Our bodies are complicated machines. Running is a great way to keep yourself fit and healthy, but there’s more to it than just putting your sneakers on. What you eat before, during, and after a run can make a world of difference in your performance and wellbeing.
As a runner, nutrition and hydration are incredibly important. And, that means more than just loading up on carbs because your body also requires protein and fat.
With some advice on which foods to eat and which to avoid, you’ll be ready to fuel your body and improve recovery.
Start: What to Eat Before a Run
You probably heard that carbs are the most important source of fuel for runners. That’s definitely true, but the number of carbs you consume depends on the workout type.
If you’re running for 60 minutes or less, you typically don’t need to load up on carbs before the run. Studies found that during moderate-intensity running lasting up to 90 minutes, no substantial quantities of glycogen are depleted from the working muscles (source).
Your daily carb intake is individual and depends on your body type and activity level, but if you’re running to lose weight, keep in mind that you don’t want to increase carbs just for the sake of believing it will help your run.
Although optimal meal timing is highly individual and still disputed in science circles, researchers generally agree that consuming carbs 2-3 hours prior to running is the most optimal and performance-boosting choice (source).
While your body should be fueled either way (because you won't run out of energy on your shorter runs), it will give a perception of fullness that will mean you won't get hunger pangs before you're ready to call it a day.
Instead of worrying about loading up on carbs, focus on carbs that are easy digesting so they don't sit in your stomach.
Combining blueberries, a banana, and Greek yogurt into a smoothie is a good pre-run meal that provides you enough carbs, protein, and fat while keeping your calorie count low.
Remember, if you’re not running longer than 60 minutes, you will be fine sticking to your daily recommended carb intake.
What to Eat Before a Long Run
Long runs are generally defined as high-intensity workouts lasting 60 minutes or more, and your body will need all the fuel it can get.
For longer runs, it'll be a good idea to bump up the carbs a little bit higher -- or you can focus on fueling during your run (more on that in a moment).
Some good choices for an energizing pre-run meal include fruits, bagels, oatmeal, granola, or even hydration powders.
Carb-rich foods get converted into glycogen which gets stored in your muscles, liver, and bloodstream. When you run, the glycogen stores turn into energy. When it comes to longer intervals of exercise, your main goal is to avoid running out of glycogen.
For moderate to high-intensity exercise (between 1 and 3 hours a day), The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), Dietitians of Canada (DC), and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommend a daily intake of 6-10 grams of carbohydrates per one kg of body weight.
In order to maximize glycogen stores, the International Society of Sports and Nutrition recommends that athletes should maintain a diet of 8-12 grams of carbs per kg a day (source).
What does that mean for your meal before a long run? If you’ve been maintaining the high-carbs diet recommended for athletes, before a run lasting less than 90 minutes, your usual breakfast will probably do the trick and replenish the glycogen stores lost during sleeping.
You should aim to eat 1-4 grams of carbs per kg of body weight to provide sufficient fuel for your body. However, if your run is to last longer than 90 minutes, you could additionally improve your performance by “loading up” on carbs in the 36-48h prior to the run (source).
Depending on your weight, you can calculate the exact amount of carbs you need to include in your meal.
But, in the couple of days before the event, and certainly for the meal before the race, you should include simple carbs that will generate the necessary glycogen top-off. Some healthy sources of simple carbs include fruit juices, white rice or pasta, and honey.
As with any meal, it's a good idea to include at least a small portion of protein -- anywhere from 15-20 grams. This could be a cup of Greek yogurt, some eggs, or a protein shake.
What to Eat the Night Before a Run
If you’ve been following a high-carb diet, you don’t need to change much the night before the big race. A carb-rich meal is always a good idea for runners, but when it comes to the night before, you want to pay attention to your digestion.
The day and night before the run you should choose easily digestible carbs. In this way, you will put less strain on your stomach, and the carbs you consume will turn into energy faster.
So, load up on white pasta, rice, bread, or potatoes, combined with an easily digestible source of protein, such as eggs. Definitely steer clear of fiber or cruciferous veggies like broccoli, kale, and cauliflower.
It’s important that your meal is light on the stomach, as that will further improve your quality of sleep. Also, don’t forget to hydrate!
What to Eat Before a Race
Ideally, you will have already figured out your dietary needs before your race day. Stick with what worked for you during training. The race day is not the time to try new and exciting foods!
As we said before, long, high-intensity runs such as marathons require some carb-loading before the big day. But, with a 5k or 10k runs, stick to your usual routine and don’t stack up too much.
You may end up with calories you don’t really need. For these races, mid-run snacks and refueling are more important than overstuffing yourself prior to the race.
Go Time: What to Eat During a Run
While there are different factors that play a role in causing fatigue, studies show that carbs have the ability to enhance performance and mitigate the effects of energy-loss during long races (source).
So, for sustained high-intensity exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends regular refueling and rehydrating (source).
While you can opt for a quick carbohydrate fix such as an energy bar, banana, or some raisins, many runners choose to combine their carb top-off with hydration products because they are a great source of both simple cards and much-needed electrolytes.
When you run, you lose electrolytes with sweating, and your sodium and potassium storage gets depleted. Sodium maintains fluid balance in your cells, and together with potassium, it helps muscles contract and relax.
When you run out of electrolytes, your muscles will start cramping to let you know it’s time to refuel.
Additionally, carbs and electrolytes work together, with carbs helping the absorption of electrolytes in the body, making sports drinks a staple for long runs and marathons.
Your ideal mid-run drink should contain not only sodium and potassium but also magnesium, calcium, vitamin D, and zinc. That way, your body gets the energy boost it needs to keep going.
Finish: What to Eat After a Run
After a run, it’s important to recover and replenish fluids and glycogen stores. This also a good time to eat protein because it's a key ingredient that will help your legs recover and bounce back faster.
A general recommendation is to eat 2-3 grams of carbs for every gram of protein, but this ratio will depend on your goals. As a baseline, shoot for at least 20 grams of protein and 40 grams of carbohydrates and then adjust as your body needs.
Rather than obsess over this ratio, make sure you eat whole, nutrient-rich foods after your run. Complex carbs mixed with lean protein are a good option. Go for whole-grain bread or pasta, with some salmon or chicken and steamed veggies on the side.
Smoothies can also be a powerful source of nutrients, and you can include avocado, peanut butter, or bananas for an extra energy punch.
On a final note, don’t forget the importance of a good night’s sleep in the optimal recovery process. Your body needs the time to rest and rebuild, and healthy sleep will lead to higher energy levels and better nutrient absorption.