Workout Wednesday Vol 6: Eating to Run

Q: What should I eat before a run?

A: I love this question because it involves two of my most favorite things, running and eating. What you should eat is something only you can determine.

No matter what eat something before a run. This is especially important if you run first thing in the morning, as you’ve essentially been fasting for twelve hours, give or take, before you even lace up your sneakers. Many people say their stomach cannot tolerate any food prior to a run. I used to be one of these people, but I found that, over time, I was able to “train” my stomach to tolerate more substantial nutrition before running.

What you should eat will depend to some extent on how much time you have to digest before you run. If you have less time, (30 minutes or less), foods that are high in carbs and lower in protein and fat will be better. On the other hand, if you are going to have over an hour between your meal and your run, you will be better off with a bit more fat and protein. Here are some ideas for what you might try that take into account how much time you have between the meal and the run.

I figured out what worked for me through trial and error and I think this is the way to go. There is no one way that will work for every person, and what worked for you last year might not work for you this year. In general, it’s a good idea to eat something without a lot of fiber, especially if you eat right before you run. Here are some breakfast ideas:

Instant oatmeal (my favorite)
Toast with peanut butter
Granola bar
Energy bar (homemade or store bought)
Graham crackers and honey

When I started running I never, ever ate breakfast before an early morning run. I thought it would make me barf or give me a stomach ache. After a while though, I got sick of walking in my door after a run feeling faint with hunger, tempted to inhale the entire contents of my cupboards before the water for my shower even had a chance to warm up. At that point, I started forcing myself to eat a half a Luna bar before a workout, or maybe even (gasp!) an entire banana. I found that this really improved my energy during my run and kept my hunger at bay until I’d had a chance to shower and get dressed.

I gradually increased the amount of food I would eat before a run, when I realized that I was feeling really low in the middle of my long runs. I thought my stomach wouldn’t be able to handle it, but with some trial and error I found a few more substantial breakfast options that worked for me.

Now that I have kids, it is especially important for me to eat breakfast before I run in the morning, as being a parent means not always getting to decide when you eat. When I walk in the door, I cannot anticipate who is going to need me, for what, and for how long. While I always try to eat something immediately after a workout, since it’s not always possible, eating something before the run ensures I am not completely famished (and consequently short-tempered, aka “hangry”) while I’m trying to do whatever thing my kids need. More often than not, I walk in the door from a run and find myself immediately parked on the couch, nursing the baby. I hope she likes her drinks with salt:)

If you run later in the day, the issue will not be how to stomach a pre-run breakfast, but rather what you ate at your most recent meal or snack. In general, it’s a good idea not to overeat and not to eat foods that are especially rich (eg desserts or fried foods) prior to a run. Of course this sounds like common sense, but as a person who learned the hard way that nachos and lap swimming don’t mix, I thought I might as well mention it.

I find that as long as I am mindful of the fact that I am doing a run later on, I don’t have to eat anything special for my breakfast, lunch, or dinner in order to avoid stomach problems. That said, there have been a few times I had to start my long run after dinner. In that case, I found drinking a protein and fruit smoothie three hours before I started the run was perfect.

If you really want to figure out what works for you, keep a log of what you’re doing; What you ate, how much you ate, when you ate it, what you did for a workout, and how you felt. Chances are you will start noticing patterns and you will be able to dial in what works for you.


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