An old friend recently asked for some advice regarding what and when to eat before and after a run. She was referring to a ten-ish km distance, but regardless of whether you’re heading out for a twenty minute jog or your “long run” for the week, feeling hungry and low-energy isn’t fun, and neither is feeling bloated or crampy. Also, our bodies need fuel to do work and to recover from working, so heading out on an empty stomach, especially if it’s first thing in the morning, can lead to your body searching for energy that isn’t there. Some people perform and feel just fine running on empty for shorter workouts, but I like to feel energized and like my blood sugar is stable. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m no running guru, but here are some things I’ve learned over the last four years about what works for me and many others, and what doesn’t. And I’m sorry to tell you, but there will be days where the digestive system will be totally unpredictable and out of your control, but finding what works well for you 95% of the time is the best you can do.
Before a short run (under 60 minutes)
Think along the lines of a snack vs. a meal, and something low in fiber and fat
- Small bowl of cereal
- 1/2 white english muffin with jam or honey
- a banana
- make a smoothie, have 1/2 – 3/4 cup pre-run and save the rest for after!
- unsweetened applesauce
- peanut butter Larabar (mostly made out of dates)
You want something light that won’t weigh you down and that is fairly easy to digest so your body can start to use the engery shortly after you consume it. That being said, do your very best to avoid anything with a ton of sugar. If you spike up your blood sugar and then have it come crashing down, you can end up feeling light headed or totally burnt out. Finally, save the mostly-protein bars for after your workouts; they take too long to digest to be used for a pre short-run snack.
If you’re running in the morning, start with a glass of water since you likely haven’t had any for 6-8 hours. Morning or not, if it’s been a while since your last meal and you know you need food before your exercise, make eating the first thing you do in your run-prep ritual, this way instead of eating and then having to wait around to digest, you can give your stomach a head-start to break down your snack while you to get your running clothes together, get your hair under control if you have hair that needs controlling, brainstorm your route and gather anything else you might need like a watch, hat or playlist. Make sure to allow around 30 minutes between eating and walking out the door. For me it’s more like 20 minutes, but for someone else it could be 45. Try to be patient with figuring your body out.
If you know you’re going to be pushing your run to right around the 60 minute mark for the first time it’s a good idea to bring a small snack or an energy gel with you just in case. We are all different of course, but I find that if I end up on the road for a full hour, I start to get hungry towards the end of the run. A few things I’ve had as snacks, aside from the Clif shots or Power gels that I carry on long runs, include gummy bears, raisins and graham crackers.
Before a run > 1 hour
If you are planning to run for an hour or longer, the body needs fuel that will last a bit longer; something that you will digest a little more slowly. Peanut, almond or another nut butter is a good way to add some protein to your to easy-to-digest carbs. Some ideas…
- bagel with peanut or almond butter
- banana with peanut butter (good if you don’t want bread, or just like a vehicle for eating peanutbutter)
- bowl of cereal with a banana sliced on top
- toast and yogurt
- small bowl of oatmeal with raisins
Notice how all of the suggestions are fairly basic and don’t have any bold flavours. When it comes to bread options, avoid nuts and seeds. Make it easy for your guts. Then, depending on the duration of the run you have planned, you’ll need to plan your mid-run fuel. If you’re running between 60 and 90 minutes, you are likely fine, but as I said before, until you know how your body responds to different durations of exercise, bring a snack or energy gel in case you start to feel hungry or low-energy before your run is complete. Read on for info about gels and other specific fuel for during the longest runs.
During a run >90 minutes
If you decide to build up to a weekly long run, especially if you’re training for an event like a half marathon, your runs will start to last longer than 90 minutes and you will need to keep reassessing your fuel requirements. Allowing yourself more time between eating and running is one thing that you might need to adjust for. If I’m running any distance that is going to take more than an hour and a half to complete, I’ll wake up 75 minutes before I need to leave the house. This gives me a 15 minute window to get up, drink some water, eat a banana and make an english muffin with jam or honey or a small bowl of oatmeal, and then I have an hour to get my gear together for the weather, my water and to-go fuel (usually Clif Shots or Power Gels) and do a decent dynamic warmup.
Energy gels and gummies made specifically for consumption during an endurance workout are mostly simple carbohydrates that are super easy to break down and therefore get into your blood stream quickly. It can take a fair ammount of experimenting to find out which ones you like and that agree with your gut, but there are tons of options. Another thing to keep in mine is that to properly digest and absorb an energy gel it needs to be taken with some water. Water is important on longer runs, so you should have it handy anyways in a situation where you planned to take an energy gel. Hydration and fueling for long runs and races is a topic in itself, so we will save that for another day since this is supposed to just be covering some basics.
What about Coffee?
COFFEEEEEE I love coffee!!! But it also might make you have to go poo part way through your workout!! Experiement carefully, but tons of runners have coffee in their pre-run routines! You’ll figure out how much time you need (or maybe don’t need) between coffee and running 😉
After your run
When you get home
- commit to a good stretch of your hams, quads, calves, glutes and adductors
- have another light snack
- don’t loiter in your sweaty clothes
What you eat should have some protein in it for muscle repair and carbs to re-stock your energy, and you should be having this snack within thirty minutes of your workout! Try to use the duration and intensity of your run to help you decide how much refuelling you need to be doing. You do not need to eat all the food. Just give your body something to help it repair. If you’re hungry, eat accordingly. I like to drink a big glass of water and have peanut butter and banana toast, or if I’m in a rush, a least a scoop of chocolate protein powder shaken with water or almond milk. Chocolate milk is known (and has been studied!) to be one of the best things to have for recovery due to it’s ratio of carbs, protein and fat, but I save that for after >90 minute runs when I’ve burned more calories and have more recovering to do.
Starting out takes a lot of experiementing and since everyone is different there is no exact step-by-step guide. Some people barely eat anything before they run, they may not feel the need or maybe it causes nausea or cramping. Other people, like myself, get low blood sugar very easily and feel exhausted trying to run on an empty or near-empty tank. The digestive system can be mysterious. Bring toilet paper, and like I said before, try to be patient figuring out what works the best for YOU and your running. 🙂 Let me know what works (or doesn’t) for you!