What to Eat Before a Long Run or Race

In the process of writing my marathon book (announcement coming soon!) and conducting marathon workshops, I have come across a topic of high interest — Nutrition and Running. As such, I will devote a series of blog posts to best answer impending questions I have received.

Today’s question is:

What should I eat immediately before a long run or race?

Though many of you may schedule runs / workouts at varying times throughout the day, I’m focusing primarily on breakfast because mornings are when most running and endurance events take place (or at least start). It’s also the time of day when your stomach’s most empty, so it can be challenging to fill ‘er up, empty out (sorry, but it’s true!) and have enough fuel to last for the miles and hours that lie ahead.

Follows are my suggestions:

Don’t skimp (or skip). If you are jumping out of bed in the morning for a 4-6 mile run, you might decide to skip breakfast. Alternatively, you might grab a banana or small bowl of cereal. But if you are running 8 miles or more, your body will likely need more.

Eat enough. And how much is that? Well, that depends on your body size and shape, muscle mass, age, gender and other factors. But one thing is certain: You will need fuel for energy on your run. And you’ll want to keep your blood sugar as steady as possible.

So here are a few examples of breakfasts I eat before long runs. And bear in mind, I’m a big breakfast eater even when I’m not training for an event. But I also urge you not to worry about calorie consumption when you eat this meal — this about fuel and energy, not gaining weight.

  • Oatmeal with nuts and fruit. A bowl of oats with no added “flavor” and crunch doesn’t last me very long. So I usually liven it up with blueberries and walnuts, or some similar combination. I also eat a piece of toast with peanut butter on the side for some additional protein.
  • Pancakes with nuts and fruit. I realize this one is a little sugary, but I never said I wasn’t a sucker for sweets. If it’s early in the morning, I’ll use a pancake mix and add bananas and/or blueberries with walnuts or pecans. If I’m not running at an ungodly hour, I’ll make oatmeal or buckwheat pancakes from scratch.
  • Egg white omelet. This was my dish of choice before the Boston marathon this year (even ate expired eggs out of my friend’s fridge and didn’t get sick!). For longer distances, I like to eat more protein, and an egg white omelet with cheese, alongside peanut butter and toast, makes a great combo. Before a race or really long training run (16+ miles), I’ll add a banana to the mix and/or drink a protein shake.
  • Egg burrito. I scramble 2-3 eggs (usually one full egg and 2 egg whites), add cheese and pour this mixture in a corn or whole wheat tortilla. A little salsa and avocado make it even tastier, again, all depending on the hour of the day and my propensity for hot spices.
  • Protein shake. I rarely drink these without eating anything solid, but they are a wonderful way to get a combination of carbs and protein, while also hydrating. I usually combine frozen fruit (e.g., raspberries, blueberries, strawberries), a banana, skim or soy milk and protein powder.  Even though these drinks don’t always go down easy on queasy morning stomach,  I like the way it makes me feel out on the road.

Add some protein to the carb mix. Early in my marathon running days, I only ate carbohydrates before a race. Unfortunately, though, this quickly digested meal left me hungry and weak too soon before the finish line. Now, I add protein to the mix (and eat carbs during the run, too, but more on that later) and, as a result, I have more energy and fewer hunger pains.

I also find that consuming protein beforehand helps me recover more quickly after the run/race. In fact, the New York Times just posted a story on this very topic (warning: not enough women in these studies!).

I don’t recommend that you OD on fiber before a long run or race, unless you want to spend some serious time in portojohns along on the route. Likewise, I’d go easy on the coffee, too.

Save time to digest. Ideally, I’d like a couple of hours for my food to digest before a long run, particularly if I plan to attack the hills. However, if my departure time is 6 or 7 a.m., I’m sure not going to get up at 4 a.m. to eat. Who has an appetite at that hour anyway?

It’s a balancing act between how much to eat and how early to rise. If you have less time for digestion, you may want to eat less (or feel a little nauseated on the run otherwise). For a long run, I generally drag myself out of bed in enough time to eat plenty, as painful as it may be.

Cater to you. My biggest piece of advice is to experiment with a variety of breakfasts/meals/amounts and see what works best for you. We all need a different balance of proteins and carbs, we digest food at different rates and we have varying amounts of fat to burn, among other factors.

So eat. Run. Observe. Rest. Repeat what works well. Revise as necessary. Go get ’em.

Avoid anything new. Whatever has worked best for you on long training runs is what you’ll want to mimic on race day. This is not an ideal time to pull a new routine out of the hat.

If you have further questions, feel free to submit them below. Or tell me what meal you like before a run. And I’ll try it, too.

Stay tuned for the other topics in this series: eating during the run, eating after the run, what to eat the night before an event, and a more general “training and nutrition.”

Melinda Hinson