If you’re planning to eat before you run, you want to schedule your mealtime at least two hours ahead of lacing up your shoes. You also want to stick within a range of 300 and 400 calories. Which foods will fuel you up before you run versus weighing you down?
Before a run, you should eat these foods:
- Natural energy bars
- Toast with peanut butter or jelly
- Granola and yogurt
- Bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter
- Chicken breast and medium baked potato
- Eggs with toast
Here’s what you shouldn’t eat before a run:
- Spicy foods
- Lots of caffeine
- Bacon and red meat
- Pears and apples
- Artichokes and broccoli
In this article, we’ll go over when you should eat the foods from the first list as well as why you always want to skip the foods on the second list, or at least save them until your post-run meal. Food fuels your body and can keep you running longer, so it’s important to know what to feed yourself to maximize your performance. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be able to create an efficient running meal plan.
Eat These Foods Before a Run
The following foods are all great fuel sources for your run. Later in this guide, we’ll discuss which of these foods are best to consume when you’re going on a short run versus a marathon. For now, just add these foods to your shopping list, as you’ll eat them all at various points.
A classic runner’s breakfast, oatmeal digests quickly and has about 27 grams of carbohydrates per serving. Although carbs are often framed as your worst enemy if you’re prioritizing physical fitness, at the end of the day, you have to remember that carbs are energy. For longer runs especially, you need more energy, which means you should eat more carbs.
Oatmeal does contain fiber, but not enough to the point where it might upset your stomach after you hit the trail. If you have an especially sensitive stomach, then skip the milk in your oatmeal and use water instead.
Since oats can take upwards of 30 minutes to cook, we recommend prepping your oatmeal the night before and then reheating them in the morning (if you like your oatmeal warm, that is!).
Few snacks are the best friend of a runner more than a banana. This fun yellow fruit contains lots of carbs as well as nutrients for fluid retention and muscle repair. On top of that, bananas are extremely portable so you can just grab one and go.
If you get tired of eating bananas plain, you can incorporate them into lots of runner-friendly recipes, such as banana bread or banana oat bars.
Natural Energy Bars
Besides a banana, you might also want to stash an energy bar or two in your pack. By eating small bits of the bar when you take breaks during your run, you consistently deliver calories to your body.
This is important; allow us to explain why. The food you eat provides energy to the body, but not as a pure food source. Instead, the food becomes a simple sugar known as glucose. Then, through a process called glycogenesis, the liver converts the glucose into glycogen, a usable energy source.
That supply of glycogen doesn’t last forever, about two hours, maybe more. This is when your energy levels will start to sag. Your blood has less glucose in it, which decreases your blood sugar.
By eating incrementally, you keep your blood sugar consistent and stable, encouraging smaller amounts of energy over longer periods rather than a short-term burst of energy that’s over before your run is.
Natural energy bars by the way include ingredients like dried fruit, seeds, and nuts rather than artificial sugars.
Toast with Peanut Butter or Jelly
Toast is another food to eat before a run that’s about as easy as it gets. It’s high in carbs, which means you’ll get more glucose out of it than eating a food that’s less carb-heavy. You can also prep toast in about two minutes, so even if you’re short on time before your run this morning, you should be able to make a relatively filling breakfast or snack.
Some people find plain toast boring, but you don’t necessarily want to slather butter on your bread. Peanut butter is a good alternative, as it has lots of fiber, protein, and fat. That fat, by the way, is mostly unsaturated, so it’s heart-healthy.
Another perk of eating peanut butter is how it releases energy gradually, sort of like nibbling on an energy bar. Just make sure you drink something with this snack, as peanut butter + toast can be kind of dry.
Jelly–whether you like grape, strawberry, or another flavor–is a second suitable topping for your toast. Although jelly is mostly sugar, a dollop of the stuff for taste won’t cause your blood sugar to spike uncontrollably.
Granola and Yogurt
You also can’t go wrong with granola. A classic ingredient in energy bars, you can eat your granola in totable, convenient bar form or loose from a bag when you make it for breakfast. If you do go the granola bar route, once again, try to stick to natural ingredients over artificial sugar as much as you can.
Sugar, besides causing very sudden, large spikes in your blood sugar, can also lead to serious energy crashes. The sweet stuff stays in your bloodstream for only about an hour, maybe two hours after consumption. For longer runs, you’ll crash midway through, which is no good.
