Will carbs improve performance? Will not eating improve fat loss? Should you eat before a run?
The pre workout snack or pre workout meal has become a source of confusion for many runners, so today we’re going to clear things up and give you some ideas for what to eat and when!
Let’s start with the reported reasons not to eat within 2 hours of exercise:
- Blood is diverted from digestion to the legs, a full stomach can lead to cramps
- Eating the wrong foods can lead to runner’s trots as the stomach is shaken with each footfall
- Simple sugars can spike blood sugar leading to a crash mid-workout
- Allowing the body to use stored fat and carbohydrates for fuel
Rebutted with the BETTER reasons to eat before a run:
- Sustained energy for a better workout
- Enhanced workout recovery
- Increased performance
- It’s been many hours since your last meal and you’re hungry
- Increases food calories burned so less are stored as fat
Both seem to make great points, so what should you do?
After a lot of research, I came to two conclusions which seem to mimic what I say to nearly every runner on most topics:
A. You have to experiment to find out what works for you
B. Look at the quality and timing of your food alongside the goal of the run
In other words, there is no perfect answer.
But if you’ve been heading out for runs on an empty stomach to lose body fat, not seeing results and not seeing progress then it’s time to realize that method isn’t working!
What to Eat Before a Run
When it comes to a pre-workout snack, there are basically 3 nutrients we talk about over and over because they are the easiest to grasp and generally easiest to control for the effects we want: carbs, fats and proteins.
A good pre-workout meal or snack needs to cover all your bases, don’t think you just need a high carb snack ( I mean I love a cookie, but it’s not really what’s going to help you cover 10 miles).
Because you many not love my specific suggestions, let’s go through what you need to know to build your own idea meal before a run.
A key nutrient for runners is the beloved carb! While our daily diet should include largely complex carbs in the form of fruits, vegetables and whole grains (if they work for you) those aren’t always the best choice prior to a workout due to the high fiber content.
This doesn’t mean you can hop on the junk food wagon because that will lead to inflammation.
“What complex carbohydrates make up for in sustained energy release, they lose in digestibility and efficient transfer from food to energy. I suggest consuming an easily digestible form of carbohydrate before each workout as a means of raising blood sugar.” Thrive Fitness by Brendan Brazier
Below you’ll find examples of pre-workout snacks and meals, which will help to provide ideas on when to stick with simple carbs or go for complex.
Protein can help to slow the rate at which carbohydrates are released in to the blood stream, providing a long term source of energy. This sustained energy source means that less fueling will be required during the run.
Many runners can go up to 2 hours without additional fuel during low intensity (long slow runs) because the body is focused on utilizing fat rather than carbohydrates for fuel.
Additionally there is some research showing that the pre-workout protein intake could reduce muscle soreness later by providing immediate access to protein for recovery.
3. Healthy Fats
During low to medium-intensity exercise – hello distance running – the body will first generate energy from available fat sources. Including more quality fat in the diet is a key component of the primal diet and vegan diet. Both show that with fat as fuel, runners tend to crave less junk and can go for hours without needing to refuel.
Small Pre-Workout Snacks
Early morning or late afternoon where you aren’t in need of pre-workout meals, but feel a little bit hungry it’s important to grab some fuel so that you don’t find yourself mid-way through the run starving and thus ready to quit.
It can also help to stabilize blood sugar if it’s been a long time since your last meal (i.e. overnight) and give you that boost of energy that is needed.
Timing is important!
How long to wait after eating to run?
You want to provide enough time for any major digestion and the energy to be absorbed by the body:
- 30 minutes for small snacks
- 3 hours for small meals
- 4 hours+ for larger meals
Small Pre Workout Snack Ideas
- A couple of dates with 1 tbsp coconut oil (see below)
- ½ a banana with 1 tsbp almond butter
- 1 small container of yogurt (limited sugar)
- Handful of trail mix (nuts, raisins, pretzels – not chocolate)
- Avocado on toast
- Kind bar (good low sugar bar option)
- Rice cake with nut butter
- Mixed fruit with a few nuts
- Low fiber cereal (hence my cheerios)
- Protein pancakes
Pre Workout Meal Ideas for Longer Runs – Over 90 Minutes
All of the above foods are still great options, but you may want a little more fuel to keep you going on runs over 13+ miles or 2 hours.
