Many runners spend so much time and attention on their actual workouts and following their training schedule to a T in hopes of having the best race day experience possible.
However, nutrition for runners is a key component to having a successful build-up through your training program so that you have enough energy for your workouts and the proper nutrients to support recovery and overall health.1Beck, K., Thomson, J. S., Swift, R. J., & von Hurst, P. R. (2015). Role of Nutrition in Performance Enhancement and Postexercise Recovery. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 6(6), 259. https://doi.org/10.2147/oajsm.s33605
In this guide to what to eat before a run, we will discuss the important considerations for pre-run nutrition, including what to eat before running and ideas for the best pre-workout meals and snacks for distance runners.
What Are The Ideal Pre-Run Foods For Energy And Digestion?
Many of the most popular weight loss diets are low-carb diets.
For example, the classic Atkins diet and the increasingly popular keto diet almost demonize carbs such that carbohydrates have gotten somewhat of a bad rap in the nutritional space over the past decade.
However, for long-distance runners such as half marathon runners and marathon runners, carbohydrates are a key source of energy for long runs and high-intensity workouts such as speed work, interval training, 5k races, VO2 max intervals, and even longer races.2Ludwig, D. S., Hu, F. B., Tappy, L., & Brand-Miller, J. (2018). Dietary carbohydrates: role of quality and quantity in chronic disease. BMJ, 361, k2340. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k2340
In fact, according to research, when you are working out at or above 60% of your VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption), blood glucose and muscle glycogen are the primary fuel sources for the muscles to generate ATP (energy).3Hawley, J. A., & Leckey, J. J. (2015). Carbohydrate Dependence during Prolonged, Intense Endurance Exercise. Sports Medicine, 45(S1), 5–12. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-015-0400-1
This is because carbohydrates can be oxidized for energy much faster than fats.4Murray, B., & Rosenbloom, C. (2018). Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutrition Reviews, 76(4), 243–259. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuy001
This is because the faster you run, or the more vigorous your exercise, the higher the energy requirements of your muscles (and the more calories you burn per minute).
Since oxidizing fat is a much slower process, the energy yield from burning a triglyceride (fat molecule) can’t keep pace with the energy demand of the muscles.
In other words, generating energy by burning fat is insufficient for the high demand of the muscles during high-intensity exercise.
Therefore, if your goal is to optimize your running performance, most registered dietitians and sports nutritionists do not recommend that runners follow a low-carb diet while simultaneously following a training plan.
If you have insulin resistance or diabetes or are following a keto diet or low-carb diet for another health condition or weight loss, it is important to work with a registered dietitian or experienced sports nutritionist to find a nutrition strategy that will meet your needs while still providing enough energy to support your training and recovery.
What Are The Best Foods For Distance Runners?
There isn’t a single best pre-run meal or pre-run snack that will necessarily work for all runners.
Even for a given runner, the best pre-run meal or snack will depend on your workout and the time of day.
For example, the best pre-run foods before long training runs, such as longer runs for half marathon or marathon training, will differ from the best foods to eat before a high-intensity track workout.
Similarly, pre-run nutrition will differ if you are doing a morning run and haven’t had breakfast yet versus doing the same workout in the evening after you’ve already had several meals in the day and your glycogen stores and energy levels are not depleted from the overnight fast.
Therefore, when discussing fueling for long distance running, it is helpful to consider the intensity of the workout, whether you are doing a longer run or a shorter run, and the time of day.
In this vein, choosing your pre-run nutrition, whether you have a pre-run snack or a pre-run meal, will depend on how long you have to digest the pre-workout meal.
That said, here are a few general principles for fueling before training runs and races:
- Consider how long you have to digest your pre-run meal or snack
- Think about workout intensity
- Consider the distance of your run
You want to ensure that the timing of your pre-run meals or snacks gives your body ample time to digest to optimize energy levels and prevent gastrointestinal issues.
Although every runner is different, here are some good guidelines for how long to wait after eating before running:
How Long To Wait After Eating Before Running
- Wait 3-4 hours after a large meal to run.
- Wait 2-3 hours after a small meal to run.
- Wait 1-2 hours after a snack to run.
- Wait 30 minutes after an energy gel, energy gummy packet, or small snack to run.
The more you eat, the longer you’ll need to wait after your pre-run meal or snack to start your training session because it takes your stomach longer to fully empty a larger volume of food.
The number of calories you eat and the specific macronutrient composition in the meal or snack before your training run or on race day impact digestion and how quickly your stomach will empty.
Studies show that the average stomach empties at a rate of approximately 1‐4 kcal/min, so the more calories you eat in your pre-run snack or meal, the longer it will take your stomach to process the food.5Goyal, R. K., Guo, Y., & Mashimo, H. (2019). Advances in the physiology of gastric emptying. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 31(4), e13546. https://doi.org/10.1111/nmo.13546
High-protein, high-fat, and high-fiber foods also take longer to digest, so gastric emptying, digestion, and increases in blood glucose levels will be slower if your pre-run meal or snack is something other than simple carbohydrates.
Spicy foods can also cause bloating and gastrointestinal distress during exercise.
