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.
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.
How long after eating a meal should I wait before going for a run?
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.
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.
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.
Should I eat before an early morning run and if so, what should I opt for?
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.
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.
What should I definitely avoid eating before a run?
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
On the morning of a big race, how long before should I eat and what should I opt for?
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
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.
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