Fueling before a run is just as important as making sure you lace up in the right running shoes. Like running shoes, what you eat before a run can drastically impact how you feel during and even after your run. While every experienced runner agrees that fueling appropriately before a run is important, we’re always on the hunt for the best snack or recipe. But in reality, the best option is whatever works well for you and that may take some trial and error.
What are Good Foods to Eat Before A Run
First, let’s dive into some general information about how different foods fuel our bodies. And how those foods are utilized differently depending on the type of run you’re doing.
When we head out for a run, most of our fuel comes from the stored fat and carbohydrate (aka glycogen stores) in our body. Those stores comes from the food that we eat in the days leading up to a run (which is why you need to think about your carb load days before race day). But, what you eat immediately before you run won’t be stored as glycogen. It will be more readily used during the run.
For example, if you eat a meal high in carbs right before you run, then you’ll burn a higher proportion of carbohydrates during the workout. This is particularly useful for speed work.
To fuel longer runs, you’ll want to combine carbohydrates with protein and fat to help keep hunger at bay. A meal complete with macronutrients can help delay the onset of fatigue, improve endurance and performance. (There are different types of carbs to consider as well!)
So, when choosing a pre run meal, you’ll want to think about what type of run you’re doing.
If it’s a long run, make sure you pair your carbohydrates with some protein and fat (e.g. toast with peanut butter or a couple of energy balls). If it’s a more intense workout with intervals or tempo miles, you’ll want a higher ratio of carbs in your pre-run meal (e.g. toast with honey, oatmeal with raisins, etc.). That’s not to say you shouldn’t have any fat or protein in your pre-run meal if you’re doing speedwork. But, you do want more carbs.
What about fasted runs? I’ll run on an empty stomach for a short, easy run (e.g. 30-40 minutes), but I do NOT do fasted runs for long runs or any type of speed workout like intervals or tempo work. CARBS ARE IMPORTANT, especially for runners!!!
Okay, let’s dive into some of my go-to options!
I have a few different energy ball recipes that I love but these oatmeal and honey energy balls are the ones I use most often. (I also love these S’mores energy balls and these Tahini energy balls.) Energy balls are great because you can make a big batch and freeze them and just grab a couple before your run. I typically eat 1-2 before my run, with coffee, about 30 minutes before I head out the door. (I also sip on water with Nuun or Gen Ucan Hydrate before my run.) Energy balls are great for easy run days or for longer runs at an easy pace.
Another pre-run snack I love is peanut butter toast with banana and/or honey. Sometimes I add chia seeds on top too. You can put anything you want on your toast, but I’ve found that peanut butter sits well with my stomach and the extra fat and protein helps keep me full vs. if I just have plain or buttered toast. If I add honey, I get a little extra carb boost as well, which is helpful on long run or hard workout days.
I eat toast before all types of runs – long, short, easy, intense. What varies is what I top the toast with, depending on the type of workout, and how many pieces I eat, depending on how long I’m running.
I typically go for gluten-free toast since whole wheat or whole grain bread tends to have more fiber and I don’t digest it quickly enough before I head out the door. But a gluten-free bread digests quickly. You can experiment and see if something less processed works for you though! I save the more flavorful, more nutritious bread (like my homemade wheat bread or sprouted bread) for my post-run meal!
Generation UCAN Sports Drink or Energy Bar
Generation UCAN makes energy bars that are super easy to digest pre-run. I typically eat half of one for a run that’s under 6 miles. If I’m running longer than an hour, I’ll eat the whole bar. (I love the salted peanut butter flavor.) They also have a pre-run drink powder if you really struggle with solid foods before a run. While I don’t do well with most pre-run sports drinks (they upset my stomach), I tolerate Gen UCAN’s well. Before most runs, I stick to real food options, but if I’m running late or traveling, Gen UCan products work well.
Note: use promo code AFOODIESTAYSFIT for 15% off your entire order. (If you’re placing an order, get their plant based chocolate protein powder. It’s the best!)
Energy Gels or Chews
Energy gels are another option if solid food is tough for you to stomach. I like Honey Stingers best, but there are a lot of brands out there (GU, Skratch, Clif). This is the best option if you only have about 15 minutes before a run and no time to digest, but since there isn’t protein or fat, you’ll likely get hungry mid-run. So use these pre-run in a pinch and only on short runs. (Gels and chews are best used for fueling mid-run!)
