The saying “you are what you eat” certainly holds in running. Generally, the meal you take before a run serves two purposes. Firstly, it prevents hunger both before and during the run, and secondly, it helps sustain optimal blood sugar levels for your muscles during exercise. 

However, the wrong meal and timing can also harm your health. It can lead to nausea, cramps, heartburn, side stitches, and others. 

So, the question is, what food should you eat before a run? Effective pre-run nutrition starts with choosing easily digested carbohydrates and pairing carbs with lean protein and healthy fats. 

This comprehensive guide will cover everything you need to know about fueling up the right way before runs, including quick snacks for short runs and meals for endurance training. 

Timing of Pre-Run Meals

One important factor to consider when planning your pre-run nutrition is the timing of your meals. You want to eat enough to give your body the energy it needs but not too much that you feel bloated or nauseous. Also, you must give your body enough time to digest the foods before running.

However, the ideal timing of your pre-run meals depends on several factors, such as the size of your meal, the type of food you eat, and the duration and intensity of your run. 

As a general rule:

Here are some guidelines for planning your meals based on the duration and intensity of your run:

Quick note: Ensure you fine-tune your fueling timeline during training runs to pinpoint what works best for your body and preferences. 

Now, let’s explore the best nutrients to focus on.

Complex Carbs: Foundation for Sustained Energy  

Complex carbohydrates provide long-lasting energy. Unlike simple sugars that cause a quick spike and crash in blood sugar, complex carbs are broken down more slowly and steadily, fueling the body over a longer period.

Here’s why: They contain long chains of sugar molecules bound together, requiring more time for the body to break apart. 

As these carb chains gradually break down, glucose is steadily released into the bloodstream. This gives you hours of energy compared to the quick high and low from simple sugars.

Some excellent carbohydrates for running include:

To promote satiety and sustained energy, you can aim for complex carbs of about 45–65% of total daily calories before your run. 

Protein for Endurance   

Protein plays a vital role in muscle function, especially for activities like running. It is the building block for repairing and strengthening muscle fibers, which undergo stress and microtears during a run. 

Beyond muscle repair, it can also serve as an alternative energy source, particularly during extended periods of physical activity when the body’s primary energy reserves, glycogen, are depleted.

So, adequate protein intake is essential to prevent muscle breakdown, which can occur during prolonged runs if the body uses muscle protein for energy. 

Generally, consuming 15-25 grams of protein about 60-90 minutes pre-run will provide amino acids to sustain your muscles. This allows you to maintain strength and pacing for longer periods. 

However, ensure they’re proteins that are easily digested. This way, amino acids can quickly get taken into the bloodstream, travel to muscles, and be incorporated into muscle proteins. 

 Here are some examples of sources of lean protein for endurance:

Healthy Fats for Sustained Energy

Unlike carbohydrates, which provide quick energy, fats offer a more prolonged energy source, essential for endurance activities like running. This is because fats are dense in calories and metabolize slower, providing a steady release of energy over time. 

When you run for extended periods, your body eventually uses glycogen (carbohydrate) stores. At that point, it turns to fats for energy, making dietary fats crucial for long-distance runners.

Moreover, fats play a significant role in overall health – they’re vital for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), maintaining healthy cell membranes, and supporting brain health. 

This is particularly important for runners, as they have high nutritional demands due to the intensity of their training. However, you must focus on only healthy fats, which are unsaturated fats, rather than saturated or trans fats. 

Here are some excellent sources of healthy fats to include in pre-run meals:

Generally, you should aim for around 20-30% of total daily calories from healthy fats—about 50-90 grams. These fatty fuels can go into your pre-run meals 1-3 hours before longer runs.

Pre-Run Snack Ideas  

Portable, easy-to-digest snacks are clutch when hustling out the door to a run. They provide the right amount of fuel to energize your workout without weighing you down. 

Generally, eating them 30-90 minutes before your run helps top off your glycogen fuel stores and circulates nutrients in your bloodstream. This ensures that your muscles and brain have ample energy from the start rather than running on empty.

Also, these pre-run nibbles strike the right balance of complex carbs, lean protein, and healthy fats to keep you fueled: 

Here are some energy-boosting snacks for runners:

Foods to Avoid Pre-Run  

While fueling up before a run is important, some foods can cause GI distress or discomfort. 

Here’s what to avoid before lacing up:

  1. High-Fiber Foods: While fiber is essential for a healthy diet, high-fiber meals can cause GI distress when eaten before a run. Foods like beans, lentils, and some whole grains can lead to bloating and cramping. They are not ideal when you’re about to hit the pavement.
  2. Greasy or Fatty Foods: Foods that are high in fat take longer to digest, which can cause stomach discomfort during a run. Greasy fast food, full-fat dairy products, or anything deep-fried can feel heavy in your stomach and may lead to side stitches or cramps.
  3. Spicy Foods: It’s best to avoid foods loaded with hot spices or peppers before running. They can cause heartburn or indigestion.
  4. Excessive Caffeine: While a small amount might be okay and can even enhance performance for some, too much caffeine can lead to jitteriness, increased heart rate, and GI upset.
  5. Sugary Foods and Drinks: This includes candy, sweetened beverages, and sports drinks with high sugar content. They can cause a rapid spike and then a crash in blood sugar levels, leading to energy dips during your run.
  6. Dairy Products (for those who are lactose intolerant): If you’re lactose intolerant or sensitive, consuming dairy products before a run can lead to GI issues like gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
  7. Raw Vegetables: Although healthy, raw vegetables can be difficult to digest and might cause bloating or gas.
  8. Alcohol: Alcohol can lead to dehydration and negatively impact your coordination and physical performance.  

Personalize Your Nutritional Approach  

While these tips offer evidence-based guidance on fueling runs, remember that individualized trial and error is necessary to determine what works best. 

With that in mind, test new foods and meals during training before a big race day. You can start with familiar foods and smaller portions to see how your body handles different fibers, proteins, and carbs. 

One way to do that is to keep a journal tracking your go-to pre-run meals, rating your energy, fatigue, and GI comfort. These can help determine ideal portions, timing, and pre-run foods for you. Ultimately, let your training runs guide you toward your optimal fuel for performance.

One more thing. Don’t hesitate to consult a sports nutritionist or registered dietitian to customize your plan.

Final Thoughts

Today’s smart runners understand the importance of intentional fueling before their runs. Overall, the best pre-run meals provide carbs, protein, and some healthy fats in the right proportion. 

However, remember that each runner’s body is unique. You may need to experiment a few 

times with different foods and timing to personalize your fueling approach, ultimately finding what works best for you. 

To make things easy, you can seek guidance from nutrition professionals. Remember, the goal is to customize your pre-run nutrition so that you feel energized and comfortable heading into every run.