A well-fuelled body will not only help you run further and faster, but will assist in the key recovery after exercise. For any runner, the key benefits of healthy eating are the ability to train well and to recover efficiently plus quickly, so you can enjoy your next session, however hard it is. This remains true whatever your standard – complete beginner or aspiring Olympian.
The harder you train, the more relevant healthy eating becomes: to enable you to tackle sessions like intervals, hills or tempo runs, as well as demanding gym sessions. A healthy diet can also assist weight loss.
What we eat in the few hours before a run can be a crucial factor in how good we feel during a workout. Are you the person who grabs a few biscuits as you head out the door? Or do you roll out of bed and straight out for a long run on an empty stomach?
We all have differing metabolisms and tolerances for different foods. The best thing is to experiment to find out what works best for your body. There are quite a few variables, such as length and intensity of run, time of run, your own unique metabolism and your food preferences.
Tips on eating before running:
The main fuel our body uses comes from carbohydrate. We store this in our muscles and liver as glycogen. We can only store a limited amount of glycogen so it's crucial to keep supplies topped up. As a rough guide, before running you should leave three to four hours after a large meal and half an hour to two hours after a snack. When you leave too long between eating and running you risk low blood sugar (glucose) levels causing light-headedness or fatigue. Ensuring you have steady blood glucose levels means you can complete your run feeling strong.
- Glycaemic Index (GI)
A useful tool for helping runners choose the right foods is the glycaemic index (GI). This is used to rank foods according to how quickly they convert food into energy.
- Foods with a high GI will give the most rapid rise in blood sugar, making them ideal for during or after running to replenish energy levels quickly. Examples of High GI, quick release foods are potatoes, white bread, sugary drinks and watermelon – all ideal as quick snacks.
- Foods with a lower GI index are slower release and give more sustained energy. They are better for meal times. Examples low GI foods are pasta, porridge, whole grain bread, some fruits, cheese, hummus or baked beans.
- Protein & Fat
The other thing to bear in mind is to try to include some protein and a little healthy fat in your meal or snack, as these will also slow the release of carbohydrates.
- Light Snack
Many people find they can run on an empty stomach first thing in the morning if their run is less than an hour. However, if you like to head straight out the door but need a small snack, try fresh or dried fruit, or yoghurt. If you struggle to eat anything solid early in the morning you could also try a smoothie, which will give you energy in liquid form. You can also make sure to have a good light snack just before going to bed, to keep your glycogen levels topped up.
- Energy Bars
Energy bars are perfect before running. They would also be good choices if you find you've missed your regular afternoon snack and need something within half an hour of running.
- For Longer Runs
For a longer run or a race you will need to have something more substantial an hour or two beforehand, such as porridge, eggs on toast, granola with yogurt and fruit.
- Whole Foods
Most nutrition experts will agree that fuelling your body optimally means eating foods as close to their whole natural state as possible. Try to limit more refined foods like white bread to just before running when you need a quick release of energy. These foods have their place, but don't have as much nutritional value as wholegrain options.
Despite their best efforts, some people still suffer from digestion issues or stitches when running. Try keeping a food diary for a week, noting how you felt during a run. This can help identify which food types are causing you trouble. If you suspect certain foods are not agreeing with you, try giving them up for a week and see if you feel any difference.
Run and Become staff choices:
To try and give an idea of what a group of runners fuelled up on we did a quick survey around Run and Become staff. The overwhelming favourites were bananas, porridge and energy bars, eaten anything from half an hour to two hours before running. Other choices were bread and honey, wholemeal bagel with banana and peanut butter, smoothies, raisins, cereal, jaffa cakes, oats soaked in milk with chia seeds.
If you are new to running you might ask: what should I eat when I run? The short answer is that for most people’s average daily run of anything from 5k to 10 miles, the answer is: nothing, or at least not a lot. There are two main reasons for this.
