As an elite runner, I know I can be a helpful resource to many people. I can give advice and suggestions on how to be the best you can be, based on the mistakes I have made during my running career, and the tips from experts I have been given.
One topic that people that I get asked about a lot, is what to eat before running, and particularly what to eat for a race to make sure the runner trots don’t destroy your chances of a good race.
I thought it would be easiest to break this down into the usual method of covering all bases; Who, What, Where, When, Why, How.
Hopefully this helps to answer all your questions, but I have also made a few videos about the topic, like this one I did for Kinetic Revolution.
I also have a post on Post Race and Workout Fueling/Eating, you should definitely check that out too!
Who? What elite runners eat on race day is not that different to you!
It does not matter what level of athlete/runner/performer you are, food is crucial for performing your best and feeling good in a race.
It is like a car trying to drive with no gas, or with regular gas in a premium tank damaging the car.
To get the most out of your body, it needs to be provided with the right fuel to work correctly. We have all had an upset stomach in the past, and it does not make for an enjoyable race, and your goal for the day is likely to disappear quickly. This post will hopefully prevent that from happening in the future.
It may be tempting to run on empty, with nothing in your system, especially if you have had an upset stomach in the past or if your race starts early, but it IS worth it, and I do have some suggestions to combat that, so listen up!
What should I eat before running?
Everyone has different tolerances for what their stomach can handle; some people can run hard after eating a bowl of ice cream an hour before, others can only eat white rice.
I wish I could just give you an easy answer that would guarantee everyone success, but it doesn’t work like that.
You just have to play around with what works for you.
Below are some great pre race/workout/run foods that you could combine to make your pre-race meal. For anything under a half marathon, I would say you can get away with 300-500 calories, but if you are racing a half or beyond, you should consider more like 500-800 calories.
Now, I know everyones stomachs are different with how much they can handle, and especially when you combine this with pre-race nerves (which by the way, your body cannot tell the difference between nerves and excitement, so change your perspective, you are excited, not nervous!).
One thing you do not want to do is force down 800 just for the sake of if when you feel full halfway through. I would however make sure you do get a normal sized portion of carbs down.
Here are some foods with plenty of complex carbohydrates to add to your pre-race meal:
- Toast (I would suggest white bread)
- English muffins
- Animal crackers/plain crackers
- Dry low fiber cereal (or a little bit of milk)
- Peanut butter crackers
- Granola bars
- White rice
- Baked/sweet potatoes
- Generation UCAN (use code Running4Real for 10% off)
These are “safe” options, but if you are racing in the evening, and wish to eat dinner beforehand, make sure you keep it relatively plain, without thick sauces/dressings.
If you have had stomach upsets in the past, I would consider starting with these foods, plain, and slowly experimenting with adding other things. Once you know which of these sit best in your stomach or you have settled on one of the areas above, start testing out supplemental foods to go with it that might make it taste a little better.
With your sweet/breakfast foods:
- Brown sugar
- Peanut butter
- Almond butter
With your savory/dinner foods
- Tomato sauce (plain)
You probably noticed I mentioned Generation UCAN, and that is what I would take during my marathon, but I have a lot of pro runner friends who use UCAN for before their runs, either through the bars or the powder to add to drinks.
I have NEVER come across anyone who has had any issues with Generation UCAN and an upset stomach, so if you do have a particularly sensitive stomach, I would consider this your best option. Remember, you have a coupon code of Running4Real for 10% off.
It is not just about what you should be having, but there are also some foods that people often have before runs, thinking they need to eat healthy. These are some foods to avoid before races to prevent stomach upsets, and ensure you have enough energy.
If you have an iron stomach, and can handle these foods, by all means test out things like eggs and sausage or other high fat/high protein foods, but if you have had issues, I would avoid these until you know you can handle them.
- High fat foods
- High protein foods (meats/protein bars/legumes/beans)
- Lettuce/spinach/raw vegetables
- Thick, heavy sauces
- Nuts and Seeds
- Citrus fruits
- Spicy food
When should I eat before running or before a race?
There will also be a difference in timing, depending on your digestive system. You will find your own preference for whether you like to be completely empty, or just a little hungry.
The ideal time to consume your pre-race meal is between two to four hours before a race. This will give your body enough time to digest the food, to break it down into energy it can use in the race. I would start with three hours, and see how your body handles that. If you feel like you need more time, push it back a little.
Yes, I realize this means you may have to get up earlier than you would like to test out your pre run meal, plan a little ahead of time, or eat at a weird time of day, but isn’t it better than an upset stomach?
I think so!
If you have a meal larger than the 500 calories, you may wish to leave a longer gap before you run.
Depending on personal preference, you may also wish to consume a smaller snack of around 100-200 calories 1-2 hours before to top up stores. My advice is to keep the snack very plain (from the list of the carb foods above).
Why? Do I have to eat before a run?
Fasted workouts do have a time and place. I am not going to argue with that. Sometimes it is good to run on “empty” so your body learns how to do that, but you should not do this every day, and it is not something that your body will just get used to. It needs to learn how to burn fat for fuel first, preferably through a high fat, high protein diet.
If you just suddenly start running with no fuel, your body will think it is starvation mode, and you will notice within a few weeks you hit a wall, and start to feel pretty crappy, pretty quickly.
