We’ve all had those long runs where a lack of energy makes every step feel like wading through treacle, or gone to a track session after a big meal and been too sluggish to hit any target paces. The fact is, fuelling correctly pre-run can be the difference between a run to feel proud of and a run you’d rather forget. And when you’re putting in the training hours, the last thing you want to is scupper all your hard work with poor nutrition.
Getting your pre-run fuelling right, working out what to eat before running – and when to eat it – takes trial and error. What works for one runner might cause cramps in another. But there are a few common guidelines you can work too. Here’s everything you need to know about pre-run nutrition, so you can push for that optimum performance.
Top 5 tips on what to eat before a run and what to avoid
A healthy runner’s diet should include a good balance of the three macronutrients – carbohydrates for energy, protein for muscle recovery and fats for energy and cell growth – as well as plenty of vitamin and mineral-rich fruit and vegetables.
If you’re eating well, limiting highly processed foods and getting your five (or more) a day, you don’t need to supplement your diet with shakes and sugary drinks in order to run at your best. In fact, real food is king and if you follow these simple guidelines, it’s easy to ensure you have enough energy to fuel every run.
1. Don’t Cut Carbs
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary energy source. They’re broken down into glucose in the bloodstream and stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles, which our body then uses to fuel activities such as running. It makes sense then that runners usually need slightly more carbs than the average person.
The British Nutrition Foundation recommends those exercising between five and seven hours a week should aim for 5-6g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight daily. So if you weigh in at 11 stone, just under 70kg, that’s 350-420g of healthy carbs a day. To give you an idea of what that means in real food, a medium serving of pasta has 76g of carbs and wholegrain rice, 53g.
Carbohydrates are best digested when they’re spread out throughout the day, so try to eat some form of complex carbs with most meals. Complex carbs, found in whole grain foods such as brown rice, beans, potatoes and vegetables, take longer to break down in the body than simple carbs and are a great source of slow-release energy. Ideally, these should be eaten two to three hours before a run to give your body time to digest.
For a quicker energy hit, reach for the simple carbs. Simple carbs are broken down in the body quickly so you get a faster energy release. A banana or Veloforte energy bar with natural dried fruits is the ideal snack around an hour before a run.
2. No need to carb load every day
Before a long race such as a marathon, you’ll want to increase your carb intake to top up your glycogen stores, giving you the energy to go the distance. For your everyday runs though, there’s no need to be chowing down on pasta every meal. If you follow the guidelines above, your regular diet should provide you with plenty of carbs to fuel your training runs.
3. Experiment to find your ideal pre-run food
Everyone’s body reacts differently to different foods so play around with what you’re eating (and the timings) to find what works best for you. This is particularly important if you’re training for a race – have you seen the queues for marathon portaloos? Use your longer runs to experiment with what you plan to eat the night before and the morning of your race to make sure there are no digestive issues during your run.
4. Avoid spicy food and too much fibre
If you’re prone to digestive discomfort, avoiding anything too spicy may save you searching desperately for a bush mid-run. Capsaicin, which is found in chillies and spices like cayenne, is an irritant to the body (think how much it burns when you get chilli in your eye) and can aggravate the stomach lining causing diarrhoea. Get this wrong and we guarantee it’s not going to be pleasant.
Too much fibre too close to a run can also have unwanted effects. Fibrous foods such as whole grains, fruit and veg are generally healthy and leave you feeling fuller but they can also make you need the loo. Try and avoid eating anything too fibrous such as high-fibre breakfast cereals prior to your run or on race day and go for low-fibre alternatives like oats and bananas.
5. Make sure you hydrate
Running when you’re not adequately hydrated makes everything seem much tougher, you fatigue more easily, are prone to muscle cramps, can feel faint or dizzy and your heart has to work harder to pump blood around your body. Not good.
The NHS recommends drinking around 1.2 litres of water a day but if you’re exercising, it’s hot or you’re a big sweater, you may find you need more. To ensure you’re well hydrated try and drink fluids at regular intervals throughout the week – downing a big bottle of water just hours before your run won’t make up for poor hydration in the previous days, it’ll just be flushed out by your kidneys and mean added loo stops. Take some water with you on your runs as well and drink to thirst.
When is the best time to eat before a run?
While some iron-stomached runners might be able to head out running after eating a Sunday roast with no ill effects, most of us need slightly longer to digest. If you’re eating a big pre-workout meal you should aim to do this two to four hours before you lace up to give your body time to break it down. For lighter meals, such as your lunchtime sandwich, you’ll probably find two hours is long enough.
