We’ve all heard the saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but over the last several years there has been a lot of interest in intermittent fasting, and as such, many are skipping breakfast. When it comes to eating before a run, there seem to be two camps; those who are pro-breakfast and those who run fasted, without eating breakfast.
Before I get more into the benefits of eating before a run, I want to start by saying I am not a registered dietitian. I am a certified running coach with a background in nursing, as well as a long-time distance runner. If you’re looking for personalized nutrition recommendations, it’s always best to consult with a registered sports dietitian.
Now, let’s get to the benefits of eating before a run. I love the analogy that our bodies are the car and food is the fuel. You certainly wouldn’t head out on a road trip on an empty gas tank, and if you did, you would recognize you wouldn’t get far before you had to fill up.
The same applies to us as runners; if you head out on an empty tank, you won’t get far. Properly fueling your run helps minimize fatigue and speed up recovery.
I recently worked with a runner who noticed after 4-5 miles, she was consistently hitting the “wall”; her performance suffered, including her pace and her energy levels. I asked some questions about her pre-run routine, including breakfast, to which she shared she doesn’t eat before her runs. She recently began an intermittent fasting routine and had a lot of reservations about breakfast. We talked through her reservations, and I provided education about the science of eating before a run.
So, she tried it! She noticed improvement quickly. She wasn’t hitting the “wall” after 4-5 miles, she was able to maintain her pace and her energy levels stayed steady. Best of all? She crushed her goal race and got a PR!
But knowing what and when to eat before a run can be tricky. If you eat the wrong thing, you’ve got GI distress. If you don’t eat enough, you’re hungry during your run. If you eat too much, you’re bloated and uncomfortable.
It will take time and practice to find what works best for you, but I’ve got some tips to help you nail down your pre-run nutrition, so you feel good, maintain your energy levels, and avoid hitting the “wall”.
Here are some guidelines when it comes to what to eat before a run:
When to eat and how much to eat will vary based on the length and intensity of your run:
If you’re running longer than 60 minutes OR doing intense speed work (as these require a lot of energy), it’s best to have a pre-run meal a few hours before the run AND a pre-run snack closer to run time.
If you’re running less than 60 minutes, especially if it’s a low heart rate, easy run, a pre-run snack might be all you need.
Let’s review each below:
What to Eat Before a Run: Pre-Run Meal
When you’re training for longer distances or doing intense speed work or tempo runs, you’ll want to have a pre-run meal 2-3 hours before your run.
This meal should be high in carbohydrates, including a combination of complex and simple carbohydrates, low to moderate in protein, and low in fat and fiber.
➡️ SIMPLE CARBOHYDRATES: These are easily digested and send glucose to the bloodstream immediately. Examples include:
Running Gels & Chews
➡️ COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATESCOMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES: These are more slowly digested and send glucose to the bloodstream much more slowly. Examples include:
Whole grain bread
Whole grain rice & pasta
*Fruits are in both categories because the naturally occurring sugars in fruit are simple, but fruit also contains complex carbohydrates.
Having a breakfast that combines both types of carbohydrates will ensure you have energy as you start your run as well as miles down the road.
Pre-Run Meal Ideas
Overnight oats with almond butter and banana
Yogurt with granola and fruit
Whole grain toast with nut butter and fruit
What to Eat Before a Run: Pre-Run Snack
Again, if you’re running less than 60 minutes & it’s an easy, low heart rate-type run, you can skip the bigger meal and grab a pre-run snack 30-60 minutes before your run.
This snack should include carbohydrates and can be smaller than a pre-run meal.
Since you’re eating it much closer to your run, keeping it small will help prevent GI distress.
Pre-run Snack Ideas:
A piece of fruit, such as a banana or handful of grapes
Half of an English muffin with jelly or honey
Sports energy products such as a Gel or a Stroopwafel
If you’re marathon training and getting up into those longer distances, I would encourage you to have both a pre-run meal and a pre-run snack. For example, when running 15 miles, some of us burn around 1500 calories, some even more. It will help you maintain your energy levels and feel good after the run is complete if you properly fuel before these long runs.
If you’re running longer than 90 minutes, it’s best to also fuel during your run. I’ve got a separate post that goes over how to fuel during long runs/races, you can read that here.
What to Eat Before a Run: Things to Avoid
Knowing what NOT to eat before a run is just as important as knowing what to eat.
There are some general guidelines when it comes to what to avoid before running. I will say that just like everything else, this can be very individualized. For example, I know many runners who avoid coffee before a run because of the GI distress it causes them. However, many other runners (including myself!) won’t leave the house without a cup of coffee first.
Things to avoid before a run:
High-fat foods: Foods prepared with a lot of oil or butter, heavy sauces or creams, fried foods, etc.
High-fiber foods: High-fiber cereals, beans, vegetables, and certain fruits such as raspberries.
Overeating: Eating too much can lead to GI distress and decreased performance.
Eating too close to your run time: As per the guidelines above, leave enough time for your pre-run meal and/or snack to digest before you head out for your run.
The most important thing is that you’re adequately fueled for your runs so that you avoid hitting the “wall”; you’re able to maintain your energy levels throughout your run and ensure your performance doesn’t suffer.
As a coach, not only do I provide runners with a customized training plan, but we also work through their specific challenges and come up with individualized approaches to help each runner reach their maximum potential and crush their running goals.
If you’re struggling with understanding how to improve your performance and/or how nutrition plays a role in your running game, sign up now for a free discovery call. We’ll chat for 30 minutes about your goals and the challenges you’re facing; I’ll share some tips to help you overcome them, and if it feels like a good fit you can find out more about what it looks like to work together.