For your body to perform at its best, it needs a good source of carbohydrates that can be converted to energy. Especially if you are running fast or hard your body cannot break down the proteins or fats fast enough to use them for your speed work.
If you are doing lots of VERY easy, slow running, you might be able to get away with it a little more. I learned this the hard way when I went too far with high protein, high fat.
Eating before your run will prevent feelings of fatigue and weakness as well as bonking during races as your body gets used to what it will be going through on race day. Kind of important!
If you are marathon training, I have an entire post on why it is important to fuel (and practice) before your race.
How do I know what foods to eat before running or racing?
I hate to sound like a broken record, but everyone is different! Play around with foods before hard workouts to see what your stomach and energy levels respond best to.
Once you have found what works, stick to it! NEVER try anything for the first time on race day!
Another critical aspect of performing on race day is to make sure during the entire day before your race you are consuming water.
Not just the few hours before, but the days leading up to the race too Even slight dehydration can lead to a drastic drop in performance, so it is critical to your success!
Energy drinks are also helpful in the hours just before the race, but alternate the sips with the water, so you do not end up taking in too much sugar.
What do elites eat before a race?
It really depends on the person, everyone has their own unique creation that works for them. Mine has changed a lot throughout the years. It started off as pasta with mayonnaise, grapes, and chicken (don’t ask me where that came from!!), then it went to peas and rice with butter, I settled for a lot of years on a bagel with a banana, and now it is a
If I had a race at 8am, I would get up at 5am, eat a sweet potato with 1 tbsp of almond butter, and then relax for a little while. I would ensure I was hydrated from the night before, but would immediately begin sipping water with Enduropacks Electrolyte spray.
If I was racing a marathon, I would take Generation UCAN every 5-10k, and RunGum around mile 21 for a mental pick me up.
I have found this works well for me, but you know what I am going to say to finish……find your own meal that works for you.
Hopefully this feature will be useful to those new to running/racing, I have tried to keep it as short as I could without rambling…..but this is difficult if you know me!
Read about what you should eat after a workout HERE
Thank you for sharing what works for you. I think I need to start waking up earlier to eat on race mornings as well. So glad I found your blog through twitter and am very excited to read that you will be racing at Philly too! It's going to be a great day! I am bookmarking your blog so I can read about your speedy training 🙂
Thank Kristen! That is wonderful to hear 🙂 I would definitely recommend waking up earlier before races. Your body needs at least 3 hours to wake itself up so it is ready to complete a hard effort, and then it will have enough time to digest a full meal, so you have lots more energy to run your best! Yay! I hope to meet you on race day, come say hi if you see me! I will be wearing compression socks so usually stand out! Please share this blog with friends, and on twitter! Lets try and make Philly a great day of personal bests for as many people as possible 🙂
Hi! was wondering what you fuel with during your runs and how often? Thanks!
Hi Nadine, Thanks for reaching out!
I only really consume fuel during my long runs, as studies have found you only need it during runs over an hour. Most of my runs are just over an hour, I find that I am okay to make it back without anything.
On my long runs, I have recently taken to a fuel belt where I have water in one bottle, and Body Armor Superdrink in the other, drinking a few swigs/sips every three miles. I would definitely recommend Body Armor for replenishing electrolytes lost through sweating. It is also much better for your general health than Gatorade or Powerade. I take GU gels once or twice during my long runs, although I am now switching to Cliff Gels to test them out instead. The first I have around an hour in, and the second around 1hr 45 minutes. In my marathon I intend on taking one on the start line, along with the ones I already consume. Does that help? Do you think a short post on this would be a good idea?
hi great blog..i recently completed an ironman and used gels for fuel on the bike but coming off the bike i totally crashed 2 miles into the marathon i am thinking it was probably due to too many gels..would like to try whole foods on the bike , any suggestions..
Hello Kelyvn, Wow, that is an impressive event to complete. I am afraid my experience may not be very helpful to you as I am training for my first marathon, and my longest run has been just over 2hrs 30 mins. When you took the gels, did they have caffeine in them? From the research I have completed, it is important to use gels with caffeine as they help release the sugar slower, preventing crashes. As for whole foods to consume on the bike, my first suggestion would be a banana. They are high in carbohydrates, easy to digest, and are unlikley to cause stomach upset as they are low in fat and proteins. You could also try dried fruit such as apricots, figs (fig newtons) or raisins, and also the usual luna/powerbars as they have more calories than the gels. An important issue (I am not sure if this is one for you or not) that some people have trouble with is that they wait until they are hungry. Fuel must be taken as early as 45 minutes into competition and on a regular basis from there. I hope I was able to give some helpful information for you, I will be able to tell you more in a few weeks! Let me know how you get on 🙂 Any other sections/questions I can cover in future posts? Please subscribe to my blog for regular updates 🙂
This is really great, thank you so much for sharing it with us! I had a real wake up call looking through your “food to avoid before races/workouts” list because there are several things on there that I’ve eaten before a workout and had to run through an upset stomach. At the time, I was thinking “this is a healthy snack so it must be a good before a run”, but now I realize that I need to think about what is best for my stomach to digest.