Want to know how to run faster? Looking for the best snacks to eat before a run or wondering if carb-loading is right for you? Elite sports nutritionist James Collins has the answers...
Should I be eating the same for all my runs?
What to eat before your run is often the most important question for new runners. Your body requires different fuel depending on the type of training.
During harder training sessions and races, your body uses carbohydrates (stored in the muscles as glycogen) as its main fuel (energy) source. You're only able to store a relatively small amount of carbohydrate, which is why keeping it topped up is so important.
During low intensity exercise, such as jogging or walking, the body burns fat as its main energy source. Therefore, fuelling with carbohydrates isn’t as crucial and a high protein meal or snack before your run will do the job.
The important thing is to plan which sessions you need to be ‘fuelled’ with carbs. Find recipe suggestions and more tips for low-intensity and high-intensity training days.
How long after eating a meal should I wait before going for a run?
Everyone has different levels of comfort regarding eating around training, so it's important to trial what works best for you. In general, wait two to four hours before running after eating a large meal. This allows time for your food to fully digest. After a smaller snack, 30 minutes - two hours should be sufficient, depending on how much you have eaten.
For energy-boosting snacks before a harder run, try to focus on smaller carbohydrate snacks that have a reasonably high glycaemic index score (GI). A food's GI measure is relative to how quickly it's digested and broken down into glucose, so high-GI foods are absorbed faster and less strain is placed on the gut.
The following options are great as quick snacks, before, during, or after training and when 'carb-loading' before an event:
Apricot, honey & pistachio flapjacks
Healthy banana bread
As a general rule, low-GI foods are best eaten as part of your main meals whilst training (alongside moderate amounts of protein and fat), as their energy is released more slowly into the blood stream and will provide you with sustained energy.
Low-GI breakfast recipes
Low-GI lunch recipes
Low-GI dinner recipes
For lower intensity or recovery sessions, you can reduce your carbohydrate intake accordingly. The following are protein-rich options:
Courgette tortilla wedges with pesto & rocket
Crab & asparagus omelette
Chicken breast with avocado salad
For low-intensity sessions under an hour, the occasional fasted-session is fine too, and can help the muscles to become more efficient for endurance training.
Should I eat before an early morning run and if so, what should I opt for?
You should always plan to eat before a harder training session, as the body will require fuel from carbohydrates. For lighter, low intensity training, a protein-based breakfast or even a fasted training session are fine.
There are three morning situations to plan for:
1. The early riser
If you wake up two hours before your run, good options include oats, wholegrain toast topped with eggs, granola, bagels or breakfast muffins and freshly made smoothies.
American blueberry pancakes
Cinnamon porridge with banana & berries
Cardamom peach & quinoa porridge
2. Straight out of bed
If you prefer to get straight on the road with minimal fuss, try a small snack with quick releasing energy such as energy balls, fruit or a small flapjack.
If you are really struggling to eat first thing, try increasing the carbohydrate portion of your evening meal the night before, as this will be stored in the muscles ready for your morning run.
3. 'Training low'
This is a new strategy used by professional athletes to help the muscles adapt to endurance training. For a low-intensity endurance session, you may plan to reduce the carbs in your breakfast as this can encourage the body to burn fat for fuel.
What should I definitely avoid eating before a run?
To provide sufficient fuel, foods should be mostly high in carbohydrate, but you should also eat foods that you're used to, make you feel comfortable and don't feel too 'heavy' in your stomach when you begin exercising.
In the two - four hours before a run, try to limit the following foods as these are well known causes of gastrointestinal distresses such as diarrhoea and bowel upsets.
What to avoid...
- Foods very high in fibre
- Excessively fatty foods
- Unusually spicy foods
- Drinking too much caffeine
On the morning of a big race, how long before should I eat and what should I opt for?
What you eat on the morning of your event should link into an overall fuelling strategy that you have developed during your training. Eat a meal two - four hours before the start of the race, and include a range of foods depending on your taste.
Good breakfast options for the morning of your race may include:
- Pancakes and mixed toppings, such as fruits and nuts
- Porridge oats with milk or soy milk
- Granola with milk or soy milk
- Multigrain bread topped with eggs
- Fruit salad and low-fat Greek yogurt
- Bagels or breakfast muffins with low-fat cottage cheese
- Fruit juice or a fruit smoothie
Now you know what to eat before your run, get the rest of your training nutrition right:
What to eat during your run
How to recover after your run
This article was last updated on 20 February 2018.
James Collins is recognised as a leading Performance Nutritionist through his work with Olympic and professional sport. Over the last decade he has worked with Arsenal FC, The English Institute of Sport and England Football. He works with elite and recreational athletes at his Harley Street practice, The Centre for Health & Human Performance: www.jamescollinsnutrition.com.
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