Wondering what to eat before running? This form of exercise requires a lot of energy and can be taxing on your body. Properly fueling your run can boost your performance, delay fatigue and reduce soreness. A balanced pre-run meal should be rich in protein and fast-digesting carbs for increased energy.
Read more: 17 Reasons to Start Running
Fill up on protein and fast-digesting carbs before a run. Bananas, protein bars, smoothies, Greek yogurt with strawberries and pita bread with hummus are all an excellent choice.
Avoid high-fiber and high-fat foods before hitting the pavement. These may cause digestive distress and affect your training routine. If you're short on time or not feeling hungry, drink a protein shake with raw honey.
What to Eat Before Running
From high-protein pancakes and oatmeal to eggs, there are plenty of options for a healthy breakfast. However, just because something is "healthy" doesn't mean it's suitable for runners.
The same goes for high-fat foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, it's best to avoid fatty foods and caffeine for three to six hours before a run to prevent diarrhea. If you have a sensitive stomach, steer clear of high-fiber, high-fat and gas-producing foods as they may cause bloating, cramping and digestive distress.
Consider your goals too. Marathon training, for instance, requires a different nutritional approach than running for weight loss. In general, a pre-run meal or snack should be moderate in protein and rich in carbs.
Carbohydrates are the body's main source of fuel. According to a May 2014 review published in Sports Medicine, ingesting small amounts of carbs during exercise lasting about one hour in duration may improve physical performance.
Researchers recommend the consumption of approximately 60 grams of carbs per hour for exercise lasting anywhere between two and three hours. Ultra-marathon runners, on the other hand, need about 90 grams of carbs per hour during training.
If you don't feel comfortable eating during a run, fill up on carbs before hitting the pavement. A research paper published in the journal Sports Medicine in November 2015 points out that high-glycemic index carbs, which are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, are more effective at increasing muscle glycogen levels than complex carbs, such as those in brown rice or whole bread.
The latter are typically higher in fiber and have a lower glycemic index, so they take longer to digest. Ingesting 2.5 grams of simple carbs per kilogram of body weight about three hours before exercise can boost muscle glycogen stores by up to 15 percent.
The glycemic index (GI) measures the impact of carbohydrate-containing foods on blood sugar levels. Carb-rich foods, such as white bread, white rice, cookies, grains and potatoes, have a higher glycemic index than cashews, beans, hummus and other foods with a lower carb content. Soybeans, for example, have a GI of 16. The GI of white bread, by contrast, is around 75.
Sure, this doesn't mean that you should binge on cookies and pretzels before a run. Choose whole and minimally processed foods, such as a handful of nuts, Greek yogurt with berries, oatmeal or a vegetable frittata. Remember to watch your fiber intake.
Fill Up on Protein
Knowing what to eat before running can be tricky. In addition to carbs, your pre-run meal should contain moderate amounts of lean protein. According to a review published in the journal Nutrients in April 2014, eating a high-protein meal before exercise may increase glycogen synthesis and support metabolic health. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings.
A research paper published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in March 2016 suggests that athletes should aim for 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day — and even higher amounts during periods of intense training or dieting. Ingesting about 3 grams of protein per body weight per day every three to five hours helps maximize muscle adaptation.
Read more: How to Calculate Protein RDA
Furthermore, this nutrient promotes muscle growth and repair while increasing fat burning due to its thermic effect. Compared to dietary fat and carbs, protein requires more energy to digest. In other words, you'll burn more calories to digest poultry, lean beef or eggs than potatoes or rice. Protein may also suppress appetite and increase satiety, as reported by a review published in the British Journal of Nutrition in August 2012.
If you want to lose weight by running, fill up on protein before exercise. Eat small amounts of carbs to get the energy needed for a challenging workout. In case you're wondering "Should I run on an empty stomach?" forget about it. Contrary to popular belief, training in a fasted state has a negligible impact on body weight and metabolism.
A review published in the Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology in November 2017 shows that overnight fasted exercise is unlikely to cause significant weight loss. After assessing five different studies, researchers concluded that training in a fasted state doesn't cause changes in lean and fat mass. On the contrary, eating before exercise may increase energy expenditure due to the thermic effect of food.
Pre-Run Breakfast Ideas
By now, you should have a better understanding of what to eat before running. Protein and carbs should come first on your list. However, your food choices will largely depend on your goals, preferences, workout duration, intensity and daily caloric needs. Use these pre-run breakfast ideas for inspiration:
- Whole grains in moderation
- Scrambled egg whites with cottage cheese
- Energy bars
- Protein bars
- Greek yogurt with berries or sliced bananas
- Steamed potatoes with cottage cheese
- Homemade high-protein muffins, waffles or pancakes
- Pita bread with hummus
- Vegetable frittata
- Chicken on a whole-grain wrap
Smoothies and protein shakes are ideal on those days when you're not feeling hungry. Add a tablespoon of honey or dextrose to whey protein to increase your carb intake.
Protein bars are a good choice too — just make sure you check the label. If the ingredient list starts with sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils, choose something else. A quality protein bar will have whey, soy, pea or hemp protein listed first on the label.
For faster recovery, sip on protein shakes after a run. This can help reduce muscle soreness and speed up muscle repair. Plus, protein keeps you fuller longer, which may help reduce your food intake throughout the day.
Whole grains, such as oats, make a healthy choice for breakfast too. Don't go overboard, though. Most grains are rich in fiber and may cause digestive distress before exercise.
Remember to drink plenty of water before, during and after running. When you exercise, you lose water through sweating. Even a 2 percent drop in hydration levels can affect cognitive and physical performance. Fatigue, poor mental focus, reduced alertness, dizziness and headaches are all common side effects of dehydration.
Protein shakes and smoothies are perfect before a morning run because they're easy to digest and keep you hydrated. Store-bought smoothies, though, are often high in sugar and may cause insulin spikes. Prepare them at home and enjoy them fresh to reap the benefits.
- Penn Medicine: "Pre-Race Day Tips: Preparing for a Half Marathon"
- Mayo Clinic: "Runner's Diarrhea: How Can I Prevent It?"
- Health.gov: "What to Eat Before You Go to the Gym"
- Springer Link - Sports Medicine: "A Step Towards Personalized Sports Nutrition: Carbohydrate Intake During Exercise"
- NCBI: "Carbohydrate Nutrition and Team Sport Performance"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Glycemic Index for 60+ Foods"
- MDPI: "Pre-Exercise Nutrition: The Role of Macronutrients, Modified Starches and Supplements on Metabolism and Endurance Performance"
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance"
- Nature.com: "The Role of Higher Protein Diets in Weight Control and Obesity-Related Comorbidities"
- NCBI: "A High-Protein Diet for Reducing Body Fat: Mechanisms and Possible Caveats"
- British Journal of Nutrition: "Dietary Protein – Its Role in Satiety, Energetics, Weight Loss and Health"
- MDPI: "Effect of Overnight Fasted Exercise on Weight Loss and Body Composition: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- NCBI: "The Hydration Equation: Update on Water Balance and Cognitive Performance"