What to Eat Before Running (And What to Avoid)

The food you eat can make a significant difference in how you feel during your run and your overall performance. 

This also applies to the types of food you eat throughout the day and within 60-90 minutes of your run. Research indicates that eating 1 to 4 hours before your run is beneficial but it’s also just as important what you’ve eaten leading up to the run. 

However, there are different types of fueling strategies based on the kind of event you are training for. Whether you're a seasoned runner or just getting started, these tips will help you power through your next run with improved stamina and speed!

Should You Eat Before Running? 

The first thing you should definitely know is that eating before your run is very individualized. 

What this means is that some have to find the “right” kind of fuel ratio mostly to prevent stomach upset. 

Running on an empty stomach can lead to low blood sugar levels, which can cause fatigue, dizziness, or nausea during your run. 

Eating right before can help provide the necessary energy for optimal performance. You don’t want to eat right before because you may get stomach cramps or that side “stitch” feeling.

Therefore, it's important to consider the timing of your meal to avoid discomfort and low energy during your run, also known as “hitting the wall” in performance.  

A general guideline that most runners go by is that you want to consume a light meal or snack containing high carbohydrates and moderate protein about 1-2 hours before your run. 

Another thing you can do is drink a small amount of water to keep you well hydrated for your run. 

If you’re not hydrated it can stress the body out by increasing body temperature, making your heart beat faster, and pulling more stored energy from your muscles to compensate for the stress. 

How Long Before Running Should You Eat?

Finding the right pre-run meal and timing may require some experimenting to determine what works best for your body. 

You’ll often think of protein powders and pre-workout supplements but it also includes what you eat daily that can help with performance. 

However, it is encouraged to eat before you run. This way you have enough fuel to get you through the workout. 

Start off with something really small and easy to digest such as grapes or a bite or two of a ripe banana. Then work your way up to 200-300 calories as tolerated to find your happy medium.

What to Eat Before Running Every Distance

It’s really important to discuss what to include in your training fuel plan and what each macronutrient does specifically to help you perform properly during your training sessions and race. 

The number one fuel for you is carbohydrates. This can include: 

  • Boiled pasta or rice
  • Bread
  • Fruit
  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes 

Long-distance runners typically have a higher need due to the fact they are running for a longer period of time. Your muscles store glucose, a simple form of sugar, into glycogen

That is there just in case you need it but you certainly want to use them as a last resort. 

Protein builds and repairs your muscle and can help speed up muscle recovery. 

The recommendation for the average individual is based on 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.

One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds. However, if you’re a seasoned runner your needs may range from 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram. Some great sources include: 

  • Chicken breast
  • Beans and legumes
  • Tofu
  • Eggs 
  • Low-fat dairy products such as greek yogurt 

Healthy fats should be about 20-35% and can come in the form of olive oil, avocado and nuts. 

During intense periods of exercise your stomach shuts down so that blood can focus where it needs to. This is why aiming for a pre-race meal of 200 to 300 calories that are high in carbohydrates and lower in fiber, fat, and protein can be quite beneficial for any race duration you do. 

When you start entering into runs that are greater than 90 minutes you’re going to want to focus on fueling yourself while you’re running so that you don’t deplete your glycogen stores.

What to Eat Before a 5K Run 

If you have an early morning race the meals you have the night before will help your race day performance and allow you the ability to eat just what you need. A 5K is a bit faster and if you eat too much an hour or two before your race, the food will just be sloshing around in your stomach. 

Some great combinations include carbohydrate-rich foods such as cereal, low-fat granola, no-fat yogurt, fruit, and even juice. 

The goal is to “top off” your muscle stores with energy to get you through the entire event. 

Eating Before a 10K Run 

A 10K has some of the same fueling techniques as the 5K but may warrant a larger snack, in addition to dinner the night before. 

What that could look like is oatmeal and berries, yogurt and banana, or toast with almond butter about 2 to 3 hours before your run. 

What to Eat Before a Half Marathon?

Once you start entering longer distances, it requires planning for the weeks leading up to the run to “load up on carbohydrates” to improve your glycogen stores.

Since the half marathon takes 90 minutes or more to complete, you want to enjoy a snack with a little protein in it to help sustain you during your run. This could be toast and a hard-boiled egg or low-fat yogurt and cereal. 

You want to limit a high-fat meal because it takes much longer to digest leaving your stomach feeling as if it has a rock in it. 

What to Eat Before/During a Marathon 

Carbohydrates before your marathon are absolutely essential. As your miles go up so do your energy needs. 

During exercise, runners should consume 30–60 g of carbohydrates per hour (or 0.7 g/kg of body weight) in order to maintain blood glucose levels. 

This is important when the event lasts more than an hour and it takes place in extreme environmental conditions (cold, heat, or high altitude).

Some individuals carry with them “energy tablets” that come in the form of gummies or gels to pop into their mouth every 30 to 60 minutes. This can also include energy drinks that contain electrolytes to replace sweat loss.

What to Eat Before a Casual Jog?

If you’re looking to take on a lighter day of activity you still want to fuel yourself before the run just to keep your muscle's stores of glucose from being depleted. 

This can look like having a glass of water and a granola bar about an hour before your run.  

What to Eat the Night Before a Long Run?

The best thing to eat the night before is a meal rich in carbohydrates, protein, and vegetables. 

Some of the most common meals would be good ol’ fashioned spaghetti and turkey meatballs with a side of your favorite steamed veggies.

What to Eat for Breakfast Before a Run 

This may require some experimenting on your part to make sure you can tolerate the meal with little to no gastric discomfort. 

Start off with very basic, easy-to-digest foods such as toast, fruit, or yogurt. Then, work your way up to a 300-calorie high carbohydrate, moderate protein, and little to no fat snack.

What Not to Eat Before a Run 

Just remember eating a high-calorie meal can take longer to leave the stomach and you certainly want to allow for three to four hours to digest. This also includes high-fat and high-fiber foods.

What to Avoid the Day Before a Long Run 

The top two items you want to avoid the night before are definitely alcohol and high-fat meals. This can leave you dehydrated and contribute to a poor night's sleep. 

How to Stay Hydrated During a Run 

With longer runs greater than 90 minutes you want to make sure you’re drinking enough water or an electrolyte-infused drink during these runs. 

Replacing your sweat loss varies greatly from person to person based on the environmental weather conditions, body weight, intensity, and even how well-trained you are.

One of the easiest ways to tell if you’re hydrated is to check the color of your urine. If your urine is very dark with little output that contains most of the waste, it indicates you are dehydrated. 

Sweat not only contains water but also the electrolytes sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.

If you’re running greater than 3 hours it’s advised to know your sweat loss by weighing yourself with no clothes before and after an hour of exercise. For every pound lost that equals about 16 ounces you want to replenish during your run per hour. 

Do I Need Protein Before or After a Run?

Protein speeds up recovery and is advised to have some before and after your run. As a matter of fact, one study showed that consuming protein before a training session also optimized performance. 

Best Supplements Before a Long Run?

If you’re looking for an extra boost in your performance consider a pre-workout supplement. 

A study published by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that those who took a pre-workout supplement containing B-vitamins, whey protein, adaptogens, and caffeine 30 minutes before their workout, improved oxygen delivery to muscles, training volume, and increased muscle mass.

Caffeine is one ingredient that has been shown to help the release of calcium within the muscle which supports a faster response to physical activity. You just want to be sure it’s not too high in caffeine as it can cause stomach cramping.

Another one is an amino acid called beta-alanine. What it does is it improves endurance and delays fatigue by buffering lactic acid in the muscles which allow more oxygen to be delivered to the parts of your body that are working out.