What foods you do and don’t eat before a run can make a big difference to your running performance and energy levels during and after your run or race.
In this Trail & Kale guide, we cover what to eat before running, every distance from a 5k through to your ‘A’ marathon race, and what you need to know to ensure your pre-run meal appropriately fuels your body.
We also explain what not to eat before a run, so you can avoid those food types the night before, and morning of, your run or race.
Should I eat before running?
In the running world there is a term used to describe a run you do on an empty stomach, which is ‘fasted running’ or ‘fasted cardio’. To be in that ‘fasted’ state, where you haven’t eaten anything for at least 10 hours, for most people that means doing your morning run before eating or drinking anything.
Research has suggested that fasted running encourages your body to burn stored fat because you don’t have the easier-access glycogen stores that come from eating carbs before a run, so it can help burn fat and could be helpful if you are trying to lose weight.
However, fasted running isn’t for everyone – especially if your focus is not weight loss and you are more concerned with having an effective fueling strategy for your long runs or upcoming race.
So unless you’re intentionally planning on doing some fasted cardio, then most runners are going to want to eat before a run to build up your carb stores to provide enough energy for your body to use to fuel your training effort or race.
So now we’ve determined that yes – most runners should eat before running, let’s go over what to eat before a run, and, importantly, when to eat.
What to Eat Before Running in the Morning?
An appropriate morning pre-run snack or small meal before you run will help get your glycogen stores up without gi distress.
As a general rule, what you choose to eat before morning training runs should:
- Provide slow-release energy (no huge sugar-driven energy spikes and lulls)
- Not be too heavy on the digestive system
- Be simple (and fairly bland)
- Be low in fat.
The following foods are some of our favorites that have been tried and tested on everything from easy morning 5k runs and runs lasting less than an hour through to getting you off to a good start for two to three hours (or more) of running, from half marathons through to marathons and even trail ultra marathon races.
Whole grain oats are a good source of complex carbs, that provide excellent slow-release energy for your run, as opposed to more sugary foods that provide quicker-release, simple carbs that don’t last as long.
If you want, you can also throw in some fruit, like banana slices and/or dried apricots to your bowl of oatmeal, which will provide an added nutritional boost.
Whole grain toast or a bagel and nut butter
Nut butters, including peanut and almond butters, are especially great fuel for long, slow runs, as they have higher protein and fats than other sources that are more carb-heavy.
When you run slowly, for long periods of time (say, two hours or more), your body should start to tap into using fat as a source of fuel. This is one of the reasons many ultramarathon runners and long-distance trail runners swear by nut butters.
Like oatmeal, bagels are a carbohydrate-dense food that should provide enough fuel for your run.
A banana is one of the best foods to eat before a run. They’re rich in potassium, full easily digestible carbs, without being heavy on the stomach.
Banana on a bagel is one of my go-to, feel-good pre-run meals – made even better by the addition of honey – a great natural source of sugar (quick-release carbs!).
Should you drink coffee before running?
Some people find that drinking coffee before a run is a bad idea. That is, if you’re sensitive to coffee, you may find that it causes gi distress such as stomach cramps or diarrhea.
I normally have a couple of small coffees (Flat Whites, Gibraltars or Cortados) on most mornings, whether I am running or not.
I stick to that routine and have at least one coffee before my morning run. I find that having a coffee means I’ll go to the toilet before my run and won’t have my morning run interrupted by the urge to use the bathroom, which is what can happen without the assistance a cup of coffee provides earlier in the day.
But… each to their own on this one. You do you!
Boiled potatoes with salt
Another favorite of ultrarunners, potatoes are a classic source of complex carb and can be more palatable than sweeter foods that may not appeal to you.
With the addition of some salt, or perhaps dipped in your favorite nut butter, boiled potatoes can make for a great pre-run meal, as well as a fairly portable mid-run snack you can take with you on long runs.
How long before running should you eat?
So now we’ve covered WHAT to eat before a run, let’s talk about HOW LONG BEFORE running you should be eating your pre-run snack or meal.
If you’re going on a long run or going to be racing for two to three hours or more, then I suggest eating a full meal around two hours before you plan to start your run (or your race starts).
Yes, for those early morning races, that means you need to wake up early enough to have breakfast before your run, and allow your body time to digest the food.
For a training run you can probably have your pre-run meal closer to the time you plan to run, especially if it’s in the morning as I wouldn’t suggest anyone wakes up that early unless you have other things you can get done before heading out for a run.
My tried-and-tested race-day strategy is then, in addition to the full meal, to have either a half or full banana as a light snack 30 minutes before the race starts.
The banana provides a great top-up of energy for my body without causing discomfort or bloating even though I eat it close to the race start time.
What to Eat Before A Marathon or Half Marathon Race
What you consume before a race, whether that’s a half marathon, marathon or another distance such as a 50k or an even longer longer ultramarathon, can really affect your performance and also your mindset during the race.
