Fueling Up – What to Eat before You Run

When you are exercising, there’s always that lingering question made famous by Hamlet… to eat or not to eat? Okay, not exactly, but there are all sorts of different ideas about whether or not to eat before you run, and what and how much to eat if you do.

Some things will come down to personal preference, so you may have to do a little trial and error. But one thing to remember is that food is fuel. It gives you the energy you need to do what you do – whether that’s run, walk the dog, work, play with your kids, etc. Many of us often have a love/hate thing going with food because of diets, food guilt and/or overindulging, so it’s sometimes difficult to hold onto that fact. Food is fuel!

It may take a few test runs – literally! – but you will find the “go to” foods that work for you before a run or a race.

A couple of tips to get you started:

  • “Practice” your pre-race meal at least a couple of times before the race. Eat the same food at the same time you plan to on race day.
  • Eat at least two hours before the race so you can avoid cramping, pit stops, etc. The amount you eat should match the effort you are going to make. For a 5K, that means about 150 to 200 calories; longer races, like marathons, require much more (500 calories and up). If you are going to run 10 miles or farther, you also may also need a small snack (like a banana or an energy bar) about 60 minutes before the start to keep blood-sugar levels up.
  • Eat mostly carbs before you run, so it’s easier to digest. More protein and fat (eggs, cheese, etc.) takes longer to digest and turn into energy. Plus it can lead to that awful, gut-bomb feeling once you are running. A plain bagel with a little peanut butter is a good choice, or a banana, or toast with jam. Oatmeal or a granola bar are also good choices Beware of too much fiber before a run – it can also lead to stomach problems for some people.
  • Don’t forget to hydrate, but don’t overdo it! Drink most of your fluids – 16 to 24 ounces – at least 90 minutes before you start running. If it works for you, drink about six to eight ounces just before you start. You don’t want to feel water sloshing around in your stomach, but you do need to be aware of your intake, especially if it’s hot or humid. Use the color of your urine as a guide: It should be light yellow, but not totally clear.
  • If you are running less than 90 minutes, the general recommendation is that you don’t need to eat during the run. (However, some runners prefer to eat if they run more than an hour.) If you’re doing a long run, after about 60 minutes try eating about 100 calories, then another 100 calories about every 45 minutes after that. Some runners prefer gels or gummies, others stick with basics like bananas or granola bars. I’ve found this to be a highly personal preference!
  • After your run, you need to refuel. Within 20 minutes, try to have a protein-rich snack to help repair muscle tissue, and add some carbohydrates to restock your spent energy stores. This starts the process so you can recover quickly for your next workout. Some good options include yogurt smoothies or hummus and veggies. Just as you did when eating before your run, you should match the amount of food to the amount of work you did. Don’t go crazy and eat a giant 1,000-calorie smoothie after a three-miler!

Try out a couple of different foods before, during and after your runs. You’ll find the right meals and combos to make it work for you!

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