Goldilocks may be just about the best metaphor for pre-run fueling. Eat too much, and your stomach revolts when you turn up the pace. Eat too little, and you stumble, weak from hunger, through your intervals.
Luckily, getting it “just right” isn’t a fairy tale. With a little know-how from top registered dietitians and sports nutritionists, you can whittle your perfect pre-run snack from a shot block in the dark to an exact science.
Of course, it takes a bit of experimentation to get your fueling on point. Pre-run nutrition is truly a “your mileage may vary” scenario. “It also depends on the workout. What’s the workout, and how far out are you consuming the meal?” says Marni Sumbal, a board-certified sports dietitian, triathlon coach, and Ironman-distance triathlete. The harder your run, the more careful you need to be. Figuring this out can take some time, but these suggestions should help guide you in the right direction.
Within an Hour of Running
In an ideal world, you’d eat a balanced and nutritious snack two hours before running. But on days when everything goes sideways and your stomach grumbles as you slip into your running shorts, you need a quick hit of calories. “Look for something low fiber and low fat,” says Sumbal, because fiber and fat can slow digestion. Even if you’re absolutely starving, try to stick to a single serving of these foods since you’re too close to your workout to safely handle a calorie bonanza.
Figs, Raisins, and Dates
Portable, full of fructose—an easily absorbed sugar—and not too bulky, you can get a lot of quick calories from just a handful. Plus, unlike a gel or shot block, you’ll also get some micronutrients. “Runners tend to gravitate toward energy bars and just look at the macronutrients in the nutrition facts. But that misses the big picture. Micronutrients are just as important,” says Elyse Kopecky, a chef, nutritionist and co-author with Shalane Flanagan of the cookbook Run Fast, Eat Slow. Figs, dates, and raisins all contain flavonoid polyphenolic antioxidants, potassium, iron, magnesium, and calcium.
Applesauce or Juice
Sumbal says small packs of applesauce or fruit juice can offer a quick, low-fiber source of fuel for short runs. Look for options without a ton of added sugar. One hundred percent fruit juice or no-sugar applesauce are best. If you choose something like pure tart cherry juice, it may have some recovery benefits thanks to high levels of quercetin, a powerful antioxidant. Some athletes find that consuming juice or dried fruit alone causes a major blood sugar spike, symptoms of which could include feeling wobbly or woozy a few minutes after consumption. If this happens to you, try eating either of these options with a few almonds or a boiled egg white. “The added protein will slow down absorption,” says Sumbal.
Rice Cakes, Nut Butter, and Honey
If you’ll be out for a longer run, you’ll need a bit of fat and protein to keep you from feeling hungry. Sumbal says a single rice cake with just a few teaspoons of nut butter and a drizzle of honey will give you both slow-burning fat and quick carbs. If rice cakes aren’t your thing, Sumbal says bread is okay, but this is one of the few times when she actually recommends white over wheat—the extra fiber in wheat could cause digestion mishaps.
Yes, for some runners, coffee will result in running straight to the nearest Porta-Potty. Definitely don’t try pre-run coffee for the first time on race day. (However, coffee is a great way to make sure you, ahem, go before it’s time to go.) If your stomach can handle it, Sumbal says there’s some evidence that caffeine taken within 45 minutes of running can decrease an athlete’s rate of perceived exertion, so that 7:30 mile pace could feel just a touch easier. Three milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight is ideal. For an average adult-size human, that’s a 3- to 4-ounce espresso. If you’re prone to issues with dairy, skip the cream.
If You Have 60 to 90 Minutes Before Your Run
This is that tricky area where you have enough time to digest more than a handful of raisins but not enough for something like a whole burrito. Tommy Rodgers, a North Carolina–based coach and registered dietitian, says to aim for a mix of complex and simple carbs with just a touch of protein to keep you satiated and ensure digestion doesn’t happen too quickly.
These are one of Shalane Flanagan’s secret weapons, says Kopecky. Essentially, it’s a muffin made from almond flour, rolled oats, grated zucchini, and carrots, sweetened with maple syrup. The recipe, posted on Flanagan and Kopecky’s blog, has been a hit, according to Kopecky, who was an elite athlete at UNC Chapel Hill with Flanagan. Runners of all levels report slamming them before tough workouts and still performing. “It’s got a good mix of protein, carbs, and fat,” she says, adding that the maple syrup is high in minerals like manganese and zinc.
Cereal and Almond Milk
Rodgers says that a cereal without too much fiber paired with almond milk, flaxseeds, and a few raisins can make a perfect pre-run snack. He likes the brand Nature’s Path, but eat whatever you like as long as it has a small amount of fiber and few added sugars. “This close to a run, I might not do dairy,” Rodgers warns, but you know your gut better than anyone else—if you can handle milk, by all means, enjoy some.
On race morning, Flanagan almost always eats instant oats with mashed banana and chopped nuts thrown in. The banana provides potassium and fast-burning carbohydrates, while oats provide complex carbs for sustained performance. The nuts, which are full of healthy unsaturated fats, may even help with post-race recovery: some studies have found that nuts may reduce inflammation.
You Have 90 to 120 Minutes
If you’re hungry or have a long, slow run coming up, you can safely ingest a fair number of calories and be totally comfortable while running. Aim to get something with a mix of simple and complex carbs, good fats, and a bit of protein, but “nothing too hardy; we don’t want anything that’s going to leave a lot of residue in the gut,” says Sumbal, meaning anything super-fibrous or super-fatty is out.
You can stuff this with veggies and hummus or some sort of lean protein, say both Sumbal and Rodgers. Once again, white bread is okay, even if you’d normally never touch the stuff. Sumbal says the trick is to think of pre-run foods purely as fuel, not a continuation of your daily diet. Whole-wheat bread, with its higher fiber count, can cause digestive issues, even two hours later.
Pancakes or Waffles
Before your Saturday morning long run, chow down on a couple pancakes with nut butter and honey. Rodgers also likes a waffle, cashew butter, and apple butter sandwich. Again, going with a white versus whole-wheat option is okay, and don’t load up on just syrup. You need more than simple carbohydrates if you’ll be out for a few hours.
A Small Burrito
You might not want to do this before a group run, but if you’re flying solo, feel free to stuff rice, beans, and veggies into a flour tortilla. Skip the cheese and sour cream, which Rodgers says will digest too slowly and make you feel sluggish, but feel free to add a mild salsa. The lycopene from the tomatoes is a powerful antioxidant, and there’s some indication that lycopene supplementation could ease oxidative stress in runners.