If you’ve ever gone for a run and felt like you couldn’t make it to your goal, you may not have fueled up properly before lacing up and setting off. What you eat before a run can help—or hurt—your exercise, and it can be tricky to know exactly what the right foods and macronutrients are that will lead to you being your fastest self with the most stamina.
To help us discern what foods will lead to our best running selves, we went to the experts: Jenna Stangland, MS, RDN, a performance engineer at Momentous, and Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a nutrition and wellness expert and author of Smoothies & Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen. Read on to find out what they told us.
Meet the Expert
Why Should You Eat Before a Run?
Let’s begin with why eating before a run is even important. “Running is a cardiovascular activity, so the heart is going to pump blood and oxygen throughout the body and into the muscles," explains Stangland. "That blood is carrying not only oxygen, but also energy in the form of glucose for the muscles to use. The body can pull glycogen that is stored in the liver and convert it to glucose, plus use glucose from foods. Eating the right foods before a run will provide that readily available glucose to the bloodstream, which then gets transmitted to the muscle. Once the blood is emptied of glucose and glycogen has been depleted from the liver, the muscle will start to fatigue and slow down since it is low on fuel/energy." Since fatigue is exactly what we’re trying to avoid, it makes perfect sense that foods that replenish our energy are an important choice.
When you think of foods that burn quickly in our bodies to give us energy, you likely think of carbohydrates, and you’d be right to guess that those are dietitians’ top macronutrient choice for eating before a run. "The main macro to have before a run is carbs," says Largeman-Roth. "This is especially important if you had an early or low-carb dinner (think BBQ or sushi) the night before a morning run. Many people may wake up and not feel hungry, so they don’t eat anything before heading out, but then they bonk in the middle of their run... you do need some fuel to burn while you’re running.” She also notes that “the key to fueling up before a run is to choose simple foods that are easy to digest.”
The Best Foods to Eat Before a Run
This portable fruit is well-known as a great source for quick-burning carbs. Bananas “are easy to digest, don’t have a ton of fiber and go down easy,” says Largeman-Roth. They also contain plenty of potassium, an important electrolyte. Since your body can utilize the nutrients in bananas so quickly, they’re safe to eat with little extra time before your run.
Both Stangland and Largeman-Roth picked oatmeal as a top pre-run food choice for its slow burn of carbs. Stangland prefers it with raisins so that you get a combination of fast burning carbs from the raisins, along with the slower burning ones from the oatmeal. She notes that the combo of oatmeal and raisins offers “great long lasting energy for a 60+ minute run or workout. It is also a low FODMAP carbohydrate, so less gastrointestinal stress, especially for runners with higher anxiety or pre-race jitters.” Conversely, Largeman-Roth likes to keep oatmeal free of many additions. “You don’t want to load it too full of high fiber ingredients (nuts, seeds, berries) pre-run, to avoid stimulating your gut too much.”
Consuming a blended drink will make digestion of its ingredients as quick and efficient for your body as possible. You can opt for fruit or veggie based, and adding protein powder is always an option. "A smoothie will help you hydrate, and the fruit in it will provide plenty of carbs to burn," says Largeman-Roth. She suggests basing your timing on how much you want to consume. “If you’re drinking a large smoothie, have it one hour pre-run. If you’re heading out in 20 minutes, just drink 4-5 ounces so that the liquid isn’t jostling around in your stomach.”
Sticky Rice Balls
Also known as glutinous rice (though it contains no gluten), sticky rice has a high glycemic index, meaning it will burn as sugar more quickly than other forms of rice do when you eat them. That makes it great for a run, and balls of it can be made with coconut milk and filled with something sweet. Stangland says that sticky rice is an “easy-digesting carbohydrate source, to not cause any GI distress,” and a great choice pre-run because “these carbs go quickly into the bloodstream and can be used as glucose for the run.”
Similar to a smoothie, yogurt is a simple snack if you’re the type who doesn’t love a lot of chewing before a run. It’s high in carbohydrates and water, which makes it hydrating as well as easy to burn for fuel. If dairy isn’t part of your diet, Largeman-Roth recommends choosing an oat milk yogurt instead. She also likes to add a small amount of granola for additional carbs.
Toast With Nut Butter
Whole grains provide healthful carbs for you to burn on your run, and nut butter helps keep you full until your next meal or snack. There are countless varieties of nut butter if plain old pb isn’t your thing—cashew, almond, or hazelnut will all give you the “stick to your ribs” feeling that can help you make it through a long jog.
Sure, it's not exactly a food, but beet juice made our list because beets have a unique quality that is beneficial for exercise. "The high nitrate content, when digested, converts to nitric oxide and triggers vasodilation," explains Stangland. "With the blood vessels dilating, more blood flow and oxygen get to the muscles quicker, supporting longer lasting energy for your run.”
This sweet choice can be consumed alone or added to one of the other good pre-run foods, such as yogurt, oatmeal, nut butter toast, or a smoothie. Stangland loves eating honey before a run “for quick and easy digesting [of] simple sugars of fructose and glucose. It is actually absorbed more quickly than other sugars.” Best yet, “it won't sit in your stomach, so it is a great option for energy before a run.”
It’s important to remember that eating before running is crucial, because your muscles need to have glucose available to power them. While some amount of glucose is stored in your liver as glycogen, an intense exercise like running can deplete it quickly. The easiest way to prevent that is with a quick snack before your run that’s high in carbohydrates, such as those above.
Nieman DC, Gillitt ND, Henson DA, et al. Bananas As an Energy Source During Exercise: A Metabolomics Approach. PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e37479. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037479
Jensen J, Rustad PI, Kolnes AJ, Lai YC. The Role of Skeletal Muscle Glycogen Breakdown for Regulation of Insulin Sensitivity by Exercise. Front Physiol. 2011;2:112. doi:10.3389/fphys.2011.00112