What & When Should Runners Eat – Running Nutrition For All Types Of Runs
In an ideal and care-free world a runner should just lace up and go. We shouldn’t think of such unnecessary terms like, say, ‘fuelling’. What is fuelling anyway? What and why do we need to fuel? Can’t we just run?
My first running steps were all about careless jogging in the park but the moment came when I realised I was too hungry to run, or I was too full to run, or food didn’t sit well in the stomach, or stomach didn’t like particular food whilst I was running. Why did everything have to be so complicated during those early days?!
What should we eat to make our running as comfortable as possible? What is running nutrition?
So, what is good food for runners?
Simply, food for running needs to be versatile and healthy. We should be eating fruit and veg daily with fish, organic chicken and red meat being shared equally during the week. That’s how our body gets all the necessary vitamins and minerals needed to fuel our running. Nuts, eggs and beans are also great, and carbs such as rice and pasta (my favourites) are hugely helpful with long runs.
We can choose from lots of great food and create simple as well as innovative meals based on the intensity of our running days.
Quality food is and will remain the best choice. We need to see it literally as fuel for our bodies. You cannot have a comfortable run if you are not eating well.
On the other hand, we should be careful with sugary fizzy drinks, biscuits and sweets, full fat dairy products, saturated fat, alcohol and fried foods, to name a few. Of course, anything taken sensibly and in moderation should not harm us but remember not to over-indulge, especially when working through a specific running program where details will be very important.
As always, listen to your body, it will never lie to you!
What I eat and drink before running 5K
Initially I was an early morning runner, pre-breakfast type. The committed type. The aim was to do a short run before work, not more than 5K (3.1 miles). Some folk are fine if they run on empty stomachs but I am not. I need a quick fix when I get up, especially if I’m about to go for a run.
There are two scenarios for me. First, if the run is not long after getting up from bed then I would be fine with just a banana, or a boiled egg or a toast with butter and marmalade. I would drink a cup of green tea or a glass of water, maybe a half glass of my favourite juice. That would be enough to see me through and on my return I’d have breakfast if I felt like it.
Second choice would be my full breakfast first but then I wouldn’t run for at least 1.5-2 hours, until the food settled in the stomach.
When I started evening runs, I would eat normally during the day and run before dinner time but I would leave a decent gap of a few hours between the run and lunch, or the last meal.
With regards to drinking, I wouldn’t normally take any water with me on the run of that distance because I hydrate well every day and my system is always comfortably full. Unless I am about to go out in very warm or hot weather where I would have to replace electrolytes lost through sweating, in which case I would carry an electrolyte drink.
Time it right, run light! You really don’t need much fuel in the tank for short runs, and in return, short runs will not spend much fuel either. You are unlikely to burn more than a few hundred calories anyway, an equivalent of choc bar.
What I eat and drink before and during a 10K run
If you are aiming to go and hit up to 10K (6.2 miles), you’ll have to have some fuel in the body. If you are running first thing in the morning you would have had a nice dinner the night before. Most of us would need breakfast and we’d make a decent gap between eating and running, let’s say a few hours.
My normal running breakfast is now always the same unless I run very long runs. Two boiled eggs, two slices of toasted bread and green tea. I tried and tested various foods and this particular menu is very kind and light on my stomach and has enough protein (eggs) for runs of that duration.
If I run in the evening I would eat as I normally would during the day but would make sure I never run immediately right after eating, never a good idea.
Some runners like to take gels or sweets, or a sports energy and hydration drink with them when running medium runs. In my experience those are fine for as long as you eat them only if and when you need them. Your body will tell you if you are hungry, there is no written law anyway.
Try and find out what diet works best for you.
Running a marathon – what I eat and drink before and during a marathon run
This is where I spend good time planning. Is it going to be too warm? How fast should I go? What fuel will I need? And that’s before I have to decide on the running gear.
I start with eating well the day before, especially the evening before the run. I would carb up and hydrate properly. My all time faves would either be spaghetti bolognese (with beef mince) or pasta with meatballs. Before I go for any of the very long runs my breakfast will be fried eggs, bacon and beans with toast.
Do not experiment before the run and eat something that you’re not used to, otherwise you need to prepare for possible stomach upsets. You have been warned!
During the run I would carry nothing but an electrolyte drink that also provides carbs for energy, and maybe a small chocolate bar. This particular order suits me well but I tried many other options before I settled on this one.
