Whether you’re running a 5K or a 50K, the breakfast you eat on race day is an important factor in how you feel out on the course. Make a good choice and eat it at the right time, and you’ll feel energized and powerful. Make a poor choice and you may experience an uncomfortable finish, unpleasant GI issues, or both.
Training runs are an excellent opportunity to try various options to find not only what works well, but also to exclude what does NOT work (trust me, race day is a less-than-ideal time to learn that you have a tough time digesting oatmeal, or that dairy don’t sit well with you). We’re all a little different, so it’s important to figure out what works best for you.
WHEN TO EAT
When you eat is as important as what you eat. Consume a meal and your body diverts blood to your GI tract to digest. Begin running and your body shuttles blood to the muscles of your legs. While our bodies are amazing multi-taskers, they’re not great at digesting and running simultaneously.
With this in mind, on race day, you’ll want to eat your breakfast 2-3 hours before your event. That doesn’t mean you have to eat that early before every training run, but I recommend picking a couple of your longest runs and practicing this strategy so you can experience what that early breakfast feels like.
WHAT TO EAT
When a runner hears “carbohydrate” he or she should think “fuel.” Even if you started running to lose a few pounds, carbs are a runner’s primary source of energy and are an important part of your diet.
Less than an hour before your run? A light carb-rich snack will provide energy:
- A piece of fresh fruit
- A couple dates or some unsweetened dried fruit
- A cup of apple sauce
- A slice of toast, either dry or with 1-2 teaspoons of nut butter.
With a solid hour, preferably longer, before your run, you can afford a larger meal (using some of the previous foods, if you choose), making sure to focus on carbs but also adding a little fat or protein:
- Toast or bagel + a small amount of almond butter and/or a banana
- Oatmeal with fruit
- A baked potato or yam
- White rice – this is especially good for those with GI issues on the run. You could add cinnamon and unsweetened almond milk (or other milk of your choice), or go savory by adding a small amount of soy sauce or liquid amino acids.
Avoid foods with lots of fiber, protein or fat right before a run, since they take longer to digest and don’t provide immediate fuel.
While I encourage eating nutrient- and fiber-rich vegetables, fruit, beans and whole grains most of the time, right before a long run, it can be reasonable to choose dried fruit and more refined grains, due to their ability to quickly turn into glucose for fuel (this is the exact reason why I do NOT recommend them other times).
DO I HAVE TO EAT BEFORE EVERY RUN?
If you’re running for an hour or more, it’s a smart play to eat something before or take some fuel with you. However, many runners need to wake up at the crack of dawn to knock out training miles, and some of these runners can get by without breakfast for 3 or 4 or more miles. Others can’t step out the door without a proper meal. There’s actually evidence that completing some runs under-fueled can help your body adapt to burning fat (ideal since we can store far more fat than carbs). However, if all of your runs are attempted without adequate carbs, A. Your runs will be miserable, and B. It will be tough to gain speed.
The decision to complete some of your runs with a deficit of carbs is a very individual one, and if you’re diabetic or subject to hypoglycemia, it shouldn’t be attempted without a doctor’s supervision.
This blog is not intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment, nor is it intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
About the Author: Lauren Shafer
Lauren is a certified Health Coach who helps busy Baltimoreans articulate their health + wellness goals, and make measurable, sustainable diet and lifestyle changes for lasting transformation. Though she would never be described as athletic in her youth, Lauren started running as an adult, begrudgingly at first, until she discovered she actually enjoyed it. Now an 9-time marathoner and 4-time ultra-marathoner, you’ll frequently find Lauren running on roads and trails with her husband John and dog Osita.