You read advice everywhere about eating a snack before your run – but when, how much, and what exactly should you eat before your run? Should this be a mini-meal or just a small bite? Should you have carbs, protein, or fat? How long should you wait to run? In this post, I will be covering all the details of the pre-run snack. Do note that this refers to snacks before a daily run – what you eat before a race is usually different, as you are eating more to run faster and/or farther.
WHY SHOULD YOU EAT A PRE-RUN SNACK?
If you are running before breakfast, a pre-run snack serves the purpose of topping off your body’s carbohydrate stores. The overnight fast of sleeping can deplete up to half of your glycogen (stored carbohydrate), so a snack gives a boost of mental and physical energy for your run. The carbs from your snack will prevent any bonking or sluggishness on your run.
The same applies if you are running several hours after a meal and you are feeling hungry again. A pre-run snack stabilizes your blood sugar and provides you with the energy you need for your afternoon run, without ruining your appetite for dinner.
PRE-RUN SNACK IDEAS
Ideally, you want to select easily digestible foods (not high in fiber) that are rich carbohydrates. You may choose to add a bit of fat or protein for satiety, but both fat and protein are slower to digest, so test your option on a shorter run first.
Graham crackers, plain or with nut butter
Banana, plain or with nut butter
Toast or half a bagel with honey or jam (my personal favorite!)
Roasted/boiled red potato with salt
Sweet potato with honey
Honey Stinger waffles
All of these options contain easily digestible carbohydrates and are relatively small in volume. You will notice that none of these foods are high in fiber. Some of the options add fat, which can help you stay fuller for longer and provide some energy (you burn fat and carbs while running).
For a long run of 90 minutes or more, pick a couple options or increase the portion size (i.e. half a bagel to one full bagel) to give you energy throughout the entire run. Your glycogen stores will begin to deplete after about 2 hours of running – and you never want to completely deplete yourself on a run – so you want to add more food before and take fuel during the run.
WHAT NOT TO EAT BEFORE A RUN
While everyone is different, I recommend avoiding potentially irritating foods or foods that are slow to digest. Even if you are not sensitive to these, they may leave your stomach feeling heavy or upset on a run:
Dairy products: milk, cream, cheese, yogurt
High-fiber vegetables, especially broccoli, cauliflower, kale
Ultimately, though, every runner is different. Maybe you can have a green smoothie before a run and be fine! Alternatively, you may find that the normal options such as peanut butter do not sit well with you. Use trial and error and consider what you are eating and when you are eating when finding a pre-run snack that works for you.
WHEN SHOULD YOU EAT YOUR PRE-RUN SNACK?
Individual factors must be considered in the timing of a pre-run snack:
Time of day: early morning run or did you just eat lunch a couple hours ago?
Digestion: Is your stomach sensitive?
Duration of run: Longer runs require more food before, which can mean more time to digest.
Ideally, you want to allow 30-60 minutes for a smaller snack to digest, such as a banana or dried fruit. Runners with stomachs of steel can usually run less than an hour after eating even a sizable snack. For larger snacks before long runs, or if you have a sensitive stomach, allow 1-2 hours to digest. If you need more than 2 hours for a pre-run snack, consider trying other options to see if they digest better – especially if you are a morning runner.
WHEN TO SKIP THE PRE-RUN SNACK
A common problem for new runners is that they gain weight when they begin running. This can cause motivation to plummet and some to stop running altogether, especially if they started running for weight loss. When this happens, look at the calories before, during, and after a run – a Clif Bar before a run, Gatorade during, and a recovery shake afterward is excessive for a run in the range of 30-60 minutes. Your body cannot even use that many carbs on the run, especially when you are not running long enough to deplete your glycogen stores (90 minutes to 2 hours). There’s no need to have a 500 calorie pre-run snack plus sports drink on a 30 minute run when you just had lunch a couple hours ago.
Use your hunger as a cue for running after meals. If you are feeling ravenous already and have a run over 30-45 minutes or a harder workout planned, have a small snack (such as a banana or dried fruit) – you do not want to be running on empty. If you just ate a full meal a couple hours ago and do not feel hunger, then you do not need a pre-run snack – your meal will sustain you through the run.
If you are running for 60 minutes or less immediately upon waking, you can skip the pre-run snack – especially if eating one would come at the expense of sleep. Your stored carbohydrate levels may be lower after sleep, but a 30-60 minute easy run will not deplete your glycogen stores. Just be sure to eat within 60 minutes of finishing your fasted run to recover well and keep your immune system healthy.