Heather Caplan

Written by Heather Caplan


What To Eat Before Running – Learn The Secret

The question of what to eat before running is one every runner ponders at some point, and experiments with throughout their running journey. Through trial and error, runners find some foods that provide energy, some that cause stomach discomfort, or some that just leave a bad taste in the mouth.

There isn’t one food that works for everyone, or even every workout. But there are plenty of ways to determine which foods should be your go to fuels before running.

Traditional sports nutrition advice recommends eating one to three hours before exercising to provide our muscles with the energy (calories) they need to move. Having a snack before a long run, hill repeats, or speed workout ensures that your body will have the energy to complete the goal time or effort.

For more on workouts, please read 6 Workouts Guaranteed To Help Crush your 5K and 10K PRs.

Research has consistently shown that athletes who eat before running (and other cardio exercises) perform better and recover faster. This is especially true for morning exercisers, as a quick snack will help replenish carbohydrate stores that we use to maintain blood glucose levels overnight.

As you determine what to eat before running, consider the following factors:

  • Workout length
  • Workout intensity
  • Time of day (When was the last time you ate? How much time do you have before you need to start the workout?)
  • Food preferences and intolerances

What To Eat Before Running: Macronutrients (Carbs, Proteins and Fat)

Carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for both the brain and muscles. The body can efficiently break down carbohydrates into available energy; fats take longer to process into energy. That said, both carbohydrates and fat can be used as energy during activity.

During high intensity workouts (when the body is working harder to keep going), carbohydrates are the primary fuel, and are key to sustaining performance. At lower intensities, like walking or a very easy run, the body burns more fat (compared to high intensity) along with carbohydrates.

The body is able to store much more energy in fat than carbohydrates, which is one reason it’s better to fuel with carbs before and during a run. Fats also take longer to digest, so may cause some stomach discomfort during movement. Learn more by reading, The Best Carbohydrates For Runners.

As you experiment with what to eat before running, aim for meals or snacks that meet the following criteria to help minimize stomach discomfort and maximize performance:

  • Low Fat
  • High carbohydrate
  • Low protein
  • Low fiber

Protein, fat, and fiber all slow the digestion process. During the day, this is helpful in feeling full and satisfied for long after a meal. Before a workout, this is less than ideal.

The goal is to eat something that will be digested quickly. Otherwise, the digestive system is still working to process your meal or snack as your muscles try to get going. This may also cause some discomfort.

What To Eat Before Running: Micronutrients (Vitamins and Minerals)

A myriad of vitamins and muscles are at play while you exercise. A few key micronutrients to consider are electrolytes that we lose in sweat (to varying amounts) sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium.

For more, please read Electrolytes For Runners: The Definitive Guide

Most sport-specific hydration and fuel products contain both sodium and potassium. It’s important to stay hydrated before, during, and after exercise. If training conditions are warm, humid, or at altitude, adjust your hydration.

As with other vitamins and minerals, they’re also found naturally in many foods. It’s rare that runners need to supplement these nutrients outside of daily diet, and hydration mix, gels, or chews. Consult a sports nutrition professional to see if you would benefit from any specific vitamin or mineral recommendations.

What To Eat Before Running: Serving Sizes

The recommended amount of food consumed before exercising varies widely for both individuals and types of athletes. To determine an individual’s specific needs, weight, overall health, and training goals are a few things to consider. In some cases, the weather may also influence energy and electrolyte needs.

Consider the following things:

  • Amount of time you have to digest your meal or snack
  • Amount of time you plan to spend exercising
  • Intensity of the workout
  • Time since your last meal or snack

For example: If you’re exercising in the morning, it has probably been hours since your last meal.

If you’re going out for a relatively short run, a small snack (e.g. toast with jam, a snack bar, yogurt, or a piece of fruit) may suffice. If you’re fueling for a long morning run, have a small meal (e.g. oatmeal with banana and nut butter, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, waffles, or a wrap).

Allow at least an hour for your food to digest. With your meal or snack, hydrate accordingly. Drink up to 16 or 24 ounces of fluid before you head out the door, to help prevent dehydration and aid in digestion.

For more on hydration, please read Dehydration and Performance: The Right Way To Rehydrate When Running.

What To Eat Before Running: Personal Experiments

You won’t know what fuel works best for you before a run until you experiment with different things. I routinely encourage runners to journal their pre-run meals and snacks for different types of workouts (e.g. speed, endurance, hill repeats).

When training for endurance, this food journal may start up to two days before a long run. A midweek speed workout is a good time to test what to eat before running too, especially if you have goal race pace work on the schedule.

  • Experiment with meal or snack timing
  • Experiment with nutrient combinations

Some runners tolerate nut butters, animal proteins, whole grains, or even dairy before a run. Some do not. Eat foods that are normal to your diet, and experiment with light protein, fiber, and fat in your pre-run meal or snack. You may learn that a slice of bread with jelly a high-sugar snack works best for you.

Or you may prefer bread with nut butter, a roasted sweet potato, or a hard-boiled egg. You may tolerate yogurt with fruit, or fruit with nut butter. You may prefer a snack bar or a smoothie.

Experiment with various nutrient combinations, focusing primarily on carbohydrates, adding in light protein or fat if you prefer. Take notes on you how feel during your run, especially in the first few miles. Remember to consider the length of your run, and bring snacks and hydration with you as needed.

What Should You Eat Before A Run? Whatever Works Best For You

I’ve seen plenty of unique pre-run meal and snack rituals with runners and other athletes. No one can say exactly what works best for you without some experimenting. That can be determined with expert guidance (from your physician and a sports dietitian), and the outlined personal experiments, with your preferences and training goals considered. These tips are general, and not meant to replace any one on one medial or nutrition advice you may need.

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1. Burning Fat and Carbohydrates During Exercise, a review on Science Daily (2007)

2. Timing Your Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2017)

3. Fluid and electrolyte supplementation for exercise heat stress, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2000)

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