If you need an energy boost between your last meal and your run, or you want to eat something light before an early morning jog, try a healthy small snack containing simple carbs for energy one hour to 30 minutes before you lace up. The Veloforte Bites Bags with a selection of different bars provide the perfect bitesize top-ups for just this situation.
The best foods to eat for every type of run
All runs are not created equal. The amount of energy you need for a 20-mile marathon training run will differ from your requirements for a steady 5k or an intense track session. Here’s what to eat before every type of run to maximise your performance.
Easy run, up to 60 minutes
Shorter, easy runs are the bread and butter of many training plans – but you don’t need to be eating all the bread and butter to do them. It’s likely you’ll have enough fuel in the tank from your last meal to get round easy runs as your glycogen stores can last for up to 90 minutes during steady exercise.
If you feel the need of a pre-run energy hit, go for a low-fibre snack containing simple carbs such as a banana around an hour to 30 minutes beforehand.
Runs over 60 minutes
If you’re running long distances you may find your energy levels begin to dip as your glycogen stores deplete. Avoid the wall – that bonking feeling when your glycogen stores are zapped and there’s nothing left in the tank – by fuelling your run with a pre-run snack or a small, easily digestible meal that contains around 30g of carbohydrate. A sweet potato and tuna, porridge with nut butter, a bagel and hummus or a Veloforte Pronto bar, which contains 80mg of natural caffeine for extra zip, are all good options.
On longer runs, so anything over 90 minutes, you’ll benefit from taking on fuel for energy as you run too. Simple carbohydrates offer the quickest hit and it’s best to fuel earlier rather than later as your body needs time to process the carbohydrates – it can take up to 15 minutes to feel the effects depending on the person.
While some people swear by energy gels others find the consistency and artificial flavourings can upset their stomach. If you want to keep it natural, pack some Veloforte Bites in your running belt to eat on the move.
Interval running sessionsDuring any run, you burn both fat and carbohydrates but the ratio of each change with the intensity. During speed sessions you use a higher portion of glycogen than on longer runs, so even though the run may be shorter you’ll be burning through that energy. Make sure you eat well during the day and take on a simple carb snack around an hour pre-workout or you’ll be struggling on those final reps. And definitely avoid high-intensity workouts on a full stomach.
Early morning runs
If you like to get your run out of the way first thing, you’ll be familiar with the breakfast dilemma. Get up early and have breakfast or enjoy an extra hour in bed? If you’re going out for less than an hour, go ahead and keep hitting snooze, your body should have enough stored glycogen to get you through on an empty stomach.
If you’re heading out on a long run you’re going to benefit from putting something easily digestible in the tank. If you can’t bear to get up an hour earlier to eat some porridge or a bagel for breakfast before you lace up, try a Veloforte Pronto bar to give you some quickly absorbed energy and top it up on the run with the fuel that works best for you mid-run.
Just like you wouldn’t run a marathon in brand new shoes (we hope!), don’t try anything new nutritionally on race day or the day before. Training for an event is not just about putting one foot in front of the other, it’s also your chance to work out a nutrition strategy. Experiment with different foods throughout your training and try eating at different times before your run to find what works for you, doesn’t upset your stomach and gives you nice, even energy.
If you’re racing in a different country, pack your tried and tested food and nutrition favourites – in your carry on luggage if you can – in case they’re unavailable there. Now is not the time to jeopardise that PB by sampling the local triple-hot jalapeno goulash or picking up random products from the expo.
What to eat after your run
Now that you’ve got your pre-run nutrition sorted you might also want to think about what should you be eating afterwards? And here are three simple steps to good post-run fuelling.
- Make it timely: Aim to eat something within 30 minutes of a long run or hard session to keep your blood sugar levels stable and kickstart the recovery process.
- Eat protein and carbs: Eat foods that are high in carbs to replenish your glycogen stores and combine with protein to help your muscles repair and recover. Some good options would be yogurt with fruit and nuts, a wholemeal bagel with peanut butter or a natural food bar such as the Veloforte Forza Protein bar which has the ideal ratio of Carbohydrate to Protein for recovery, 3:1.
- Replace your salts: If you’ve been working out in hot weather or sweating excessively you may need to replace some of the sodium you’ve lost. Try the vegan Veloforte Avanti salty energy bar which contains sodium to help prevent cramps and stimulate your thirst so you rehydrate fully.
One last thing...We’ve said it before but remember when it comes to pre-run nutrition it really is a case of finding what works for you. We’re all different shapes and sizes and our digestive systems all respond differently to certain foods and running conditions. Experiment with your timings and the food you eat to find the right fuel for you. Keep a notebook if necessary so you have a list of what really worked well. Oh, and of course have fun trying, food is supposed to be enjoyed after all.