you.
Practice your pre-run nutrition strategy
Determining the right fluids and food, as well as the amounts and timing at which you consume them, will depend on your unique physiology. No two individuals need the same pre-run nutrition strategy. You have to be willing to test a few different approaches to find what works well for you.
I recommend experimenting with pre-run nutrition on easy runs, so you can learn what your body needs. Then, implement this strategy for long runs or races. Again, this will take some practice, so be sure to start months in advance of your next big race!
Work with a registered dietitian
Establishing a solid pre-run nutrition strategy can be a challenge. I know because I’ve been there. But once you do, you can stop worrying so much about what and when to eat, and instead stay focused on achieving your running goals.