What You Should Be Eating Before Your Long Runs

The three main components of marathon or half marathon training – running (obviously), recovery, and nutrition. Also in marathon training, the weekly run which has the greatest impact physiologically and psychologically on your performance is your long run. Without proper sports nutrition, pre-race meals, and pre-run snacks, you won’t be able to maximize your potential as a long-distance runner. And all this starts with practicing what to eat before a long run.

I learned this lesson the hard way. When I ran my first half marathon six years ago, I paid no attention to my carbohydrate intake, electrolytes, or pre-race fueling. Boy, did I feel it. Without the proper amount of energy reserves and glycogen stores built up in muscles before my long run, I bonked an two hours into the race. I was a cramping disaster.

I have since dialed my nutrition and fueling regiment to accommodate my long runs. Being a registered dietitian, I’ve now learned how exactly to fuel my and my client’s bodies with the right nutrients to optimize performance. I also want to make sure they have a pain-free race. And, ensure there’s enough energy levels to blow past the finish line at high-intensity. 

In this article, we’ll take a look at a comprehensive nutrition plan for your next long run. We’ll provide specific recommendations for what to eat before a half marathon, marathon, or ultramarathon.

What to eat before a long run text over a woman running in a field.

What to eat before a long training run

Training runs are the opportunity to try new foods and find what works best for your digestive system.

The best thing when determining what to eat before a half marathon, marathon, or other endurance event is to practice your pre-run routine before long training runs.

Within a training plan, you’ll have long run distances of 10 to 12 miles for a half marathon and 18 to 22 for a full marathon, both of which offer a perfect opportunity to experiment with how nutrition impacts your performance, digestive system (i.e. bloating, bowel urgency, etc).

The 10 best pre-run meals for long distance running

Typically, the best pre-run meals for long-distance runners provide lots of carbohydrates for energy, moderate protein for satiety, and small amounts of healthy fats to sustain energy during the run.

Avoid a breakfast that’s too high in fat, protein, and any very high fiber foods. These macronutrients take longer to digest and less efficiently convert to energy.

You want to make things easy for your intestines since you’ll be diverting all your blood to your hard working muscles! Carbs should be your main focus.

Here are ten options to consider:

  1. Oatmeal: A classic choice for many high performance athletes that provide complex carbohydrates for sustained energy. Top it with fruits (carbohydrates), nuts (healthy fats), and honey (simple carbs for more accessible energy).
  2. Whole grain toast with nut butter & jam: Whole wheat toast with peanut butter and jam provides a good mix of lots of carbohydrates, with some protein, and healthy fats.
  3. Greek yogurt with berries and honey: Greek yogurt is high in protein and pairs well with the natural sugars from berries and a generous drizzle of honey.
  4. Banana, almond butter, and a sports drink: If you are dashing out the door before your long run, this is a great quick and portable option. Bananas are rich in carbohydrates, and almond butter adds healthy fats and protein. A sports drink is a fantastic addition to help hydrate you while providing you some pre-run electrolytes.
  5. Smoothie: My favorites smoothies are a blend of fruits, Greek yogurt, a handful of spinach, and a scoop of protein powder. It makes for a convenient and nutrient-packed pre-run meal. Also great for on-the-go athletes!
  6. Rice with grilled chicken and vegetables: A balanced meal with carbs, lean protein, and some fiber and antioxidants from the veggies (like potassium). If you don’t mind chicken in the morning your if you’re a late night long-runner.
  7. Scrambled egg whites on a bagel: Bagels are one of the best foods to eat before a training session. They are high-carb, and paired with egg whites (a protein source), you’re sure to have sustained energy for your run.
  8. Pasta with tomato sauce: Whole wheat pasta provides carbohydrates, while the tomato sauce offers vitamins and antioxidants. You can add lean protein like grilled chicken.
  9. Baked sweet potato: A baked potato is a good pre-run snack to boost glycogen stores. Avoid topping it with too many high-fat foods like sour cream and bacon bits to maximize its benefits.
  10. Energy bar: If this is all you can muster, go for it! Granola bars and supplements are convenient options to reach for if needed.

Here’s our full list of meals for runners, if you need more inspiration.

The timing of your pre-run meal is essential. You should aim to eat your meal 1-3 hours before your run to allow for proper digestion.

If your last meal is 4 hours before your run, have 4 grams of carbs in your pre-run meal per kg of body weight. Then, if your meal is 3 hours before the run start, have 3 grams of carbs per kg. If your meal is 2 hours before the run, have 2 grams of carbs per kg. And lastly, if your breakfast is 1 hour before the run (or less), have 1 gram of carbs per kg.

It’s also important to stay hydrated by drinking water before your run, and don’t forget to listen to your body and adjust your pre-run meal choices accordingly.

Salmon, chicken, hummus, pita and avocado toast as part of a marathon or long run training diet.

What to eat before a long race, half marathon, or marathon

What you eat in the days leading up to your big race matters a ton! Carb loading before a race is one of the most important performance enhancing strategies used by half marathon runners and elite athletes.

Whether you’re preparing for a marathon or a half marathon, increased carbohydrate intake will provide you with energy you need to perform at your best on race day.

Carbohydrate loading

The goal of carb loading is to maximize glycogen stores in the muscles and liver. Glycogen is the primary fuel sources during all exercise.

