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What you eat before a run largely depends on two factors: the type of run you’re planning and what time of day you’re hitting the pavement.
Long runs, for example, use up your energy stores more than speed runs. And, morning runs may mean an extra dose of simple carbohydrates at breakfast.
To make sure you’re performing to the best of your abilities, it’s important to fuel up with the right food beforehand.
Here is what you need to eat before a run to keep you fueled and focused during your workout.
What to eat before a long run
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When you’re on a long run, your muscles use energy from adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for fuel. ATP comes from glycogen reserves in your body that form after eating carbohydrates. Therefore, it’s important to eat carbs if you’re going to be running for more than five miles.
What to eat: Simple carbohydrates are generally considered better to eat right before, and sometimes during, long-distance runs. That’s because the body can easily digest and convert them into energy more quickly than fiber-rich complex carbs which take longer to break down. Some go-to simple carb foods to include before your long runs are fruits, pieces of toast with jam, or energy bars.
When to eat: “Since the food you eat before a long run will most likely be simple carbohydrate-heavy, the rule of thumb is to eat meals about an hour to 2 hours prior,” says Scott Keatley, a registered dietitian-nutritionist at Keatley MNT.
If you are running for over an hour, you will need to refuel during the run so you not only finish strong, but prevent yourself from becoming fatigued during the final stretch.
“Generally, your body has enough energy storage to last you 45 minutes to an hour of running regardless of whether you fuel up beforehand,” says Ashley Thompson, a certified running coach and personal trainer.
Some good mid-run snacks include honey packets, pretzels, and energy gels.
Why it matters: Eating a lot of carbs the night before a race — aka carb-loading — is popular for many runners — especially those who run long distances like marathons. And for good reason.
Carb-loading is like taking a trip to the gas station before a long drive. It ensures your body is fueled up with plenty of stored ATP for the trip ahead. Simple carbs, in particular, will give your body that energy boost more quickly than complex carbs, fats, or proteins will, which is why they’re often recommended shortly before, or during, a long run.
What to eat before a speed run
Speed runs are short bursts of high intensity, that typically last 30 minutes and require more power than longer runs.
However, running out of energy is less of a concern for speed workouts. That’s because you have enough fuel stored in your body to last you at least 45 minutes to an hour of work. That said, it’s still important to fuel up properly beforehand in order to get the most out of your speed run.
What to eat: Carbohydrates and proteins are important for speed runs. The carbs will keep you energized and the protein will help you repair muscle tissue that is broken down during this high intensity workout.
Eat a healthy mix of simple and complex carbohydrates several hours or the day before your speed workout to make sure your glycogen stores are sufficient. An ideal meal before a speed run that has a mix of carbs and protein would be brown rice with chicken or oatmeal with a banana and peanut butter.
Additionally, Keatley says caffeine may help boost your speed runs. “It has been known to improve workouts,” he says. To get caffeine in before your run, have a morning cup of joe or an energy drink.
When to eat: To avoid feeling sluggish during your workout, Keatley says “any meal or snack one to two hours before a speed workout should be light.” Additionally, most people will need two to three hours to digest a full meal before doing a speed run.
As speed runs are shorter in duration than endurance runs, you won’t need to refuel during them.
Why it matters: Speed workouts are all about high intensity and recovery. Eating carbohydrates will help maintain your energy levels and protein will your body recover properly so you can keep building muscle and speed.
What to eat before a morning run
While some runners prefer to strap on their shoes as soon as they wake up, it can be beneficial to eat something before hitting the road. While asleep, your body slowly depletes some of your stored glycogen.
So, if you skip breakfast, your body may not have enough energy to power through your run. That’s why running on an empty stomach may cause you to burn out quicker.
What to eat: The best foods for morning runners are simple carbs with sugar that the body will digest quickly. They give you that energy kick you need first thing after you get up.
Keatley says one option runners may want to consider for breakfast is Pop-Tarts, or a similar sugary snack, because they are mostly simple carbs that digest quickly. Plus, they have B-vitamins.
“Sugar starts being processed for energy as soon as it hits your mouth, and B vitamins are necessary for conversion from calories to ATP,” he says.
If you don’t like eating in the morning, Thompson suggests trying to drink a smoothie or protein shake to help you get some calories in without having to eat a full meal. Consider adding honey to your morning beverage for a boost of simple carbs.
Or, if you’re really opposed to breakfast, try eating more carbs the night before to keep your glycogen stores full.
When to eat: Ideally, you’ll want to give yourself at least one hour to digest if you eat a full meal before your run. However, for early mornings, this might not be reasonable. Thompson says at the very least, give yourself 15 minutes to digest a quick snack before hitting the road.
Why it matters: Eating before a morning run can help your body start producing the energy it needs to fuel your run. “You’ve been fasting for six to eight hours and your body has been nipping away at your glycogen stores in your liver,” says Keatley. Even a small snack can help access the energy reserves in your body to keep you moving.
What not to eat before a run
Keatley says to avoid fatty foods before a run. These types of foods delay gastric emptying, which is the time it takes food to move from the stomach to the small intestines. This can disrupt normal digestion and prevent your muscles from getting the energy they need to perform optimally during your workout. This can also make your run uncomfortable because you may feel bloated from the food sitting in your stomach.
Moreover, if you find yourself needing to use the bathroom a lot during your workouts, Thompson recommends avoiding coffee or fiber before a run. Because “one of the great things about running is that it gets everything moving,” says Thompson. But, it may also mean more bathroom breaks than you’d like depending on how quickly your body reacts to foods or beverages you consume beforehand.
According to Keatley, if what you’re eating is negatively impacting your run, you may notice:
The best way to decide what to eat before your run is to identify what feels good for you.
To figure this out, Thompson recommends that runners make a daily log of their food intake and running performance. Doing so can help runners see patterns of how certain foods affect their runs.
She also recommends that runners consider working with a registered dietitian if they are interested in learning about their specific dietary needs.
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