- Bowl of oatmeal with 1 tsp nut butter, fruit
- 2 slices of bread (sourdough is great for those with stomach issues), 2 tbsp nut butter, 1 tbsp honey
- Bowl of brown rice with some eggs
- Boiled potatoes with eggs
- Greek yogurt with maple syrup and granola
- Half a turkey sandwich with avocado
What to Eat Before a Run in the Morning?
The most common runner breakfast you will find is a slice of bread with nut butter and sliced banana.
Whether we stumbled upon it by pure chance or through science, the fact is that it works.
- Filled with potassium, manganese and carbohydrates the banana is great for energy and warding off muscle cramps.
- Additionally banana has been shown to help settle an upset stomach!
- Combining it with peanut butter slows the carbohydrate absorption and creates a steady blood sugar flow for longer energy.
- The bread isn’t really necessary before runs under 90 minutes, but it’s tasty and easier to eat.
You might have noticed a few foods on repeat above and there’s a reason! Let’s talk about some of these common food ideas.
Dates Before a Workout
Dates have what is often considered an ideal ratio of carbohydrate to protein of 3:1 which will provide sustained energy.
Many runners like to slice open a date and put in a little nut butter before longer runs. This is a great option for runners avoiding grains and for those who bring whole foods along for fuel during the run.
Dates are actually a top export of Israel, so I had some of the largest one’s I’ve ever seen as my snack prior to the Jerusalem Half marathon!
Nuts Before a Run
A perfect blend of carbs, protein and fat nuts can provide sustained energy for longer workouts.
A common complaint among distance runners is feeling hungry after a few hours of training and nuts are a great option pre and during the run to provide a little satiating fat and fuel without needing to eat a lot.
Here are some great ideas that incorporate both dates and nuts >> 21 Energy Ball Recipes
- Personally, it’s not unusual for me to have some Cheerios and a spoonful of sunflower butter before any run over45 minutes.
- Slather it on toast
- Enjoy a Perfect Bar or homemade energy bar
- Enjoy a handful of trail mix (just watch your sugars so you don’t have a big crash)
Using a Drink as a Pre Workout Snack
One of the reason I do this drink is to intentionally HYDRATE!
I know that after sleeping I’m dehydrated and I’m about to sweat buckets, so this helps me load up and then I’m less worried about how much I drink on the run…so I don’t have that sloshy stomach feeling.
Since no matter how much info I provide you ultimately always ask “but what do you eat?!”
On occasion, I will use a little bit of a pre-workout energy drink in this mix as well.
I try not to use a lot of stimulants in training because I want to be aware of how hard I’m pushing and not go too hard all the time, thus creating injuries or overtraining.
As my long runs increase to 13+ miles I will also have a little nut butter and part of a banana pre-run.
If you’re someone who would rather have a shake or smoothie than a meal, here’s another tasty idea.
Create your own with an energizing powder, protein, and healthy fats.
Here is a chocolate smoothie specifically recommended in Thrive Fitness from the founder of Vega for before long runs or races:
- 1 cup yerba mate tea (brew night before)
- 1 cup green tea (brew night before)
- 3 large Medjool dates
- 1 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 tbsp hemp protein
- 1 tbsp ground chia
- 1 tbsp spouted buckwheat grouts
- 1/2 lemon
- 1 tbsp raw carob
What not to eat before a run?
Since I’m convincing you how important it is to eat, let’s talk about few foods you want to shy away from pre-run.
- Dairy – often causes stomach issues
- Fried foods – can simply make you feel sluggish as you try to digest
- Large, heavy meals – again the body needs blood to digest and now it’s being diverted to the legs
- Sugary cereals – you’ll get that blood sugar drop and it feels like a bonk
Remember that your stomach is also a muscle, so you need to train it just like you do your legs. Start by eating small amounts of easy to digest foods prior to your runs and slowly increase what you can take in to help really fuel those long runs.
Looking for more Sports Nutrition tips:
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