Granola can also suffer from being dry, so try mixing yours with yogurt. Non-fat, fruit-flavored yogurt that’s low in sugar will put some pep in your step and moisten up bagged granola. Even better is you can eat a cup of yogurt up to 15 minutes before you set off for your run. If you’re cutting it close, always have some yogurt ready in the fridge.
Bagel with Cream Cheese or Peanut Butter
Treat yourself to a luxe breakfast ahead of your run with a bagel. If you’re really watching your calories, a whole-wheat bagel is a good option, although white bagels have more carbs. Peanut butter is a good topping for your bagel, as is cream cheese. Although we said to avoid cheese and will talk more about why that is in the next section, cream cheese has about 5 grams of protein per serving. Thus, it’s more beneficial for your runs than your other types of cheeses.
Chicken Breast and Medium Baked Potato
You might not necessarily be a morning runner, but a nighttime one instead. If so, you want something besides bagels and toast. How about a chicken breast with a baked potato? Keep the chicken breast to about 85 grams or 3 ounces and the baked potato medium-sized.
Chicken is a great source of protein. Considering you require at least 50 percent more protein to heal and recover your muscles after a run, a chicken lunch or dinner will fill you up and tend to your muscles.
A baked potato with a bit of salt and even a dollop of sour cream is a tasty side dish for the chicken. The potato itself is full of carbs that your body will use for fuel as you run. The salt contains electrolytes which you sweat out as you train. While water can hydrate you, it lacks electrolytes, so make sure you also have a Gatorade on hand, or whatever your favorite equivalent beverage is.
Eggs with Toast
Okay, so here’s another breakfast food, but trust us, it’s on this list for a good reason. All the protein in eggs breaks down in your body slowly, keeping you energetic for longer so you can cross the finish line with aplomb.
Try eating one whole egg and five scrambled egg whites or make your eggs sunny side up if that’s how you like them. Garnish with a bit of salt and eat with toast so you get the carbs you need. Talk about a well-balanced meal!
Skip These Foods Before a Run
Next, we want to delve into the foods you should avoid ahead of your run and why. Once you eliminate these foods from your pre-run diet, you should notice fewer hiccups that can hinder your performance.
When you’re up before the sun to go running, you’ll want to make dietary choices that will wake you up. Few things are better for that than the figurative slap in the face you get from eating spicy foods. From jalapenos to a spicy shrimp pasta salad or even spicy chicken wings, you say bring on the heat!
Admittedly, spicy food is beneficial in that the warmth you flood your body with can increase your metabolism so you burn calories more efficiently. However, for that perk, you could also suffer an upset stomach, diarrhea, and even heartburn from spicy food.
Even if you normally handle spicy foods without any difficulty, you probably don’t go running for a few miles after eating something spicy, right? Now that you’re doing that, you’ll discover very quickly how spicy food can disagree with you. Nausea will derail your run fast, as will heartburn.
High-impact exercises as well as weight-lifting, gymnastics, cycling, sprinting, and running can all exacerbate heartburn, making it even more painful than it usually is. Save the spicy food for after your run!
Perhaps you’re a coffee drinker in the morning like most people. You need the caffeine to get out of bed and leave the house. If you’re running in the morning, then of course coffee will figure somewhere into the equation.
You might want to rethink that. The same is true if you chug an energy drink or two before you set off for your daily run.
Some caffeine is okay, but overdoing it on the stuff and then going for a run is a very poor idea. Caffeine affects your body much in the same way as sugar does. In about 10 minutes after finishing that energy drink or that third cup of coffee, the caffeine has entered your bloodstream. Your heart will begin racing like crazy before you even break a sweat.
For the next hour, you might feel focused and concentrated, which can help you run better. However, once the caffeine is partially depleted from your bloodstream, you’ll crash. All said, this entire vicious cycle takes about an hour to play out.
Caffeine has a long life in the body, unlike sugar. It takes 12 hours for your body to fully process the caffeine in your system. At that point, you might develop withdrawal symptoms like headaches and mood changes.
Even if you have a cup of coffee or several in the morning and then wait until the evening to run, by then, the caffeine withdrawal symptoms can begin to hit.
