Whether training or racing, we all want to feel and perform at our absolute best. There’s no better feeling than finishing a challenging workout or crossing the finish line at a race satisfied with your result, whether it’s crushing a PR, setting a new distance goal, or simply feeling strong during a session.
Many factors come into play to achieve optimal performance, whether training or racing, such as your current fitness level, your running experience, your previous and current training, how well you sleep, and of course, your nutrition.
Day-to-day nutrition is critical to ensure you have enough fuel for everything you put your body through as a runner, but what about the specific fueling before your runs, workouts, and races? Runners often wonder, what should I eat before a run?
What to eat before a run, training, or racing can genuinely make or break your running performance.
This article will discuss what to eat before a run to have a successful workout or race and, at the same time, enjoy yourself in the process.
More specifically, we will discuss the following:
- Why Should You Eat Before A Run?
- What To Eat Before A Run
- What To Eat Before A Race
- What To Do If You Can’t Eat Before Running
- What To Avoid Eating Before A Run
Let’s jump in!
Why Should You Eat Before A Run?
What to eat before running will vary depending on the type, length, and intensity of your workout or race.
Of course, the longer or more intense your run, the more energy you will need to perform. But whatever type of run or workout you have planned for the day, it is essential that you are adequately fueled for the following reasons:First, you don’t want to feel hungry during your workout, which is especially likely if you run first thing in the morning after coming off of what is essentially a fast throughout the night. Running with a grumbling stomach is uncomfortable, and if you feel that hungry, you are most likely under-fueled and will be unable to exercise properly.
Second, your body needs adequate glycogen levels to use said stores for energy, allowing you to perform well, feel strong, and complete the workout.
So, no matter what type of run or workout you have planned for the day, fueling up is key!
Let’s take a look at the different types of workouts and what is needed to prepare for each one:
Short Recovery Runs or Easy Runs
Some people can get away without eating before a recovery run or an easy run lasting under 60 minutes. However, especially if you run in the mornings, consuming a small snack about one hour before heading out the door is ideal.
Any workout involving changes in pace or high-intensity running, such as intervals and track work, threshold workouts, tempo runs, or Fartleks, will require a lot of energy.
If you want to crush your workout, eating a small pre-run snack beforehand is essential.
Your snack should be consumed, ideally, 60 minutes prior to your run so that your body can process the food and you can avoid any unwanted discomfort as you sprint up that hill or turn the corner on the track!
Long Runs and Races
Eating a complete yet light breakfast is ideal for long runs and races as long you can eat it within enough timeframe to allow for digestion.
Eat your light breakfast at least 2-3 hours before your long run or race so your body has enough time to process the food and so you don’t feel full and uncomfortable while running.
Since this is a larger meal, more time is necessary to process it than after eating a smaller snack.
Of course, you will also be fueling during these activities, which is a whole other ballgame.
For great information on fueling during a half marathon, check out our article: Do I Need To Fuel During A Half Marathon? Fueling Strategy Explained.
Now that you know when you must fuel up (essentially, always), let’s look at some examples of exactly what to eat before a run.
What To Eat Before A Run
All pre-run snacks and meals should be high in simple carbohydrates as your body can break down and use this source of energy efficiently.
Also, ensure these snacks are low in fiber, protein, and fat to lower your risk of facing gastrointestinal problems during your run. Protein and fats spend more time in your system, so sticking to carbs, more specifically simple carbs, is the way to go!
Be careful with complex carbohydrates as they are high in fiber and not ideal for processing when going out for a run. We wouldn’t want to need to take an unwanted pit stop!
Some examples of simple carbohydrates are white rice, pasta, bread, couscous, table sugar, juice, honey, maple syrup, jelly, fruit, and dairy (for those who can tolerate lactose well). For fruit, ensure you are not overloading yourself with too much fiber.
For your shorter runs, such as a recovery run or a speed workout, you can get away with having a pre-run snack and then eating breakfast or your main meal afterward, depending on what time of day you run.
