It pretty much goes without saying that we are best off eating an overall healthy diet rich in fruits and veggies to build a strong, healthy body that will perform well for us. But if you really want to dial in, you might consider implementing solid nutrition routines before, during and after your run that will help to give you the cutting edge in energy, performance and faster recovery.
I’ll cover each aspect of nutrition timing in a separate post (for part 2, during, click here) – today I’ll focus on what to eat BEFORE you run.
Should you eat before you run?
You probably answered yes to this question, right?!! But the answer is actually, it depends.
Normally yes, you need to eat before a workout. However, there could be times where you will only be doing an easy run of less than 75-90 minutes first thing in the morning – and you might wish to run it carb-depleted (fasted). This trains your body to burn more fatty acids for fuel and can be a useful strategy to help you prepare for a race that is longer than 90 minutes (such as a half or full marathon, or an ultra). Personally, I typically run carb-depleted 3 to 5 times per week (roll out of bed and go for an easy run). I would never expect to be terribly fast or even feel that energized, but it does the trick in helping my body adapt. And you’d be surprised, the longer you do carb-depleted runs, the better you feel and are able to perform despite lack of fuel.
That said, more often than not though, the answer is yes you should eat before a run and you will fare much better if you do – particularly if it’s a faster paced run, a longer run or a tempo or intervals workout you’ve got on the schedule. Eating before you head out ensure you fill or top up glycogen stores that your body will pull from for energy. Skipping a meal or snack before a tough or long run will likely result in a lack of energy, the run will feel harder and your performance might suffer for lack of fuel.
Particularly if it’s a race (or any run where performance matters) that you’re headed out the door for – in that case you should ALWAYS eat beforehand. In fact, when it comes to race day, it’s a really good idea to calculate exactly how much and dial in on exactly when you should be eating to give yourself every advantage of performing well in your race. Practice your race day routine until you know it works perfectly – and then you have it to utilize for every single future race forever more, perfecting it slightly along the way.
What should you eat?
Typically, in the hours and minutes before you head out to run, you want to reach for carbohydrate rich foods. Being that carbs are by far the primary fuel burned during physical activity and our carb stores are limited (whereas our fat stores are virtually unlimited), you are best off to eat food that is rich in carbs and moderate to low in protein and fat.
Carbs also happen to be the easiest food for the body to break down quickly. With too much fat, protein and fibre comes a danger of digestive distress. Foods that are harder for our bodies to break down include leafy greens, veggies, beans, lentils and 100% whole grains (fibre-rich foods), meats (protein dense foods), and cream sauces, oils and nuts (fatty foods). This isn’t to say you shouldn’t eat these foods – just don’t overdo them in the hours and especially mere minutes pre-run. Focus more on carb-rich foods such as fruits (bananas, dates, berries), smoothies, yams or potatoes, and simple grains such as rice, sourdough or spelt bread (ensure no added sugars or binders/starches), oatmeal (or these delicious Banana Oat Pancakes!), homemade granola, or oat-based muffins or cookies (my favourite pre-run snack is a Power Cookie or two). Juices (such as tart cherry or a beet mix) also are a good source for boosting carb count without adding too much bulk.
An interesting side note – I’ve found a number of clients able to only fully digest instant oatmeal in the hours before a run or especially before a race, whereas steel cut or old-fashioned cause either digestive distress or feeling of lethargy… Good to note particularly if you have a sensitive digestive system. Personally I use only instant oats on race morning (creamy coconut Qi’a instant oats to be exact, with extra hemp hearts, maple syrup and a sliced banana).
I should point out here that when you consume enough carbs immediately before, during and after your runs, you should not feel ravenous for carbs the entire rest of the day. One of the biggest causes of inflammation and unwanted weight gain is usually from eating all the (processed and/or sugary) carbs all the time (all day, every day). So while carbs are very important in fueling your run, it is certainly possible to overdo them on a day to day basis!
When should you eat?
Here’s where it gets a little more technical. If you’re preparing for a race, you’ll want to fuel up 3 to 4 hours in advance. If it’s for a workout, anywhere between 30 minutes to 3 hours prior will work – although, more time prior is always better because you’ll be able to eat more (read: more fuel for more energy) and will have adequate time for it to digest. In an ideal world where you eat by the textbook, you’d eat 2 to 4 hours pre-run.
When I’m eating on race morning it is always 3 hours beforehand (with the exception of my 100-miler last week – I ate 2.5 hours before as I decided the extra half hour sleep would benefit me more since I’d be awake running for the next 24+ hours!!). Every single BQ marathon I’ve ever run, I’ve always eaten exactly 3 hours pre-race. Some people might need to eat up to 4 hours pre-race, if their digestive systems are more sensitive and need more time to digest.
It’s important to eat enough in the morning (before a morning race or run) as our liver is about 50% depleted of glycogen (and even up to 80% depleted) simply from our overnight fast. We pull from our liver and muscle glycogen stores for energy while running – and it’s the liver that solely fuels the brain. So while eating a snack before bed is great (and better than nothing if eating enough 3 hours in advance just isn’t possible), nothing can take the place of proper pre-run fueling immediately before your morning run. If you’re running in the evening, you have the advantage of drawing on fuel you’ve been eating all day – so if you’ve eaten a carb-rich lunch and afternoon snack (insert Power Cookies here!!), you’ll be well fueled for your evening run.
How much should you eat?
When eating 3 to 4 hours prior, you ideally want to be eating 2 to 2.5 (or more) grams of carb per kg of bodyweight. So yes, here it gets even more technical. Most of my clients are usually shocked to discover how much they actually need to eat for optimal performance and a bit hesitant to eat so much – and then pleasantly surprised to discover it really works!! Amazing what filling up those glycogen stores can do! Again, if for no other run, do this for race day (or hire me to do it for you haha). Calculating these numbers and designing a menu that matches for race day can be extremely beneficial and well worth the time and effort!
When you’re heading out for a (long or hard) early morning training run, you might choose sleep over enough fuel, so in that case aim for 1 to 1.5 grams of carb per kg of bodyweight, anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours prior. If you’re headed out for a long run and only get a chance to fuel in this timeframe, chances are you’ll need to rely more on gels or chews to ensure you have enough energy for a strong run the entire way.
Nailing pre-run nutrition can really make all the difference in the world when it comes to feeling good for your entire run (or race!). If you’re looking for that cutting edge and haven’t dialled in on your pre-run nutrition yet, I do encourage you to give it a try. There’s nothing like feeling strong and passing everyone else at the end of a run, and especially a race!!
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,
Sarah J Cuff, RHN