The idea is not to feel overly fatigued and hungry towards the end and yet still have energy when you finish, whether that would be a ten miler, a marathon or longer.
It’s important that the stomach stays stable with no funny surprises. It’s important not to feel sick, although some do, especially during marathons in warm weather. We should do all we can to try and minimise those side effects.
Once you learn how to fuel correctly through trial and error during training over time in different weather conditions, you will recognise your body signals and know when and how to fuel during the actual run. That’s what we use those training runs for.
Timing – an important (and often overlooked) part of running nutrition
Run light, not full and not empty either. Run comfortably. Eat and run too soon and you can expect cramps or nasty side stitches. Run empty and you will feel fatigued fairly quickly.
Many a long distance pro will be able to run a whole marathon at speed while running first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. But unless you are a top long distance pro who feels alright running marathons like that, don’t do it.
Is running on an empty stomach bad for you?
If you dislike eating before a run it’s ok to run empty for as long as the run is not too long (ideally, under an hour) and you are well hydrated.
If the run goes on for much longer, and you run much harder, you are likely to experience changes in your blood sugar level. If your blood sugar drops quickly you may feel dizzy and nauseous. In more extreme cases you may even faint, which is never a good scenario in the middle of exercising. The runners called the experience “bonking”— the term for feeling lethargic or light-headed due to low blood sugar.
Nobody wants that!
How much should active runners eat?
Even on our amateur running level there is a specific requirement for specific runs. Marathon training and low calorie intake will make your life hard, for example. The longer you run, the more energy (food) you will need. Marathoners may look overly lean but they may eat more than many.
Remember, food is fuel and the longer the ride, the more fuel your engine will need. The more you run, the more calories you will burn. If you don’t eat more than you burn, you will lose weight. Simple.
If you aim to run your marathon strongly you will need to eat more than you would normally eat in order to maintain your energy levels and strength. I miscalculated my fuel intake during ultra marathon training and not only was I losing weight by burning fat, I ended up losing muscle as well – and that’s what you definitely need to avoid.
Your runs will start to suffer, you will become weaker and slower.
On the other end, high calorie intake and short runs will almost certainly help you gain weight. You will need to decide what your priorities are and fuel accordingly. (Since my first ultra training I’ve found another way to make sure my body only burns fat for energy while sparing lean muscle, to help me stay in shape during during periods of intense physical activity)
During shorter runs, your calorie intake will have to be adjusted accordingly. No need to go for a big meal of fried variety regardless of how healthy they may be if you aim to run 5K. You’ll never burn more than 200-300 calories when running slow short runs so be mindful of your targets again.
Why are runners always hungry after running?
You’ve just been through a workout, you have depleted your energy stores, your metabolism is still going strong and it needs the calories to feed your depleted stores.
Many new runners, especially those willing to lose weight realise that due to an increase in their appetite some will actually gain rather than lose weight. However, sooner or later you will learn how to manage your runs and your food intake.
One important factor that is often overlooked and remains something of an unknown to complete novices is hydration. As important as good food intake.
Bad hydration (or dehydration) can stop even the best and strongest. Some of us could survive without food for 30-40 days, some even longer. But, typically we would only last three to four days without water.
We need to hydrate properly every day and often during the running to avoid all sorts of issues that we can pile on ourselves unnecessarily. Many of us don’t connect lightheadedness, headaches, and ‘heavy legs’ with dehydration.
It’s essential to stay on top of the hydration game in order to enjoy our runs and general health. Remember, around 60% of the adult body is water!
New runners have too much on their ‘running plate’ to be focused on the subtlety of quality nutrition. However, the moment will come when a healthy and balanced diet, as well as dietary supplements to support your body, will become a necessity and we will realise its importance. Not only can a good quality and varied diet complement our running, it is also a major health factor in our general lives. Tuck in regularly and responsibly!
Cover photo by by Lisa Fotios from Pexels
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Thanks for the post, Neven! Very informative as usual. I will definitely be trying your trusted and tried methods when and if it comes to increasing the distance.
Thank you! Start with your favourite healthy foods first and see how your body, especially your stomach, responds. If you are getting tired sooner, look into hydration and little tweaks like portion sizes and new protein/mineral/carbs additions to your menu. For example, I discovered that walnuts in Greek style yoghurt help me recover much quicker after longer runs. Even that small chocolate bar made a very positive addition to my electrolyte arsenal during the ultra run. Try, try, and try. Eventually your body will decide and you’ll know exactly what you need.