What To Eat Before A Run
Here are some tips for what to eat before a run:
What Should I Eat Before a Morning Run?
It’s possible to do short, easy runs on an empty stomach if you generally follow a balanced diet.
However, having a small snack to increase blood sugar can help boost energy levels before a morning run.
For longer training sessions and races (half marathon or marathon), examples of good pre-run breakfasts include:
- Oatmeal or overnight oats with berries and nuts
- Fruit and veggie smoothie with protein powder
- Bagel or whole-grain bread with nut butter and banana
- Muesli, whole-grain waffles, or low-sugar cereal with nuts and fruit
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an endurance-trained athlete can store up to 1,800 to 2,000 calories of fuel as glycogen in the muscles and liver, though smaller runners might store closer to 1,500 calories.
Depending on your body size and running pace, this means that you might store enough glycogen to support about 90-120 minutes of running at your marathon race pace effort.
Therefore, if you are not eating enough carbs before your long-distance training runs and races—as well as fueling with simple carbs during high-intensity exercise that lasts 90 minutes or more—you risk bonking because you won’t have enough glycogen.6Ludwig, D. S., Hu, F. B., Tappy, L., & Brand-Miller, J. (2018). Dietary carbohydrates: role of quality and quantity in chronic disease. BMJ, 361, k2340. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k2340
Foods like sweet potatoes and other starchy veggies, legumes like lentils, and high-fiber whole grains like whole wheat bread, brown rice, and quinoa are ideal for everyday nutrition for optimal wellness.
However, your pre-run breakfast or pre-run meal before a high-intensity workout like an interval workout, tempo run, hill repeats, or race pace effort should contain primarily simple carbohydrates.
What Are The Best Pre-Run Snacks?
For the pre-run or pre-race snack 30 to 90 minutes before you have to be at the starting line or lacing up your running shoes to train, focus on eating simple carbs.
Pre-run foods with simple carbohydrates—and fueling with carbs during long runs for marathon training—provide a trickle of additional glucose for energy so that you never deplete your glycogen stores and don’t have to fall back on oxidizing fat as the primary source of energy.7Ludwig, D. S., Hu, F. B., Tappy, L., & Brand-Miller, J. (2018). Dietary carbohydrates: role of quality and quantity in chronic disease. BMJ, 361, k2340. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k2340
Toast, fresh or dried fruit (banana, dried cranberries), applesauce, rice cakes or crackers, animal crackers, and pretzels are some of the best pre-run snacks when you have limited time to digest, and you’re going to be doing speed work or fast running.
An energy bar or granola bar makes a great pre-run snack because it should digest quickly and is portable, which is good if you’re driving to the race start or where you plan to run.
For high-intensity workouts, choose a high-carb granola bar or oat-based bar rather than a whey protein bar. Also, avoid any bars with artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols.
You can also use sports supplements such as sports drinks, energy chews, energy gels, and fruit gummy chews with glucose and electrolytes (sodium, potassium, etc.).
What Should I Eat as a Pre-Run Meal Before an Afternoon Run?
If you aren’t doing a morning run, you should have plenty of time to eat and digest before running.
The best pre-workout meal will depend on the type of run you are doing.
Good sources of complex carbs for distance runners to ensure adequate glycogen storage include legumes like lentils and beans, whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, and starchy veggies like sweet potatoes.8Murray, B., & Rosenbloom, C. (2018). Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutrition Reviews, 76(4), 243–259. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuy001
A good pre-run meal would be whole grain bread with peanut butter and banana or quinoa with chicken breast, bell peppers, tomatoes, and pepitas.
Fruits and vegetables also have key electrolytes like potassium and magnesium and water to aid hydration.
Distance runners should consider working with a nutritionist or registered dietician to nail down a general nutrition plan for pre-run fueling, post-run recovery, and overall health and wellness.
Ultimately, you also may need to experiment with finding the best foods for your own pre-workout fueling.
Any distance runner with a sensitive gastrointestinal system will likely experience bloating, cramping, diarrhea, or other digestive issues with certain pre-run foods such as high-fiber foods or even energy gels with too much glucose or fructose.
This is why it is key to try out different strategies to discover what works best for you to run at your very best.
For some more snack ideas for runners, check out this next guide:
- 1Beck, K., Thomson, J. S., Swift, R. J., & von Hurst, P. R. (2015). Role of Nutrition in Performance Enhancement and Postexercise Recovery. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 6(6), 259. https://doi.org/10.2147/oajsm.s33605
- 3Hawley, J. A., & Leckey, J. J. (2015). Carbohydrate Dependence during Prolonged, Intense Endurance Exercise. Sports Medicine, 45(S1), 5–12. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-015-0400-1
- 4Murray, B., & Rosenbloom, C. (2018). Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutrition Reviews, 76(4), 243–259. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuy001
- 5Goyal, R. K., Guo, Y., & Mashimo, H. (2019). Advances in the physiology of gastric emptying. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 31(4), e13546. https://doi.org/10.1111/nmo.13546
- 8Murray, B., & Rosenbloom, C. (2018). Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutrition Reviews, 76(4), 243–259. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuy001