Ask any seasoned runner and, chances are, they have a nightmare story they’re delighted to share — in excessive detail — about that one occasion they consumed that one thing and experienced a bathroom catastrophe during their run.
Everyone’s stomach is unique. Unfortunately, that means every runner has to discover through trial and error when and what to eat prior to running. But experts all concur: A pre-workout meal is crucial for any athlete to adequately fuel their exercise.
Why You Must Eat Before Running
Before delving into what to eat before running, it’s important to understand why it’s so crucial to refuel before cardio in the first place. “It’s the final opportunity to adequately nourish your body before an intense bout of exercise,” says Andrew Wade, R.D., a registered dietitian and certified specialist in sports dietetics based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Just like you fill up your gas tank before embarking on a long road trip, you have to give your body the same attention.”
You’ve probably rolled out of bed, skipped breakfast to make it to a morning workout class, and made it through. So what’s the big deal about setting aside time for food before going for a run? While you may be able to get through some workouts on an empty stomach, subjecting your body to a long run or high-intensity intervals ensures that you’re going to deplete your energy reserves and then require more carbohydrates for fuel — and it’s not ideal to start that kind of workout at a disadvantage. (See: Here’s the Truth About Exercising on an Empty Stomach)
“Since your body can only store a finite amount of carbs in the muscles and liver, it becomes important to maximize those reserves before a workout,” says Wade. “Once your liver runs out of glycogen [energy], your blood sugar levels cannot be maintained, and your body crashes.” For your information: That’s one factor for hitting the dreaded “wall” during long-distance running. (Here’s more about how carbohydrates impact your workout performance.)
Additionally, when your muscles exhaust their carbohydrate stores, they turn to other sources, mostly fat. “The process of converting fat into usable energy for muscles takes a significant amount of time, so your body will not respond quickly enough to the increased demands mid-run,” says Wade. “During this period, your body slows down, muscles become fatigued, perceived exertion spikes, and performance declines significantly.” Not ideal — especially during a long run. (For your information, learning that it takes time for your body to adapt to using fat as fuel is something keto dieters know well, and is also one of the reasons experts recommend keto dieters avoid intense workouts while initially adjusting to the new eating style.)
When to Consume Prior to Jogging
Together with understanding what to consume prior to jogging, it’s important to grasp the optimal timing for your meal or snack. If you’re planning to jog later in the day, make sure you have enough fuel by consuming adequate food throughout the day and aligning your run with your last meal or snack. “You should have your meal three to four hours before you commence jogging, and for snacks, it’s advisable to have them 30 to 60 minutes before your run,” suggests Sabrina Russo, R.D., a registered dietitian based in New York City.
However, the timing and quantity of your consumption also depend on the distance or duration of your run.
Within 60 Minutes
In this scenario, your fuel requirements will vary according to your individual needs. You might not need any additional food, particularly if you’ve been consuming a nutritious diet throughout the day. Alternatively, you may desire a rapid boost of energy (from a readily digestible simple carbohydrate such as a piece of fruit). “If you’re planning to engage in a low- or moderate-intensity run lasting 30 to 40 minutes or less, it’s acceptable if you haven’t eaten for a few hours or if it’s early in the morning after an overnight fast,” Russo explains. You’ll have sufficient fuel reserves, eliminating the need to reconsider your “what to eat before running” list.
Within 60 to 90 Minutes
“If you’re planning to cover a long distance (six miles or more) or run for over 60 minutes, I recommend having a pre-run meal or snack,” advises Russo.
Within 90 Minutes
For runs lasting longer than 90 minutes, you might need to refuel during the run. Research indicates that your body’s blood sugar, which it relies on for energy, can be depleted within one to two hours of running. For runs exceeding 90 minutes, both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine suggest consuming 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour spaced out at 15 to 20-minute intervals. (Just a heads up: while sports nutrition products like drinks, bars, gels, and blocks are beneficial during a run, they should not be relied upon for everyday nutrition.)
What to Consume Before Jogging
What you should consume prior to jogging depends on when and how far you plan to run — the longer the duration, the more fuel you need. (Note: Regardless of your running plan, remember to stay hydrated! Optimal dietary practices won’t be effective if you’re dehydrated, so ensure you drink enough water as part of your fueling strategy.)
If you’re experiencing a complete meal pre-run…
“A combination of straightforward and intricate carbohydrates with protein to stimulate a continuous energy burn is an excellent formula to bear in mind for a pre-run meal or snack,” declares Jenna Amos, R.D.N., the in-house nutritionist for Siggi’s. “Straightforward carbohydrates are crucial for a rapid energy source that will be utilized in the early phases of your run, while intricate carbohydrates will provide a slower burn and maintain your energy levels during your miles. A small to moderate quantity of protein will slow down digestion overall, assisting in a consistent release of energy to help you steer clear of exhaustion.”
Some illustrations of what to consume before running for meals include:
- a whole-grain bagel sandwich with turkey, lettuce, tomato, and mustard
- an egg white omelet and toast
- porridge and yogurt with a banana
- grilled chicken and a baked potato
If you’re only having a pre-run snack…
“A pre-run snack should also contain a moderate quantity of carbohydrates and protein and be low in fat and fiber, which are digested more gradually,” says Russo. “Essentially, you want to consume foods that won’t linger in your stomach for an extended period of time (i.e. fiber and fat), but also won’t result in a rapid surge followed by a decline in energy (i.e. candy or sugary drinks),” adds Amos. (
Some illustrations of what to consume before running for snacks would be:
- half a banana or a slice of whole-grain toast and one or two tablespoons of nut butter (which works because it’s more easily digested than whole nuts)
- homemade energy balls
- one or two small protein pancakes and nut butter
- one cup fat-free yogurt (carbs and protein in one!) with 1 tablespoon of jam or 1/4 cup granola
- 1/2 cup of dehydrated fruit (a more concentrated carbohydrate source) with low-fat cheese
What Not to Consume Before Running
Stay away from large, fat- and protein-heavy meals a few hours before a run, says Amos.
“Blood is redirected from non-essential organs, including the stomach, during intense physical activity,” says Amos. “Since fat and protein naturally take longer to digest, this undigested food will remain in the stomach and intestines longer or get passed onto the next stages of digestion without properly breaking down, which can result in reflux or cramping.”
Therefore, runners’ repulsive GI tales — and as you establish your own pre-run dietary preferences, you’ll likely end up with your own to share.
Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong
Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong
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