Are you someone who struggles with knowing what to eat before a run? This post will walk you through the core fundamentals of sports nutrition so you feel confident knowing what should you eat before a run.
This post will review everything you need to know about eating before a long run.
Table of Contents
What to Eat Before a Long Training Run or Race
What should you eat before a run?
Fueling your body properly is necessary not just for performance, but for optimal energy and health as well. Fueling before a long run, hard workout, or race, such as a half or full marathon, is especially important to give your body the energy it needs in order to perform its best.
Such a simple question, but the answer may vary depending on your gut tolerance, when you’re running, the weather and how long you’re running.
There’s no generic best food before a run, but there are guidelines! For more specific details, you can check out this sample long distance runners diet plan.
If it’s an endurance workout, eating beforehand helps to provide extra FUEL for the muscles and the brain. The main focus of this snack or meal should be CARBOHYDRATES such as bread, pasta, potatoes, fruit, etc – not high-fat keto running fuel.
If it’s a strength workout, eating beforehand helps provide fuel for the muscles and to minimize muscle breakdown. The main focus of this snack or meal should still be carbohydrates but also some protein such as milk, yogurt, protein powder, meat, fish, eggs, etc.
Incorporating leucine in your protein meal and snack can also be beneficial for exercise.
In general, a pre-workout snack or meal should be:
- high carb
- moderate protein
- low fat
- low fiber
You don’t want to eat anything that sits too heavy on the stomach or may cause gastrointestinal (GI) distress.
An example of a good pre-workout snack might be a peanut butter & jelly sandwich OR a banana with peanut butter and a glass of low-fat milk. It’s important to experiment and find what works best for you.
When fueling for a long run or race that is going to last over 45 minutes or one hour, we want to pay attention to hydration, electrolytes, and fueling.
There are several sports products out there such as gels, chews, and sports beverages, that contain an ideal amount of carbohydrates (for fuel) as well as providing some electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium).
What To Eat Before a Race (Fueling For Early Morning Race)
If you are running in the morning, it is important to have at least a pre-workout snack in order to provide your brain and body with the fuel to get going and get through the workout. If this is not something you are used to, you may want to start with something small, such as a banana, applesauce, 100% fruit juice, or a sports drink.
You can have coffee if that sits well with you. Preworkout for running can have many other substances (that may be harmful), so when considering coffee vs. pre-workout, stick with coffee and a small snack.
What To Eat Before a Long Run/Race: Once you’ve trained your body to accept fuel before an early morning workout, you may want to increase your snack or meal. Yes, you can train your gut to take in more carbohydrates during runs.
A pre long run meal before a long run or race may include: two slices of peanut butter toast, a glass (roughly 8 oz.) of low-fat milk, and a banana.
This is a good combination of high carb, moderate protein, and a small amount of fat. Again, you’ll want to experiment during training and see what works best for you.
What to Eat Before Running a 5k: Since a 5k will be fast and quick, you don’t need to eat as much, and more can be put on the recovery. However, a meal or snack that is predominantly carbohydrate based will help fuel your fast twitch muscle fibers for speed.
Don’t skimp on the carbs and make sure to hydrate.
Should You Run Fasted?
If someone wants to run fasted (without eating), I would first inquire about why.
Fasted running may seem logical, but what’s the reason behind it. Is it because you are afraid of gaining weight? Is it because you aren’t hungry? Are you worried about GI issues? Once we know the why behind fasted running, we can discuss whether or not it’s truly the best option for you and strategize ways to make it more doable.
People may wonder, “does running on an empty stomach burn more fat?” And the answer is no, it’s not that simple. Especially if you’re going out for a long run, you also risk burning through muscle as well.
In general, if you’ve not eaten within 2 hours of exercise, having a pre-workout snack is going to provide the body with the fuel it needs. When exercising in the morning, it’s likely been more than 2 hours since you last ate something. This is why it’s important to “break the fast” and have some sort of fuel before you put more stress on the body by working out.
Fasting and running, especially long distance running, can be dangerous.
Another thing to consider is duration of the workout.
How long is the workout going to be? If it’s less than one hour, you can probably get by without a pre-workout snack or meal. More than one hour?
This is where it becomes increasingly important to have a pre-workout snack so your body and brain have the fuel to get through the workout without compromising muscle breakdown and injury status.
And also consider the intensity of the workout.
Is the workout going to be low-intensity, such as walking, jogging, or light weights? A pre-workout snack may not be necessary in this case as the body uses more fat for energy at a lower intensity.
If you are going into a high intensity workout where you want to push yourself and achieve maximum results, a pre-workout snack with adequate carbohydrates will be important for optimal performance.
What If You Don’t Feel Hungry Before a Morning Run?
Training your body to get used to having some sort of fuel before a workout is a good idea to get the most out of your workout. Again, consider time of day, duration of workout, intensity of workout, time since last feeding, and what your goals are.
You don’t have to force-feed yourself a huge amount of food before a workout in order to get fuel in.
Start small, with a piece of fruit, some fruit juice, or a sports drink. Just 15-30 grams of carbohydrates can make a difference,
Once your body gets used to having fuel before a workout, you can experiment with increasing your intake further.
Nutrient Timing for Pre-Workout Fueling
General Rule of Thumb for Carbs Pre-Workout:
|Timing Before Exercise (Hours)||Carbohydrates (g/kg body weight)|
You can see from the table that the further apart your meal or snack is from your workout, the more you can eat. This is because your body will have more time to digest.
If your workout is 1 hour from now, you should eat less than if your workout is 4 hours from now.
For a longer run or race, you will want your pre-workout meal to contain more than just carbohydrates. It is important to include some protein and fat to help slow down digestion, so that your body has a steady release of energy.
Everyone is different in terms of what, how much, and how close to the workout they can tolerate their meal or snack. That is why it’s so important to practice with your pre-workout fuel during training and please do not try anything new on race day.
Hydrating Before a Long Run or Race
Hydration for runners can be a tricky topic to nail down. It is always good to start out adequately hydrated before a long run or race. Increasing your fluid intake in the days leading up to the race, the night before, and the morning of is going to be good practice to reach adequate fluid status.
A general rule of thumb is for an individual to drink half of their body weight in ounces of water or other noncaloric beverages per day. For example: a 160 pound athlete will need to drink a minimum of 80 oz. per day. Additional fluids will likely be needed before, during, and after exercise.
Hydration in the summer months requires more planning as well.
Hydration status can also be determined by checking your urine color. Urine can range from light yellow to dark yellow or almost brown. Leaning towards a light yellow indicates proper hydration; whereas, a darker yellow indicates dehydration and the need to consume more fluids.
Hydration Tips for Before Exercise:
- 2-3 hours before activity, drink 20 oz. water or sports drink
- 10-20 minutes before activity, drink 10 oz. water or sports drink
Hydration Tips During Exercise
- Drink before you feel thirsty
- Drink a couple sips or gulps (approx. 4-8 oz. water or sports drink) every 15-20 minutes
What to Eat the Night Before a Long Run or Race
Similar to what you want to eat the morning of a long run or race, the night before you’re also aiming for high carb, moderate protein, low fat and low fiber foods.
Since there is more time between the meal the night before and the actual workout, you can eat more than you might the morning of. Again, you’ll want to experiment with this meal and have a go-to night before meal (or several) that you feel confident with for race day.
An example of what to eat the night before a long run or race meal is pasta with marinara sauce, grilled chicken, maybe some low-fiber veggies, breadsticks, and water.
What Is Carb Loading?
Research has shown us that the human body can store approximately 90 minutes worth of carbohydrates to be used as fuel for endurance exercise. Amazing, right?!
Therefore, if you have a race coming up that is going to be longer than 90 minutes, carb loading may be beneficial for you.
What to Eat When Carb Loading
Marathon carb loading (or even carb loading for a half marathon) involves an increased intake of carbohydrate-based foods while simultaneously decreasing exercise so that the carbs are being stored rather than used for energy. This is usually referred to as a “taper” period.
There are different methods for carbohydrate loading, including duration of the loading period as well as amount of carbs to intake. I am going to discuss two of the most common ways to carb load.
- Method 1 involves tapering 3-4 days prior to the race while increasing carbs to 8-12g/kg of body weight. For example, a 150 pound athlete would increase carb intake to 545 – 818g of carbs per day (approx. 27-41 servings of carbs per day).
- Method 2 involves tapering 1-2 days prior to the race while increasing carbs to 10-12g/kg of body weight. For example, a 150 pound athlete would increase their carb intake to 682 – 818g of carbs per day (approx. 34-41 servings of carbs per day).
As you might imagine, it is quite difficult for someone to hit the above goals of 27-41 servings of carbs per day. That is a lot of food, and can lead to some uncomfortable digestion as well.
How to Carb Load: Practical Tips
Seeing as the above calculations are quite hard for most people to hit, I like to take the practical tips approach with a lot of my clients. I commonly say that this is an example of “nutrition is a science but it’s also an art”. The science gives us these numbers but the art is figuring out how the science looks in real life.
Here’s how to carb load for runners:
- Increase carbs at each meal
- Add more carb foods to snacks
- Include salty foods to help with hydration
For instance, if you typically have one slice of bread as part of your breakfast, consider upping that to two slices during your carb load. If you typically have one serving of potatoes or rice at lunch, consider upping that to two, and so forth.
Thinking about it this way is much less intimidating.
For snacks, if you typically snack on nuts in the afternoon, consider adding a piece of fruit or switching out the nuts for some pretzels and peanut butter.
Snacks are some of the best foods for carb loading. Increasing salty foods such as pretzels, goldfish crackers, soups, and jerky will help the body hold on to water, which is good for hydration.
The bottom line for carb loading is that it is only necessary for races longer than 90 minutes. Additionally, the goal is not to gorge on a buffet of carbs for the entire 1-4 days for which you are carb loading.
Rather, increasing your carb intake slightly from your current intake will provide your body and muscles with the fuel they need. When deciding what to eat before a half marathon, don’t all of the sudden carb load the night before.
The goal is NOT to feel uncomfortably full or miserable during the period. And be aware that carbs help retain water so during this time of increased carbs and decreased activity, you may gain a couple of pounds but that is normal and will be used for energy during your race.
What Not to Eat Before Running
Everyone’s body is unique and can handle different types and amounts of food before a workout.
In general, before a long run or race, you’ll want to decrease your fiber intake such as beans, high-fiber fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seeds, etc. as these foods can cause GI issues such as bloating, gas, constipation, and/or diarrhea.
You’ll also want to decrease your fat intake such as cheese, ice cream, fatty meat, avocado, nuts, and seeds as these foods take longer for the stomach to digest and therefore may cause GI issues and stomach pain after running.
You’ll also want to stay away from unfamiliar foods before running. If you are traveling for a race, make sure to bring some of your usual pre-workout fueling options as well as plan ahead and search the area you will be staying in to find some options for pre-race fueling.
The bottom line is…practice practice practice.
- Alexander A S Gunawan, David Brandon, Velinda Dwi Puspa, Budi Wiweko, Development of Urine Hydration System Based on Urine Color and Support Vector Machine, Procedia Computer Science,
Volume 135, 2018, Pages 481-489, ISSN 1877-0509. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.procs.2018.08.200.
- Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals, 5th ed. (2012).
- Healthline. Urine Color Chart. June 1, 2020.
- US News. The Truth About How much Water You Should Really Drink. Sept 13, 2013.