So how much caffeine is too much? About 400 milligrams is the baseline. A single cup of coffee may have 95 milligrams of caffeine, while one can of energy drink like Rockstar has upwards of 160 milligrams of caffeine.
Bacon and Red Meat
A hearty meal with red meat as the starring ingredient might sound to you like an ideal dinner to enjoy before a run. Red meat does indeed contain a lot of protein as well as fat, but the problem is, it’s too much. Excess protein and/or fat in the body requires more energy on digesting what you consumed.
That leaves you with less energy for your run, which can result in premature fatigue. What’s worse is you can experience uncomfortable cramps as well, which will put your run to an end quickly.
Since bacon counts as red meat, save it for your post-run meal, even if you usually always enjoy your bagel, toast, or eggs with a side of bacon.
Mmm, cheese. This dairy product comes in so many forms that likely does a day go by where you don’t eat cheese. That will have to change as you gear up for a run. Dairy products also have lactose, a disaccharide or sugar comprised of glucose and galactose subunits. The lactose can cause diarrhea, gassiness, and bloating, none of which makes for very conducive running conditions.
The effects will be worse if you have lactose intolerance, but even those without this condition could still suffer the above symptoms.
Now, you’re probably wondering, why did we recommend yogurt in the last section then? That’s dairy too! Indeed it is, but dairy products don’t all have the same quantities of lactose. Butter, cheese, and milk contain the most lactose while yogurt has less. Skip the yogurt if you have lactose intolerance, but otherwise, it shouldn’t cause any upset tummies.
Pears and Apples
Okay, now you’re confused. Fruits are supposed to be good for you, so why are apples and pears off the list of what you can eat before a run? These fruits contain a lot of fiber, which takes longer to digest. As the high-fiber foods travel through your system undigested, they can cause trouble such as cramps and gastrointestinal pain.
Artichokes and Broccoli
It’s the same story with artichokes and broccoli. These are some of the highest-fiber veggies along with spinach, carrots, parsnips, collard greens, green peas, acorn squash, and lima beans. Don’t get us wrong, these and high-fiber fruits are very healthy in other contexts, just not before a run.
We also recommend foregoing legumes or beans. Again, it has nothing to do with the healthfulness of beans, as they’re a high-protein food. However, the added oils found in most legumes can lead to the development of mold. If you eat your legumes without soaking them, then the mold comes out during cooking, limiting your oxygen when you run and possibly causing inflammation.
How Much Do You Need to Eat Based on the Duration of Your Run?
We just listed a lot of foods to eat and not to eat before you run. You’re happy to have more options than ever, but which foods are appropriate depending on the length of your run? Allow us to fill you in now.
If your run will be on the shorter side, such as a mile or less, then there’s no need to eat a whole meal before you head out. A banana could suffice, perhaps a piece of toast or a few crackers, but not too much more than that.
On those days when you’ll be hitting the pavement for an hour or so, you need something more substantial than one piece of toast. Make sure you’re loading up on carbs, such as chicken or a bagel with peanut butter. Even an energy bar or granola bar will work here, but maybe two of them.
When you’re gearing up for a marathon, you need to pay the most attention to what you’re eating. You must have sources of complex carbs such as vegetables and whole grains, so a whole-grain sandwich or bagel is a good choice, as is a chicken breast with a cooked potato. Make sure you’re incorporating healthy fats and protein as well.
Should You Always Eat Before a Run?
You woke up this morning not hungry at all. You barely even want to run, but skipping sounds like a bad idea, so you’ll put on your running shoes anyway. Is it okay if you pass on breakfast and eat later in the day when you’re feeling up to it?
That depends on how far you’re running. If we’re talking something like a few miles, then fine, it’s okay to skip breakfast. You do definitely want to make sure you eat something after your run.
Foregoing breakfast on the morning of your marathon is a bad idea. You need to load up on at least 30 grams of carbs or you’ll limit yourself in how far you can go. It’s okay to be nervous before a big race, but eat foods that agree with you.
The food choices you make ahead of a run become the energy that fuels you. Stick to sources of carbs, healthy fats, and proteins such as bananas, chicken breast, eggs, peanut butter, and toast. Make sure you avoid too much caffeine, legumes, spicy foods, fiber-rich foods, and red meat. Best of luck with your run!