What to eat before your run

Whether you want to run faster, are looking for the best snacks to eat pre-run or wondering if carb-loading is right for you, elite sports nutritionist James Collins has the answers.

Person tying trainers

Question 1:

Should I be eating the same for all my runs?

What to eat before a run is often the most important question for new runners. Your body requires different fuel depending on the type of training you're doing and your goals.

The most important thing is to adjust your fuel based on your training demands for that day. Every day won't look the same.

During harder training sessions and races, your body uses carbohydrates (stored in the muscles as glycogen) as its main fuel (energy) source. You're only able to store a relatively small amount of carbohydrate, which is why keeping it topped up is so important.

During low-intensity exercise, such as jogging or walking, the body burns fat as its main fuel for energy. Therefore, fuelling with carbohydrates pre-exercise isn’t as crucial, and these don't need to be added to your meal or snack.

The important thing is to plan which sessions require fuelling with carbs. Find recipe suggestions and more tips for low-intensity and high-intensity training days.

Question 2:

How long after eating a meal should I wait before going for a run?

Flapjacks in slices on board

Everyone has different levels of comfort regarding eating around training, so it's important to trial what works best for you. In general, wait 2-4 hours before running after a large meal. This allows time for your food to fully digest. For a snack, 1-2 hours should be sufficient depending on how much you've eaten.

If you have fuelled appropriately at meal times by building your performance plates, often another snack pre-training will not be required.

As a general rule, low-GI foods are best eaten as part of your main meals while training (alongside moderate amounts of protein and fat), as their energy is released more slowly into the blood stream and will provide you with sustained energy.

Low-GI breakfast recipes
Low-GI lunch recipes
Low-GI dinner recipes

For lower-intensity or recovery sessions, you can reduce your carbohydrate intake accordingly. Restricting carbohydrate intake, called 'training low', primes the body to use fat as the main fuel during training, and promotes favourable adaptations within the muscle (mitochondria) for endurance athletes. This, combined with a calorie deficit, can also lead to a reduction in body fat, which is desirable for many people running the marathon.

The following are protein-rich options:
Courgette tortilla wedges with pesto & rocket
Crab & asparagus omelette
Chicken breast with avocado salad

For low-intensity sessions under an hour, the occasional fasted session is fine too, and can help the muscles to become more efficient for endurance training. 

Question 3:

Should I eat before an early morning run and if so, what should I opt for?

Muffins in wrappers
You should always eat before a harder training session, as the body will require fuel from carbohydrates. For lighter, low-intensity training, a protein-based breakfast or even a fasted training session is fine.

There are three morning situations to plan for:

1. The early riser
Good options include oats, wholegrain toast with eggs, granola, bagels or breakfast muffins and freshly made smoothies if you're awake about 2 hours before your run.

Recipe suggestions
American blueberry pancakes
Cinnamon porridge with banana & berries
Good-for-you granola
Cardamom peach & quinoa porridge

2. Straight out of bed
If you prefer to get straight on the road with minimal fuss, try a small snack with quick-releasing energy, such as energy balls, fruit or a small flapjack.

If you are really struggling to eat first thing, try increasing the carbohydrate portion of your evening meal the night before, as this will be stored in the muscles ready for your morning run.

3. 'Training low'
This is a new strategy used by professional athletes to help the muscles adapt to endurance training. For a low-intensity endurance session, you may plan to reduce the carbs in your breakfast as this can encourage the body to burn fat for fuel.

Question 4:

What should I definitely avoid eating before a run?

Cake with berries on stand
To provide sufficient fuel, foods should be mostly high in carbohydrate, but you should also eat foods that you're used to, make you feel comfortable and don't feel too 'heavy' in your stomach when you begin exercising.

In the 2-4 hours before a run, try to limit the following foods as these are well-known causes of gastrointestinal distresses, such as diarrhoea and bowel upsets.

What to avoid:

  • Foods very high in fibre
  • Excessively fatty foods
  • Unusually spicy foods
  • Caffeine-heavy drinks
  • Alcohol

Question 5:

On the morning of a big race, how long before should I eat and what should I opt for?

Granola in bowl
What you eat on the morning of your event should link into an overall fuelling strategy that you have developed during your training. Eat a meal 2-4 hours before the start of the race, and include a range of foods depending on your taste.

Good breakfast options for the morning of your race may include:

  • Pancakes and mixed toppings, such as fruits and nuts
  • Porridge oats with milk or soy milk
  • Granola with milk or soy milk
  • Multigrain bread topped with eggs
  • Fruit salad and low-fat Greek yogurt
  • Bagels or breakfast muffins with low-fat cottage cheese
  • Fruit juice or a fruit smoothie

Now you know what to eat before your run, get the rest of your training nutrition right:
What to eat during your run
How to recover after your run

This article was last updated on 20 February 2020 by James Collins.

James Collins is recognised as a leading Performance Nutritionist through his work with Olympic and professional sport. Over the last decade he has worked with Arsenal FC, the England and France national football teams and Team GB. He has a private practice in Harley Street where he sees business executives, performing artists and clients from all walks of life. He is the author of the new book The Energy Plan, which focuses on the key principles of fuelling for fitness.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Are you training for an event this year? Share your tips and experiences below.

Comments, questions and tips

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Grigoris Apostolidis's picture
Grigoris Apostolidis
8th Feb, 2020
I don't eat foods in fiber anymore. Only one or two fruits. Also, I try to drink some beet juice. Nitrates in beets suppose to help ( lazyplant.com/vegan-diet/beets-benefits ). I'll give them a try on my way to my first marathon...Has anyone else seen an improved performance?
22nd Jun, 2014
Great article!! I am trying to stay fit...running and working out so this really helped me. I also found interesting article about proper hydration before, during and after exercise... if you are interested you can read it here http://www.healthyfoodhome.com/proper-hydration-before-during-and-after-your-exercise-routine/ . Big thanks again! Keep the good work.
21st Feb, 2014
Your advice on how to eat and live right has really helped me. thanks very much
dianearaB's picture
20th Feb, 2014
I eat wheat bread and drink milk before I run.
28th Jan, 2014
Porridge with berrys is my best pre workout breakfast but a pint of water and a banana about half hour before gives good energy and will also help prevent cramps during a swim.
3rd Jun, 2014
I have been training for a triathlon this weekend. This month alone I have done 21workouts (combination of bike and run) over 258.14 km, 15.7 hours and burned 10886 kcal (according to Map my run!) I eat a really healthy diet - whole foods, no sugary snacks or puddings, loads of fruit and veg, yet I have gained weight! Any suggestions gratefully received. I was not trying to lose weight but now I feel I need to.
goodfoodteam's picture
16th Jun, 2014
Hi there,The weight gain you've experienced could just be increased muscle mass. Muscle weights more than fat so the number on the scales can be a little misleading - you're best to go by how well your clothes fit or by taking waist, thigh and upper arm measurements. You could also try keeping track of your body fat percentage if you want to monitor progress.Many thanks,The Good Food team
21st Sep, 2013
If you are aiming for good performance but also weight loss during the training process how would you tweak your suggested diet for marathon runners?
goodfoodteam's picture
16th Jun, 2014
Hi there,Losing weight happens simply when you consume less calories than you burn. Our meal plans for runners should help you to manage your enegy intake depending on training level and intensity: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/running-nutrition-typical-training-planMany thanks,The Good Food team
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