Your pre-race meal can help fuel some great running, or it can be at the other end of the spectrum and cause stomach cramps or discomfort and issues that could result in a slow time or even not making it to the finish line.
So, needless to say, it’s important to know what to eat before a run and be familiar with eating those foods on your training runs, so you can be confident that they shouldn’t result in gi distress during your race.
This means you should stick to the running food you’ve tried and tested in your training – similar to your choice of running shoes – the best running shoes for your race are a pair you wore to train in, not new shoes!
BUT, it’s also super important to know what to eat during your race. This is because once you’ve been running for an hour or more, your body will have most likely burned through the carbs you consumed earlier, and need more calories.
This means, for any runner, from new to experienced athletes, you are going to want to eat during your half marathon, marathon and definitely during an ultra marathon. This is just as important as what you eat before you go on a run.
What to eat during a run
If you’re going to run for less than 90 minutes, and certainly less than an hour, then you shouldn’t need to eat anything during that time.
If your run will last a lot longer than an hour – say, 90 minutes or more – then you’ll also want to consider what easily digestible extra fuel to eat during a run, such as working out the best energy gels and chews that you enjoy.
Energy gels can provide that boost in an easy-to-eat format which is designed to be easy to digest while you run.
You could also consider taking a sports drink designed for runners and other endurance athletes that provide a sports nutrition-backed blend of carbs and salts to help fuel you on training runs as well as race day. Examples of brands with great sports drink mixes for runners include Tailwind Nutrition and Skratch Labs.
For a real-food, high carb snack, bananas are also great foods to eat during a run to provide a steady boost to your blood sugar, although they can be tricky to carry without squashing them – even if you’re wearing a running hydration pack with plenty of pockets!
For this reason, dried, pressed banana snacks like these Solely bars are a much more convenient way to eat bananas on a run.
What to Eat the Night Before a Long Run?
You’ve probably heard of other runners carb loading before a race. But should you do it?
There are conflicting opinions on this subject, among runners, coaches and sports nutritionists.
Carb loading is basically the practice of eating a diet more carb-heavy in the days leading up to a race (or other event). The reason people do it is because as a result of doing so, your muscles may be able to store more glycogen (fuel) that can then be beneficial to you on race day.
This may not be for everyone, as the shift in mix of what you put in your body during those days can cause issues such making you feel bloated, and elevated blood sugar that may not be good for you.
It’s also worth noting that this practice is probably best done over a series of days, in a thoughtful manner. So, consuming a load of pasta, potatoes or rice (more than you normally would for an evening meal) the night before your race may cause your body to feel unnecessarily heavy or bloated as your body works to digest it overnight. If this is what you thought carb loading was, then know there’s better ways to approach it!
Personally, I simply ensure that I’m eating particularly well in the days leading up to a race. This also means that I certainly don’t cut back on my carb intake during that time.
So, the night before a long run, I would normally eat a balanced meal that’s heavy in whole foods, including either potatoes or rice, a mixture of whole foods including natural sources of fiber, fats and protein.
What not to eat before running
Our bodies all react differently to different types of foods and any intolerance can be exacerbated while running.
For example, I have taken food intolerance tests such as Check My Body Health which informed me of loads of potential and surprising intolerances I have to certain foods that I wasn’t aware of previously, so I’m mindful of this when planning pre-run snacks and meals.
Generally, it’s best to avoid eating foods that are harder to digest or could irritate your stomach. That includes:
High fiber foods
This includes vegetables such as legumes, broccoli and sprouts, as well as fruits like apples and pears.
Meat and certain dairy products such as cheese
These are high fat foods that can take longer to digest and are best avoided. Definitely steer clear of them if they’re fried. In fact, it’s best not to eat fried foods altogether.
Spicy food can be fine to have normally, but if you consume a spicy meal before your run then your body may not thank you during or afterwards. You’ve been warned 😉
I hope that you’ve found the advice in this running food guide helpful, and you now have a good idea of what to eat before a run, and when is best txo eat it.
It absolutely pays to listen to your body and practice dialing in your pre run meals until you find the combination of foods that works best for you.
If you regularly consume a particular pre-run meal or snack that you’d like to share, let us know in the comments below!
Heeey Helen. Agree on almost everything except one thing. If you’re away from home and don’t have access to any breakfast/you don’t like the breakfast provided by the night-place, I would highly suggest you make a peanut butter whole sandwich at home. I assure you, it keeps its freshness even after the whole night. 🙂
Hi Chiara, thanks for sharing, that’s a great point! If you can get the sandwiches prepared before leaving home or work, it’s great to hear they don’t taste bad when eaten the next morning 🙂
I go with half banana and small boiled potatoe, and a kid size fruit jam pouch. I use the same during the trail run every hour or so.