What to eat before a run (and what to avoid)

A healthy breakfast

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 do 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 for another. But there are a few common guidelines you can follow. Here’s everything you need to know about pre-run nutrition, so you can push for 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 may help to improve digestion by increasing the amount of digestive fluids in your stomach, but can be 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 if you are not used to eating them regularly. Stick to foods you enjoy and know pre race day to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

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 to eat 2 - 4 hours before the start of any long run or race to allow your body to digest properly. If you don’t have much time, then opt for a lower fibre meal like greek yoghurt, honey and red berries or a banana.

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.

Veloforte hydration sachet being poured into a bidon
Image by Veloforte

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 2 - 4 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. Half a Veloforte energy bar is a great option — save the rest for afterwards — or a couple of our soft and squishy, all natural energy chews.

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 or Veloforte energy chews around an hour to 30 minutes beforehand.

A woman eating a Veloforte energy chew
Image by Veloforte with @drbeccasalmon (IG)

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 are all good. Or a Veloforte Avanti bar, which contains 40g of dual-source carbs and some helpful natural electrolytes.

On longer runs, so anything over 90 minutes, you’ll benefit from taking on fuel for energy as you run. 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.

One of the most compact and efficient ways to refuel is with an energy gel — but the synthetic offerings from most brands leave a lot to be desired. Luckily, Veloforte's energy gels harness only natural ingredients to deliver just as many high quality carbs, in half the size, with zero additives. They taste great too. Pop some in your running belt to eat on the move.

Interval running sessions

During 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 energy 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. If you find you’re in need of a caffeine boost on an early morning run, our Doppio and Desto energy gels deliver 75mg of natural caffeine as well as energy-boosting carbs.

A man eating a Veloforte energy gel
Image by Dan Francis @bydanfrancis (IG)

Race day

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 jalapeño 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 you should 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 yoghurt with fruit and nuts, a wholemeal bagel with peanut butter, a shake such as Veloforte’s Vita or Nova Recovery Shake or a natural food bar such as Veloforte's Forza or Mocha Protein bar both of which have 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 Veloforte electrolyte sachets which contain sodium to help prevent cramps and stimulate your thirst so you rehydrate fully.

Your window to take on more protein to help repair and rebuild healthy muscle mass is a little longer. Within 2 - 4 hours, aim to refuel with a balanced meal of lean protein, slow release carbohydrates and plenty of colourful veggies. Real food performs best!

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.

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No compromises, digestive issues, fake flavours, sickly gloop or ingredients you can't spell (or digest). Instead, beautifully balanced natural ingredients, incredible flavours and enjoy total confidence in your foundational health, well-being and performance.

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