Muscle glycogen broken down to glucose in the body which then becomes a readily available energy source for activity.

Carb loading won’t make you run faster! That’s what your half marathon training is for. But, carb loading helps prevent you from bonking during any endurance activity

Carb loading is a mandatory nutrition strategy for athletes participating in any events lasting longer than 90 minutes which includes the marathon and half marathon.

When to Load on Carbohydrates

You should start carb loading 7 days before a marathon or ultra and 3 days before a half marathon.

Aim to consume around 7-10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day during the carbo-loading phase.

For example, if you weigh 70 kilograms, you should aim for approximately 490-700 grams of carbs each day. For context, a cup of cooked pasta is between 37 and 43 grams of carbohydrates.

This is a lot more than people might expect. To hit the lowest threshold of carbohydrate intake during a carb load phase, you’d need to consume 10 cups of cooked pasta.

The Best Foods For Carb Loading

When consider what types of foods to include in your carb loading period, here are common food staples of the running community:

–   Sweet potatoes (27g per 1 cup)

–   Oatmeal (27g per 1 cup cooked)

–   Quinoa (39.4g per 1 cup cooked)

–   Rice (45g per 1 cup cooked)

–   Pasta (40g per 1 cup cooked)

–   Toast (13g per 1 slice wheat toasted)

–   Pancakes (8g per 1 oz of pancakes)

–   Bagel (48g per 1 bagel)

–   Bananas (27g per 1 banana)

–   Gatorade (36g per 100ml)

Read our blog post to learn the ins and outs of safely carb loading.

Post-run nutrition

Don’t forget to eat after your race! Your post-race meal should be eaten within 30-60 minutes of finishing. This window of time is when your body is most receptive to nutrient absorption and muscle recovery.

A solid post-race meal to refuel includes carbohydrates, lean proteins, and antioxidants. Examples are grilled chicken with brown rice and steamed vegetables or a tofu stir-fry with quinoa and mixed greens.

Four runners participating in a marathon on a bridge.

What to eat the night before race day

The night before a long run, have a high-carb, low-fat meal that you’ve had before and is familiar to your digestive system.

Choose foods like as pasta, rice, bread, or potatoes as your main carbohydrate source.

Avoid heavy, fatty, or high-fiber foods. Alfredo pasta or takeout pizza are examples of high fat meals that probably won’t sit well!

Before bed, eat a small carb snack the night before your race like some graham crackers, pretzels, or chews for extra carbs. Again, limit fat and fiber.

As mentioned above, gradually increase your carbohydrate intake in the days leading up to your race. Don’t bank on that one pasta meal the night before to be enough!

What if I don’t feel hungry before a morning run?

Most race starts are early in the morning, so I totally get it if you’re not hungry for a big pre-race breakfast at 5am. But you should eat a pre-race meal or snack regardless.

Choose easily digestible carbohydrates that won’t sit heavily in your stomach. Opt for things like a banana, a small energy bar, a piece of toast with jam, or a few handfuls of dry cereal or granola at the very least. 

You don’t have to force-feed yourself a huge amount of food before a workout in order to get fuel in. A small snack containing even 30g of carbohydrate will do the trick.

Once your body gets used to having fuel before a workout, you can experiment with increasing your intake further so you’re not always running on an empty stomach.

Can I run fasted?

Fasted running, or running on an empty stomach, is not something I recommend.

Running on an empty stomach can lead to low energy levels, making it challenging to maintain your pace and complete your run without bonking.

Low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) can also occur during fasted running, which may lead to symptoms like dizziness, shakiness, and difficulty concentrating.

And, in some cases, running on an empty stomach may lead to muscle catabolism, as your body may break down muscle tissue for energy in the absence of readily available carbohydrates.

Overall, getting a pre-workout snack or meal is really important!

FAQ about eating before a long run

What should you eat before a long run?

The best pre-run meals for long-distance runners provide lots of carbohydrates for energy, moderate protein for satiety, and small amounts of healthy fats to sustain energy during the run.

Oats, toast, fruit smoothies, energy bars, energy running gels, and sweet potatoes are all great pre-run foods.

Should I eat before my long run?

Yes.

Running on an empty stomach can lead to low energy levels, making it challenging to maintain your pace and complete your run without bonking.

You don’t have to force-feed yourself a huge amount of food before a workout in order to get fuel in. A small snack containing even 30g of carbohydrate will do the trick. Choose easily digestible carbohydrates that won’t sit heavily in your stomach. Opt for things like a banana, a small energy bar, a piece of toast with jam, or a few handfuls of dry cereal or granola at the very least. 

What should I eat 30 minutes before a long run?

30 minutes before a long run, have 1 gram of carbs per kg of body weight. So, if you weigh 70kg, eat a meal containing 70g of carbs.

For example, eat 2 cups of pasta, 1 and a half bagels, or 2 cups of cooked oats.

What foods should I avoid before a long run?

Avoid foods high in fat, protein and fiber as these nutrients take longer to digest. You want to make things easy for your intestines since you’ll be diverting all your blood to your hard working muscles! Carbs are your main focus.

Why is it important to eat before a long run?

Without the proper glycogen stores needed before a long run, you will “hit the wall” and bonk during your long run.

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