Dates stuffed with nut butter
This is one of the quickest pre-run snacks to put together and I also feel like it gives me the quickest burst of energy of all the options. I buy medjool dates (Trader Joe’s has them!), slice them open, remove the pit and stuff it with peanut butter or tahini. (Almond butter works great too). Two or three of these does the trick! I like this option before tempo runs.
Sliced banana with peanut butter + salt
I love bananas to combat muscle cramps, peanut butter for protein (and who doesn’t love pb!), and salt to help balance how much I sweat. This is a bit lighter of a snack, so I use this for shorter runs, e.g. 3-4 miles. Or, if I have tempo work on my training schedule, I’ll do toast topped with peanut butter and bananas to get more carbs!
Bagels are a go-to for many runners! Similar to toast, you can top them with anything. But, unlike toast, bagels are more dense so you may need more time to digest. I find they sit too heavy, but I have a pretty sensitive stomach (which you’ve probably gathered), so give it a go! They’re an affordable, easy option for so many runners!
ONLY if I have more time to digest, do I make oatmeal. I LOVE oatmeal but it can sit a bit heavy for me. (My digestion is SLOW.) But, if you have a bit more time to digest before your run (45-60 minutes or more), oats are a great option. Instant oats will likely be easier to stomach pre-run than their less processed version, old fashioned oats. And I would avoid steel cut oatmeal pre-run! (But bruleed banana steel cut oats are one of my favorite post run foods!!)
Sweet potatoes are a GREAT addition to a runner’s diet and they serve as a base for great toppings, similar to toast and oatmeal. I find them easier to digest than a bagel or oats, but experiment to see what works best for you. A registered dietitian even suggested a sweet potato for a pre-marathon breakfast since you’ll typically have 90 minutes+ or even hours before running from the time you eat breakfast to when you start the race.
Foods to Avoid Before a Run
I avoid all meats before running because while they are high in protein, they don’t have carbs — unless you pair it with something else. But, regardless, high amounts of protein are hard to digest before a run and glycogen is the easiest source of fuel for your body to use. So, give it glycogen! And glycogen comes from carbs, not meat!
I personally stay away from too much dairy before a run. Dairy products can pack a lot of protein (particularly greek yogurt!) which is not what we’re looking for pre-run. Additionally, dairy is a common culprit for an upset stomach. If you’re topping granola with a little greek yogurt or putting some cream cheese on a bagel, that should be fine. But I’d skip the big bowl of yogurt or a cheesy omelet and save those for your post-run meal.
Beans & Legumes
These are nutritional powerhouses, but they are packed with fiber. And that can lead to serious gut upset, bloating and cramping since they are hard to digest. While peanut butter is a legume, the amount you’ll eat pre-run on top of something else isn’t enough to wreck your gut.
High Fiber Vegetables
Similar to beans and legumes, you want to avoid veggies that won’t digest quickly. Things like broccoli and cauliflower are a recipe for a disaster pre-run.
High Fiber Fruits
While fruit can be a GREAT pre-run choice since it’s loaded with carbs and natural sugar, stick to ones that are easier to digest (like bananas). High fiber fruit like pears and apples may give you a quick trip to the toilet mid-run rather than a quick burst of energy.
Spicy food can cause acid reflux and heartburn when working. Hard pass.
Aside from having more protein than carbs (which we talked about avoiding!), many protein bars are loaded with sugar and/or chemicals. You’re better off sticking to real food!
Coffee isn’t a food, but I wanted to call it out since I get asked about drinking coffee before a run a LOT. For most people, drinking coffee isn’t a great option since it can cause acid reflux, or worse, a serious need for a toilet mid-run. But for others (myself included), one cup of coffee is helpful pre run to help get things moving in the restroom (ahem) and it provides a little burst of energy. However, if you always drink coffee before, you won’t get that burst of energy since your body is used to it. (I used to have a serious coffee addiction!) So you may want to save coffee for big workout days. But again, coffee is something you should experiment with in training and see how you tolerate it since most people don’t do well with it before a workout!
Remember that the BEST food before a run is the one that works best for you! Be sure to experiment with a few different options so when you are lacing up the morning of a big race, you know your fuel is one thing you don’t need to worry about!
But don’t try all the options on one day. 😉 This does look like a lovely runner’s charcuterie board though, doesn’t it?
And if you just can’t seem to find anything that works without wrecking your gut, seek out medical advice. It’s possible you have a food allergy or sensitivity or other digestive issues that need to be addressed.