If you’re running, it’s essential to fuel with carbs (mostly) and protein (a little).
Some runners will tell you it’s okay to run on an empty stomach and eat after you finish. But others will tell you to eat a good pre-run meal to give you energy for the run.
Which is right? Is eating before or after a run better, or does it just come down to personal preference?
Let’s look at the pros and cons of each so you can figure out what would work best for you.
Should You Eat Before a Run?
Once you’ve eaten, food breaks down and is absorbed by your stomach. From there, it’s moved to the muscles and stored as glycogen, which the muscles use as energy.
When you run without eating and your glycogen stores are empty or low, your body digs into its fat stores for energy. While this is great if you want to lose fat, it’s not as easy for the body to access as glycogen, so you may find that you don’t have as much energy running on an empty stomach.
But if you eat before a run, those nutrients are easy for your body to access quickly. It takes an hour or two for food to get digested and transported to the muscles, so eating before you run will “fill up your tank.”
You’ll still burn calories and provided you’re burning more calories than you’re consuming during the day, you’ll still lose fat. Unless you specifically prefer running without a meal beforehand, eating a meal is a good idea to fuel yourself through your run.
Factors to Consider
Trying to decide if you should eat before or after your run? Here are some factors to help you decide.
Your Personal Preferences
Some people don’t enjoy breakfast in the mornings but like running when they wake up. Others feel full and uncomfortable if they run after a meal, even if they run in the evenings.
Your preferences are important. You can experiment with different run and meal times and determine what feels best.
If you like to run first thing in the morning, your stomach will be empty and your muscles will most likely be devoid of glycogen. This could lead to having a bad run as you might not have a lot of energy and running with a growling stomach could be uncomfortable!
If you’re able to have a good breakfast and go for a run an hour or two later, then you may find that you run faster and fatigue slower. But it’s not always possible to run mid-morning. Your schedule will make a difference to your meal and run timing.
Length and Type of Run
The type of run you plan to do might influence whether you need a meal before starting.
If you’re only planning a 30-minute to 45-minute run, your body should be able to get through the run without a meal beforehand. Even if you’re running first thing in the morning, you should be able to power through without extra fuel.
It is, however, important to stay hydrated. If you’re going for a run early in the morning without eating first, make sure you hydrate with 8 ounces of water or a low-calorie sports drink before you head out.
If you’re running for more than an hour, it’s a good idea to eat before you run. Your body will need more energy to sustain a longer run with strength and endurance.
Your muscles store enough fuel for about 60 minutes of running. To keep fueling yourself after that point, you’ll need 30 grams or more of carbs to give you the energy you need to keep running without fatigue.
You should eat an energy chew or gel an hour into your run, but you should also fuel from the start if you want to perform well on long runs.
If you’re doing a short run, but it’s going to be more intense than usual, pre-fueling is a good idea. The extra energy will help you run faster, harder, and longer.
If you have a sensitive stomach, running with food in your stomach might aggravate it. In this case, you may prefer to run on an empty stomach to prevent gastrointestinal distress.
Pros of Eating Before a Run
Having a meal an hour or two before you run will give you plenty of energy. You’ll be able to run faster and longer and avoid the dreaded “bonk” on long runs, as long as you’re fueling throughout your run.
Eating before a run may lead to gastrointestinal distress, including fullness, bloating, gassiness, cramps, or nausea. You may also experience heartburn or indigestion and an increased risk of developing a side stitch.
Pros of Eating After a Run
Eating after your run is important as it replenishes the carbohydrates that you burned during your run and refills your glycogen stores. It’s also a chance to get a headstart on muscle repair and recovery, with a good dose of protein.
Eating too soon after a run may lead to delayed digestion, as the blood tends to be directed away from the digestive system. This could lead to cramps, bloating, or a feeling of heaviness.
It can also be easy to accidentally overeat or choose the wrong foods when you’re feeling very hungry. Post-run hunger can lead to impulsive eating, negatively affecting weight loss and weight management.
When Should You Not Eat Before A Run?
If you find yourself short on time and don’t have an hour or more to allow your meal to digest, it’s best to run on an empty stomach or opt for a small snack instead.
You may also want to avoid eating before a run if you have a sensitive stomach or if you’re specifically trying to target your stored fat reserves.
What to Eat Before a Run
Before your run, you should eat a light meal high in complex carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and low in fat and fiber.
Carbs are your muscles’ main form of energy, and protein is valuable for muscle-building. Fat and fiber can slow down digestion and cause stomach upset.
Here are some good pre-run meal ideas:
- A banana.
- A piece of toast with nut butter.
- Greek yogurt with berries and honey.
- Oatmeal topped with sliced banana, nuts, or seeds.
- A banana, spinach, Greek yogurt, and protein powder smoothie.
- Half a whole-grain sandwich, with turkey/chicken and a side of carrot sticks.
- Brown rice/quinoa with grilled chicken/tofu and steamed vegetables.
When to Eat Before Your Run
A small snack can be eaten within an hour of running. Meals with 30 grams of carbs or more should be eaten one to two hours before you start your run, to give them enough time to digest before you begin your exercise.
What to Eat When Running for 90 Minutes or Longer
You should still eat a high-carb, moderate-protein, low-fat, and low-fiber meal for longer runs. You can aim for about 60 grams of carbohydrates in the meal and eat it two to three hours before our run.
This will give you enough fuel for the first 45 minutes to an hour of your run. At that point, you should refuel with an energy chew or gel.
Foods to Avoid Before a Run
Fueling up before your run can be beneficial, but only if you consume the right foods. Here’s what to avoid eating before you go for a run.
Foods that are high in fat take more time to digest. You might feel full, sluggish, and uncomfortable after a high-fat meal, especially empty-calorie junk food. There’s also a higher chance of nausea or bloating.
Fiber-rich foods like beans, legumes, broccoli, bran, and others can cause a build-up of gas. This might cause you to bloat or develop cramps during your run.
Spicy foods can often cause heartburn, especially when you pair undigested spices with the bounciness of a run. Avoid curries and hot causes before running.
Dairy products may ferment in the stomach and cause gas, bloating, cramps, and discomfort during a run. It’s best to avoid milk, cheese, and yogurt before you run.
High-sugar food might seem like good pre-workout, but sugar causes an energy spike and a crash following that. They’re also often empty calories.
New or Unfamiliar Foods
Avoid eating something new before you run. You never know when your stomach might not like something and develop a problem. Stick to what you know.
How Long After a Run Should You Eat?
You should eat your post-run meal within two hours of finishing your run. The sooner you eat, the easier your body will recover, as it will have the nutrients to support muscle recovery, repair, and glycogen replenishment.
What to Eat After Your Run
Just like a pre-run meal, your post-run meal should consist of a high amount of carbohydrates, a moderate to high amount of protein, and a low to moderate amount of fat and fiber.
Choose complex carbs for long-term energy, lean proteins for the most easily absorbable nutrients, and healthy fats. Leafy greens add plenty of antioxidants, which can help to reduce muscle soreness and boost recovery.
Don’t forget to rehydrate after your run as well. Although you do get a certain amount of water from your food, make the effort to drink enough, too.
Experiment to Find What Works Best for You
Nutrition is different for everyone. While the main principles remain the same, it’s up to you to experiment with different foods, timing, and mid-run fueling to figure out what works best for you.
Take the time to experiment and take notes. Study your notes and see when you perform best and what you eat before your best runs. This way, you can tailor your diet to suit your goals and optimize your performance.