Here are some examples of what to eat before a run, about an hour or so before you head out the door for any type of shorter workout:
- A slice or two or toast smeared with honey or your favorite jam
- Energy balls, either homemade or store-bought (usually made with ingredients such as oats, peanut butter, syrup, and salt, but the varieties are endless)
- A large banana or another piece of fruit (watch out for too much fiber!)
- A granola bar or energy bar
- Yogurt with your favorite mix-ins such as oats, granola, fruit, honey, etc.
- Low-fiber cereals
Let’s now take a look at what to eat before running a race or long run:
What To Eat Before A Race
Here are some other fueling ideas for a larger pre-run meal for a long run or a race.
Remember to try and eat 2-3 hours beforehand, if possible. If you need to wake up very early to do this, eat your meal, and then go back to bed until you have to get ready.
Because 2-3 hours is quite a long time before you begin to run, you should have a small snack, preferably something you will also eat during the race, such as an energy gel, on hand. You can take the energy gel just 20 minutes or so before your run if you need a quick boost before the start.
Your pre-run breakfast could be anything mentioned above in a larger quantity or:
- A bagel or English muffins with jam or honey
- Pancakes or waffles with maple syrup or honey
- Toast with jam or honey and nut butter
- Pasta (yes, some do have pasta for breakfast before a race!)
Try out a variety of snacks and meals to see what works best for you. We are all different, and our bodies will react differently to these pre-run snack ideas. Once you’ve found your match, stick with it!
As for quantity, it will depend on several factors, such as your weight and your specific energy and dietary needs.
One of the most important things is not to feel too full. Don’t stuff yourself; it will make you feel uncomfortable, and you will not be able to run well with food sloshing around in your stomach.
The way to go is trial and error and seeing what works best for you in terms of how much and what to eat before a run.
But what if you can’t eat before you run?
Perhaps you’ve tried to eat solid food, even a long 3 hours before your event, but you still don’t feel comfortable while running.
If this happens to you, never fear; we have some alternatives for you of what to eat before a run if you can’t eat before a run:
What To Do If You Can’t Eat Before Running
If you can’t get any solid food down and have a good run because it negatively affects your gut, gives you a stomach ache, or any other number of uncomfortable sensations, we have some alternatives for you:
- Ensure you have a carb-heavy dinner the night before, such as a bowl of pasta or rice, to fuel up for the next day.
- Instead of solid food, drink a glass of orange juice before your run. Eight ounces of orange juice contains about 27 grams of carbohydrates and 112 calories.
- Drink whatever sports drink you are used to consuming while you run. This kills two birds with one stone, as you are hydrating and fueling simultaneously.
- Take an energy gel. If you prefer an energy gel or another type of fuel, such as gummy chews or a specific energy bar you usually eat during your long runs, go for that instead. An average energy gel has about 20-25 grams of carbs and 100 calories.
What To Avoid Eating Before A Run
Even though what to eat before a run will vary from person to person, there are some general guidelines of what you shouldn’t do or shouldn’t eat before a run.
Try and avoid:
- Overeating, you don’t want to run on a full stomach!
- Eating too close to your start time; leave at least one hour between snacks and shorter runs, and 2-3 hours, if possible, between pre-run breakfasts and long runs or races.
- Eating high-fiber foods such as whole grains, high-fiber cereals, beans, lentils, vegetables, and certain fruits such as raspberries to avoid unplanned pit stops.
- Eating high-protein meals, including chicken, red meat, or other high-protein foods.
- Eating foods that are high in fat as they are more challenging to digest for most.
Understandably, following these fueling guidelines will not work for everyone, especially for those who are following a specific diet that excludes some of these foods or have food allergies that don’t permit them to eat carb-heavy food.
For example, if you are on the keto diet, you may be thinking, what should I eat before a run if I can’t eat carbs? If this is your case, speak to a sports nutritionist to find the best options for your specific circumstances.
Today’s essential takeaway is that you ensure you are adequately fueled up before all of your workouts so that you perform as best you can and, more importantly, enjoy your runs without the preoccupation of bonking or dealing with unexpected tummy trouble.
For more information on fueling for runners and your diet in general, check out our fueling and nutrition database here!