Figuring out what to eat before running can be a challenge, especially if your distances and efforts vary (as they should) from day to day. Put simply, what you eat before an easy run will be different from what you eat before a long, hard workout.
But it’s not as complicated as it sounds.
Roxanne Vogel, a nutrition and performance research manager at GU Energy Labs, says it’s important to tailor your eating to the type of run so you’re primed for performance—but you also shouldn’t stress about the small details.
“Don’t overthink it,” Vogel says in an email to Fleet Feet. “Start with foods that sound good, are simple to prepare and eat, and go from there.”
Vogel breaks down what food to eat before a run into three groups: easy runs, fast runs and long runs.
Here's what Vogel says you should eat before each type of workout:
Easy and recovery runs are the lowest-intensity workouts in your training plan.
Think about easy runs as miles at a conversational pace. Can you hold a conversation with another person while you run? If so, that’s your easy pace. And if your run is nice and easy, your nutrition should be, too.
The laid-back pace and shorter duration of an easy run means you don’t need a lot of carbs or calories to keep you going. Vogel says light, simple foods and drinks are best.
“You don’t need much other than fluids and maybe electrolytes or flavor enhancement for your water bottle if you’re going for a short, mellow jog,” she says. “If you are hungry, have a light snack before, like a piece of fruit, a few whole-grain crackers or a small bowl of cereal to keep your stomach from growling.”
Vogel says eating before an easy run isn’t so much about supplying energy for your workout, but being hungry doesn’t help, either. For most of these runs, 16 ounces of water, a sports drink or a banana should get you through.
Sprinting or sustaining a faster pace over distance requires quick-burning fuel to keep you going. Vogel says eating easily digestible carbs will give you the fuel you need for your workout without siphoning energy to break down food.
“Think light and easy,” Vogel says. “The closer you are to the workout, the simpler it should be.”
She recommends sports drinks for their simple carbs, as well as toast with jam, rice cakes, bananas, low-fat granola or low-fat cereal bars.
You can also slurp an energy gel or grab some chews before a speed workout for the same boost.
“You want to be able to tap into the calories quickly for high-intensity energy output,” Vogel says. “So they need to hit your bloodstream, pronto.”
The longer you run, the more calories you need to fuel your body. If you run out, your performance will suffer.
Long runs also require a different type of fuel than speed work. Because you’re running at a slower pace for a longer time, your aerobic engine can tap into your body’s own fat stores to fuel some of your effort, Vogel says. That doesn’t mean you should fill up on fatty foods before you run, but it does allow you to have more variety than before you run 400-meter repeats.
Vogel says eating a meal three to four hours before your run is the best way to get the right amount of food while giving your body enough time to process it.
“Aim for complex carbs (oats, rice, whole grains, potatoes), paired with a small amount of protein and fat (a tablespoon or two of nut butter, a couple of eggs, etc.) to keep your energy levels stable for hours to come,” she says.
Overnight oats are a good source of long-lasting carbs, as is a small pita sandwich or a quinoa bowl. Eat enough to feel satisfied, Vogel says, but don’t stuff yourself. And drink plenty of fluids to wash it down—16 ounces of water should do the trick.
If you’re short on time, Vogel says a bowl of hot cereal, like oatmeal, topped with fruit, honey and a sprinkle of chopped nuts or seeds will provide quality carbs for your run.
Eating before a race should follow the same general guidelines as eating before other types of runs. Running a 5K? Opt for simple carbs. Lining up for a marathon? Get your complex ones.
“For shorter, higher-intensity races, such as a 5K or 10K, sports drinks or energy foods might make more sense,” Vogel says. “For longer distance races—half marathons and longer—you’ll want to eat whatever worked best for you before your long training runs.”
Caffeine can also have a performance-enhancing effect on your race, Vogel says. A cup or two of coffee could give you the physical (and mental!) boost you need to run your best.
But whatever you choose to eat before a race, make sure you try it ahead of time. Getting to the starting line is no time to figure out how your body handles new food.
“For people who are prone to upset stomach or have a hard time eating before any type of exercise, I advise them to ‘eat like a baby,’” Vogel says. “Meaning eat things that are easy to digest and soothing to the GI system, like bananas, pureed foods, steamed rice and dry toast or cereal.
“Find what works best for you and stick with it for training and on race day.”
Timing your food can be tricky, but there are some general guidelines that can help you dial in your pre-run nutrition.
Eating a full meal three to four hours before your run should give you enough time to digest before heading out the door, Vogel says. A general rule is to eat 100 to 200 calories for every hour you have before your workout.
Time Before a Run
Less than 1 hour
100-200 (sports drink)
You can begin to figure out what works for you as you run more and alter intensity. “For more intense efforts, it’s best to err on the side of less, or risk seeing your breakfast make a reappearance after your intervals,” Vogel says.
Whether you’re logging your 20-mile Sunday long run or crushing 100s on a track, carbs will give your body an easy-burning fuel source.
Foods that are high in fat, fiber and protein typically cause the most GI problems, Vogel says. Spicy foods, fried foods and excessive simple sugar, like candy and soft drinks, can also cause problems.
While some runners can eat like a garbage disposal before a run, Vogel says it’s best to start with foods that are simple to prepare, eat and digest to understand what works for you.
By Evan Matsumoto. Evan played many sports growing up but didn’t go pro in any of them. Now, he’s the digital copywriter for fleetfeet.com and editor for the Fleet Feet blog where he writes about different foam densities and engineered mesh uppers.