There is so much to think about before a run. How many layers do I need? What music should I listen to? How far should I go? Decision fatigue is a thing and by the time you have made all of those choices, you can be tempted to just get your run going before you have to think about anything else. However, what you eat — and when — should be a key part of your pre-run routine. We talked to the experts about the art of eating before a run — and how to find what works for you.
WHEN TO EAT BEFORE A RUN
Finding the time, let alone the right time, to eat before a run can be tricky. It can be tempting to just wake up and head right out the door to log some miles or rush out of the office at the end of the day to run before dinner, but making the time for a pre-race snack or meal is vital. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer as to how long before a run you should eat, but there are a few guidelines you can follow to help you find what works best for you.
“About 45 minutes to an hour is ideal for a pre-race snack or meal, however this varies,” admits Katie Hake, RDN, a dietitian and personal trainer. “It’s important to experiment with timing to identify what window makes you feel and perform your best.”
Dietitian and running coach Claire Shorenstein, MS, CDN, of Eat for Endurance agrees and adds that your timing also depends on what you eat. If you have a banana before a quick morning run, for example, she says you may only need about 15 minutes before you can get out the door. A larger meal, though, could take up to 2–3 hours to properly digest and distribute nutrients.
“Generally, if you’re choosing something fairly easy to digest and mostly carbs, you may not need more than 15 minutes to digest,” Shorenstein shares. “If you’re having something more nutritionally balanced, with protein and/or fat, for example, you will likely require more time. Experiment to see what works for you.”
WHAT TO EAT BEFORE A RUN
So what foods should you be experimenting with? You should definitely feel like you have choices — bananas and bagels aren’t the only snacks that fuel runners — but Hake advises that at least 50–60% of your intake pre-run should be carbohydrates. The rest of that snack or meal should include protein and healthy fats.
Shorenstein notes that the amount of nutrients you want to take in varies based on your gender, weight/height and activity level — and you should consider the distance you’ll be running and intensity level of the workout as well. Though all of this is a factor, you also need to be aware of how much time you have to digest your snack or meal before your run, depending on your schedule.
“The more time you have to digest, the more you can eat, generally speaking,” shares Shorenstein. “If you have minimal time, try to go for something small like a banana or even a sports product (such as a drink, chew, gel, bar, etc.). If you have more time, have a balanced carb-containing meal or snack (such as peanut butter and banana toast, oatmeal with banana and peanut or almond butter).
HOW TO FIND WHAT WORKS FOR YOU
As noted above, both Hake and Shorenstein admit that when it comes down to it, what and when you eat before a run takes some experimentation. It may seem like a nuisance to worry about another thing during training, but nailing down your pre-race fuel early on can make it simpler once you ramp up mileage (and help make sure race day goes as smooth as possible).
“Keeping a food journal or using an app can also help you track how your nutrition affected your performance that day,” reveals Hake. “When I trained for my first marathon, the nutrition piece was often the most challenging and frustrating piece — and I’m a dietitian!”
If you’re overwhelmed, connecting with a registered dietitian can help you make sure your pre-run (and post-run) fuel is balanced and easy-to-digest. They can also help you develop a simple tracking method and give recommendations on foods to gravitate toward or avoid altogether.
“[Finding what works for you personally is] just trial and error,” concludes Shorenstein. “There are, of course, certain foods that are known to be generally better tolerated, such as foods lower in fiber or runner go-tos like a banana. Also, allowing plenty of time to digest always helps, so you can go to the bathroom and not rush the whole process.”