Tips on eating while running:
- It takes time to digest
It takes anything from 15-30 minutes for food input to have any remote chance of being useful on a run, so as long as you have a good plan for having a snack to top up regular energy supplies in the 30-60 minutes before running, you will be fine.
- Your digestion may shut down
As you exercise, the body’s internal digestive system tends to shut down, so food is subsequently harder to digest, or worse doesn’t digest at all and sits in the stomach, not releasing the energy intake to the body.
- Gels or drinks on longer runs
The need for intake can change the longer you run – say more than 90 minutes, while training for a half or full marathon. However, even then, most people are fine as long as fluids with carbohydrates are taken on board.
- Fluids are generally absorbed into the blood stream from the stomach far easier than solids, so are more instantly useful.
- Gels or carbohydrate and electrolyte drinks like NUUN, High5, or Active Root are some of the most common and easy-to-use energy sources for runners. They come in tablet or powder form, so just need to be mixed with water. Chews are another option.
- Running over 4 hours
The further you run, fuelling is often dictated by the time on your feet rather than the distance covered. The majority of runners can survive quite well just on fluids up to 3 hrs. Even fit club-standard runners, capable of a sub-4-hour marathon, usually don’t need much solid fuel if any. It is when you are on your feet for more than about 4-5 hours – either for a marathon or entering the realms of ultra marathon running – where some more solid food becomes either useful or essential. If you're going to be running over 5 hours in a marathon, for example, you may need to consider having an energy bar or some dried fruit with you, as easily-digested foods. If you are considering running ultras check out our separate article: Nutrition for Marathons and Ultra Marathons.
There are two main feeding windows after a run to be aware of. Immediate input of a snack in the 15-30 minutes after you finish, and then the longer-term 2-3 hours where more substantial food is needed.
It’s a familiar scenario for a lot of runners: you get back from a run knowing you need input and grab the first thing that comes to hand. Or you finish your run and pop into the nearest shop to be faced with rows of tempting but maybe not so sensible re-fuelling options. If you are tired and blood sugar is low you are likely to choose something high in sugar or without protein. You might also be tempted to head straight for a shower and a lie down without eating anything at all. Here's how to get round this...
First window: the half hour immediately after a run
- Your muscles are more receptive to rebuilding glycogen
During this period your muscles have been shown to be more receptive to rebuilding glycogen stores. Carbohydrate is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen, and is a primary energy source for runners. As we said before, these supplies are diminished when you exercise and the body can only store a limited amount of glycogen, making it vital to replenish supplies, especially after a long run or hard workout.
- 4:1 carbohydrate to protein
The best way to do this is to have a snack with a ratio of 4:1 carbohydrate to protein. The protein provides amino acids, which will rebuild muscle. However, too much protein can slow carbohydrate absorption, so it’s important to try and keep that balance. Good refuelling choices for this window are:
- Banana and a small handful of nuts
- Toast or oatcakes with nut butter or hummus
- Yogurt with fresh fruit
- Energy bars
- Protein shakes and smoothies (see points 3 & 4).
- Powdered recovery drinks
There are a couple of powdered drinks that can be mixed before your run, so they're ready to grab straight away. Tailwind rebuild recovery drink is a vegan option that uses rice protein, coconut milk and has a range of essential amino acids. SIS Rego Rapid Recovery gives an ideal ratio of protein as well as a good range of vitamins and minerals. Chia Charge bars are a great tasting flapjack style bar, ideal either during a longer run or afterwards to refuel.
- Homemade smoothies
These are a good option too: try mixing a cup of coconut water with a banana, a small scoop of protein powder or nut butter and a couple of sticks of celery. The coconut water and celery are full of natural electrolytes to help re-hydrate. You can also add a couple of dates or some more fruit like berries if you crave something a bit sweeter. If you prepare your post-run smoothie or snack before your run and have it ready in the fridge, you will be less likely to munch on biscuits.
