What should I eat? That is the question most of us ask ourselves prior to our daily and long runs. The answer to the question depends on a few factors. What time are you working out, how intense will the workout be, and when was the last time you ingested anything. Based on your answers to these questions we can figure out what will need to eaten before working out, the timing of when to eat it, and what it is that you should eat.
When was the last time you ate?
If you are competing or working out first thing in the morning, this means your last the last meal or snack was the night before. This should indicate to you that you most likely need a small meal or snack before beginning your run. Glycogen is the main fuel source for your body (stored in your muscles and liver). When the body needs a boost of energy or when the body isn't getting glucose from food, glycogen is broken down to release glucose into our bloodstream to be used as fuel. Since much of your glycogen has been depleted overnight; whatever you eat for breakfast will top off your glycogen storages.
The importance of eating before your run is dependent on the type and intensity of the run being performed. If you are planning to go for a short training session, your fueling strategy is pretty simple. If a short run or a few intervals planned for the day, you won’t need to eat much, if anything, before starting.
If your run or race is intense and/or going to last longer than 60 minutes, it is recommended to eat a small meal or snack beforehand. Not eating before an intense workout or race can lead to decreased glycogen stores and muscle protein breakdown resulting in fatigue and poor sports performance.
Keep meals minimal before short or intense runs. Ideally a meal should be eaten 3-4 hours before exercise for sufficient digestion and to increase your muscle and liver glycogen stores; however, exercising first thing in the morning does make this more difficult. When there is less time available, lean towards eating easily digestible food with more carbohydrates (less fat and protein). This will provide the sufficient energy boost without the need for extended digestion.
What to eat before exercise?
Choosing what types of foods to eat before you run all depends on how much time there is between your meal/snack and when your plan to do your run. If there is less than an hour of time before running/racing, it is recommended to eat 15-20 grams of carbohydrates (100 calories roughly). Make sure to opt for food with low protein, fiber, and fat because these foods delay digestion. Aside from delayed digestion, these foods are notorious for giving an athlete digestive issues (cramps, diarrhea, etc.).
Sample go-to foods:
1 small banana
1 cup of berries
2 Tablespoons of raisins
1 slice of toast
2-3 small dates
For those whom struggle with digesting food before running, drinking your carbs or using gels/chews at the start or during your run can be helpful. These products are developed for athletes to aid with fueling and hydration without causing stomach distress.
If you have more time to digest before your run your amount of food can be increased. Protein can also be introduced (in small amounts) along with enough carbs. Please note that fat is still not a productive choice of fuel prior to running. It takes fat longer to digest and digestive issues could arise while on the run.
It is recommended to eat 30-40 grams of carb with a small amount protein (about 200-300 calories):
1 slice of toast with small amount of nut butter
1 cup oatmeal
Scrambled egg wrap with vegetables
Yogurt with fruit and low-fat granola
½ turkey sandwich with 1 piece of fruit (nothing acidic)
What to take away from this
Deciding if you should eat and what you should eat before running/racing can make a huge difference in your overall performance. The most important thing to remember is that if the workout is less than an hour and not intense, you’ll be fine just drinking water. However, if you have an intense workout or competition lasting longer than an hour, sports nutrition will play a critical role on how well you will perform.
Remember every individual is different and what works for one, may not work for another. Sometimes it is a case of trial and error to get the right plan for yourself.