Detroit Free Press/Chemical Bank Marathon, Goals for 2021, marathon training, sports nutrition

“What Do I Eat Before and After Running?”

I sat down to eat my pre-long run breakfast this morning and was inspired to write about this topic: “What do I eat before running?” After my run as I prepared my post-run nutrition, I thought, “I should write about what to eat after a run, too.”

As a dietitian who runs, I get asked this question a lot. Both people I know as runners and as dietitians who run will ask my opinion on the best pre-run or pre-race meal. I am not a sports nutrition expert by any means, so I consult those who are experts in this area when I address this question. I have multiple books about endurance training and sports nutrition, so I decided I would flip to their pre- and post-race fueling sections to see what they said and also share my own personal preferences for what to eat and drink before and after running. The books I consulted for this blog were The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition by Matt Fitzgerald, Nancy Clark’s Food Guide for Marathoners and Vegetarian Sports Nutrition by D. Enette Larson-Meyer, PhD, RD. (Links to these books are provided at the end of this blog!)

What Should I Eat Before a Run??

There seemed to be more differing information about what to eat BEFORE running than what to eat after, which makes sense. Everyone has different food preferences and everyone’s digestive system reacts differently to foods before exercise. All of the books that I consulted emphasized that training your gut (aka trying different pre-run foods, drinks, and timing of them) is just as important as training the rest of your body.

Nancy Clark mentioned that what and when you eat will vary based on the intensity and duration of your workout and the timing of your workout. For example, if you are doing a shorter, easy run first thing in the morning, and you ate adequately the day before, you may feel just fine not eating anything before the run. If you’re getting ready to run a race such as a marathon, however, you’ll need to not only prepare by eating something the morning of the race but also plan out how you’re eating the day before, especially if it is an early morning race.

Her general rule of thumb for timing of pre-run eating was this:

  • For a larger meal, allow 3-4 hours for digestion
  • For a smaller meal, give yourself 2-3 hours
  • Liquid or blended meals may only need 1-2 hours for digestion
  • And a small snack can be eaten less than an hour before running

All three books recommended carbohydrate rich foods before runs. The exact amount and timing of carbohydrates recommended varied. Matt Fitzgerald’s book suggested 1-4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight 2-3 hours before a run. The Vegetarian Sports Nutrition book stated either 1-2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight if eaten 1-2 hours before, and 3-4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight if eaten 3-4 hours before. Both books suggested a small amount of sports drink or an energy gel just before the workout, but timing of this was different – one suggested 1-2 minutes before and the other 5-10 minutes before.

Are you confused yet? Overwhelmed? I am with you!

The books offered some practical advice as far as what foods to try before runs, but again, practice this as much as you can throughout your training to figure out what works the best for you! Some food suggestions:

  • Bagel or toast with a small amount of cream cheese or peanut butter
  • Fruit
  • Oatmeal
  • Energy bar
  • Meal replacement shake

As for me, my go-to pre-run foods are the following:

  • Frosted Flakes with milk for an easy run or shorter long run, usually about 1-1.5 hours before. I’ll add a hard boiled egg or two if it is a longer run or race day and I will eat it earlier, more like 2-3 hours before.
  • Bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter for longer runs or races about 2 hours before. Sometimes I’ll add a hard boiled egg, too, if I am able to eat early enough.
  • Before the 2019 Detroit International Half Marathon (I actually ran some miles before the race to get in 20 total miles for marathon training) I had a Clif Bar, some bacon jerky and a pouch of pureed fruit.
  • I have learned to bring extra energy gels to races with me just in case there is some sort of a delay. One year, the Crim was delayed by a couple of hours due to storms, so my breakfast was well digested and I was hungry when the race finally started!

What Should I Eat After a Run?

Matt Fitzgerald really emphasized the importance of post-run nutrition by saying that your run is not considered complete until you have had your nutrition! All of the books recommended a post-run snack consisting of both protein and carbohydrates, and they all mentioned a ratio of 3-4 grams of carbohydrates for every 1 gram of protein. All three books mentioned chocolate milk as a great recovery drink because of its carbohydrate to protein ratio.

Some other suggestions for post-run snacks:

  • Yogurt
  • Trail mix
  • Granola bar
  • Cereal with milk
  • Pasta with meat sauce
  • Fruit with peanut butter
  • Fruit with a cup of milk or soymilk
  • 6 inch tortilla with 1/2 cup refried beans

My personal favorite post-run or race nutrition is some nice, cold chocolate milk! Another favorite is the popsicles they pass out after the Crim. Sometimes I get lots of protein when I have a protein drink waiting for me after a run, and sometimes I don’t get any like in the case of the post-Crim popsicle.

My best advice is similar to what I read in the books: practice your nutrition during your training and make it just as important as getting in the workouts you need. And don’t try anything new on race day!!

REFERENCES: Nancy Clark’s Food Guide for Marathoners, Vegetarian Sports Nutrition, The New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition

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