You may have the latest shoes, cutest clothes, and fanciest activity tracker. But what really makes or breaks your run isn’t what you put on your body—it’s what you put in it beforehand.
“What you bring into a run determines how much you need to eat or drink before your run,” says Lisa Dorfman, RD and certified sports dietitian, who’s also known as The Running Nutritionist.
But nutrition needs differ from person to person, and figuring out exactly what your body requires isn’t as easy as making overnight oats.
“I see plenty of people who are not getting the most out of their workout or getting the weight loss they want because they don’t fuel before and during exercise,” notes Lauren Antonucci, RD, certified sports dietitian, and owner of Nutrition Energy. “I also see the same number of different people who are over-fueling their workouts.”
To have the best run, there are a few basic guidelines to keep in mind.
Here’s how to perfect your pre-run meal and avoid cramps, burnout, and on-the-run runs (yikes).
1. Be strategic
“There’s no exact mileage, distance, or time number that magically necessitates fueling. It’s different for everyone,” says Antonucci. Instead, consider your pre-run nosh in the context of your overall diet. The reason? Your body can access stores of carbs in your bloodstream and muscle.
Or think about it this way: “I have enough food in my pantry that if I don’t go to the store for a few days, I’d run out of fresh vegetables but I won’t starve,” says Antonucci. “If I’m running a marathon, running an hour or an hour and a half, or running a hard workout, then I think of it as if I’m having people over—I better stock up on food.”
2. Don’t fuel every run like a marathon
Sorry: no carb-feast before each and every run. “You don’t need to purposely take in a ton of extra carbs because you should have enough stored in your muscles,” Antonucci explains.
“If you’re running in the morning, there’s no real need to eat something for an hour or less run, unless you’re headed to a race,” says Dorfman. For runs an hour or longer, you should consider eating something easily digested like oatmeal, dried cereal, or a banana, according to Antonucci. If you’re an afternoon runner, have a simple snack (hold the veggies) an hour or two before your run. Experiment to find the best combo that works for you.
3. Plan the night before
“The best time to start thinking [about running fuel] is the night before, regardless of the duration of the run,” says Dorfman. “You want to make sure you have available fuel for the next morning’s run.” Think of it like packing before a 5K or long run trip. Dorfman recommends a tennis ball-sized serving or two of carbs at dinner (depending on the duration of your run)—from vegetables, fruits, and complex grains.
The other reason it’s good to prepare the night before? Your stomach is just as groggy as you are in the morning. “When you run early, your body isn’t really awake enough to quickly digest fuel for that morning,” Doorman adds.
4. Hold the fiber and spicy food
No one wants to battle a stomach cramp or make an emergency bathroom stop mid-run. “You want to have a quiet belly to make the run the most pleasant experience,” says Dorfman. That means limit spicy, fried, and high-fiber foods (like beans and Brussels sprouts), which can irritate your digestive tract and are difficult to process. “You can have all the fruit and fiber you want after your run,” she says.
“Hydration is the number one most important thing you can do for health and performance,” says Antonucci. Which means: Pay attention to your thirst.
Even if you don’t eat (much) on the morning of your run, you need to drink up. “You’ll want to have half to one cup of fluid, depending on the climate,” says Dorfman. That could be anything from water to green tea to, yes, even coffee.
6. Have your regular cuppa
That’s right: You can still have your morning coffee or tea before your run. In fact, it might even be beneficial. “There are plenty of studies that found that caffeine helps you feel like you’re not working quite as hard. It makes [running] feel a little easier,” says Antonucci. That’s not the only benefit. “Caffeine helps you spare the good carbohydrates in your system and accelerate the use of fat as fuel during a run,” says Dorfman. We’ll drink to that! Sip (not too much) 30 to 60 minutes before your run—that is, unless you know that caffeine bothers your stomach.
7. Eat run-friendly foods
Now that you know how you should fuel before your next run, what exactly should you eat? Antonucci’s favorite foods for runners include mangos, sardines (an anti-inflammatory powerhouse and a good source of calcium and vitamin D), and whole grain bread. She also loves avocados (join the club). “They are anti-inflammatory and the healthy fats help lubricate our joints.”