- For those with a sensitive stomach
If you have a sensitive stomach or find it hard to eat solid food immediately after a run, try having a smoothie or protein shake. You can also leave it until nearer the end of the 30-minute window, giving the body 20 minutes or so to recover before taking something in. Remember to check the protein to carb ratio on energy bars and protein shakes as they are not all created equal. If you suffer from any GI upset either during or after running then Active Root ginger drink is a great option to calm the stomach and rehydrate. It's all natural and is especially good served warm after a cold winter run.
Second window: within 1-3 hours of a run
In this time you should try to eat a meal or larger snack with a higher level of protein, and also some healthy fat and carbohydrates. You also need to be aware not to over-eat at this meal, as too much food will slow the absorption of nutrients. The body can only absorb 20g of protein in one go, so be careful not to overload your plate with protein.
Eating the right combination of nutrients here will continue to repair muscle damage, decrease inflammation and rebuild glycogen stores. There are almost endless possibilities for this meal depending if it's breakfast, lunch or dinner, and on your food preferences. The key thing to remember is to include a portion of good quality protein, some healthy fats and carbohydrates. Focus on vegetables, fruit and whole grains, for example:
- Large salad with a good protein source and avocado or nuts/seeds
- Stir-fry vegetables with quinoa and chickpeas
- Veggie/cheese omelette with small salad or protein shake
- Porridge with fresh fruit and a scoop of protein stirred in
- Large smoothie including a decent scoop of protein, fruit and some greens (spinach is ideal)
All coaches and fitness instructors agree that whatever your standard, the body’s demands are basically the same. By allowing and planning for recovery both by sensible planned nutrition and some good quality rest, you will have a much better chance of feeling good and looking forward to your next run. With a bit of careful planning, what you eat in the few hours after running can help you recover better, minimise muscle stiffness and leave you better prepared for your next run.
Does eating healthily help you run faster?
Not by itself. You have to look at things as a jigsaw puzzle all fitting together.
Many factors help you run faster. Training and running of course are the main element. Other factors like stretching, strength, flexibility, rest / sleep and healthy running nutrition all help us run further and faster too. A healthy, well-fuelled body will run better and recover quicker, which with the right mix of training should help you run faster.
What is the best diet for a runner?
The best diet for runners is a healthy well-balanced one, with as much natural, fresh, unprocessed food as possible. If you have to look at the packets too long in the shops wondering what is in them, it probably isn’t that fresh or natural!
Why is nutrition important for runners?
Humans were designed to work and exercise. A well-fuelled body will ensure you have enough energy to get through daily tasks without any crashes. It will also enable you to do whatever level of exercise you have time for as well.
What foods should runners avoid?
In some ways all good things in moderation is fine but trying to avoid too much that comes out of a tin or a packet is not a bad philosophy. The body needs sugar and fat as part of its overall fuel, but high-fat, high-sugar food should be kept under control. We sometimes crave snacks like crisps and fizzy drinks, which are good as an instant source of energy, but they shouldn’t be “go to” snacks all the time.
What drink makes you run faster?
Short answer: Nothing legal!
Longer answer: A well-hydrated body is also part of the overall jigsaw puzzle to ensure you are able to train comfortably. Drinking water, possibly supplemented with an electrolyte like NUUN or High5 tablets play a part too, to replace lost essential electrolytes like sodium and potassium through sweating.
What should I eat to increase my stamina for running?
Carbohydrate is the key long-term energy source, especially if you’re just beginning or are increasing your mileage. Carbs play a big role in a marathon runner's diet, as they are stored as muscle fuel and give the extra energy needed to draw on as you spend more time training. Good examples of carbohydrate sources to eat as pre-run food – 20-30 minutes before running – are bananas or flapjack-type energy bars. Longer-term examples in meals are potatoes, pasta and bread (preferably wholemeal), yoghurt and oatmeal cereals.
This is nutritional information that we found very useful and want to share with our customers. But we're not nutrition specialists. The nutritional information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or sports nutrition.