As a Registered Dietitian and a marathoner, I often work with athletes that want to learn how to properly fuel for running. The bottom line with fueling for exercise is finding what works for you and sticking with it, but that said, it is helpful to follow some general guidelines to make sure you’re on the right track. Here are some tips for fueling before, during, and after runs. I hope you find them helpful as you work towards bringing your “A game” to the starting line!
Have a meal or snack 1 to 3 hours before you workout (or something small immediately before, if working out first thing in the morning). Before a workout, you want to aim for something higher in simple carbs, moderate in protein and lower in fat and fiber, since they are slower to digest. Good options here are a banana with a little nut butter, toast or a bagel with nut butter and jelly, or a granola bar that is lower in fat and protein.
For some make-ahead recipe ideas, try my Peanut Butter Banana Breakfast Bars, Baked Apple Cinnamon Oat Bars, Carrot Cake Muffins, or this easy microwave Pumpkin Oatmeal “Cookie” for one. A handful of cereal as you’re running out the door works, too! Avoid too much juice, dairy, fat or fiber, as they may cause gastrointestinal issues.
During the Run
If you’re running for less than an hour, consuming just water is fine, but for workouts over an hour, you’ll want to start fueling up so you don’t bonk. I recommend taking in about 30 to 50g of carbs per hour, depending on your weight (and also a bit on trial and error). In general, your body weight in pounds: ________ / 4 = approximate carb grams needed per hour. How you get those carbs is up to you and your preferences! Sports drinks, gels, gummies, candy – whatever works for you. Real food is an option, too – again, aim for high carb and lower in protein/fat. One of my current favorite homemade running fuels is dates stuffed with a small amount of peanut butter and sprinkled with salt. Delicious!
Make sure to eat within 30 to 45 minutes of a run, aiming for something rich in carbs and protein, like yogurt, fruit, and granola, or eggs and toast or even an omelette with veggies and fruit. Another favorite is my Perfect Microwave Banana Oatmeal topped with cottage cheese for an extra protein boost (it sounds weird but it tastes great). It’s really important to fuel after a workout (and throughout the day) because if you’re under-eating, your muscles are not adequately being repaired after long runs. That means your training could actually hurt more than it helps, and under-fueling can lead to stress fractures from weak bones, too. If you are feeling queasy after a long workout, try liquid nutrition first and then have a real meal later. A serving of chocolate milk has the perfect post-workout carb-to-protein ratio (about 4:1), or you could make yourself a smoothie. A couple of my favorite post-workout smoothie recipes are: Chocolate Cherry Espresso Smoothie (add protein powder or plain Greek yogurt), Hidden Veggie Cherry Lemon Smoothie, and Banana & Spinach Smoothie (sounds gross but is great)!
Anne Mauney is a Washington D.C. area Registered Dietitian and the writer behind the food and fitness blog fANNEtastic food, which she started 4 years ago as a way to motivate others to lead happier, healthier lives through nutrition and exercise. She aims to show readers that it doesn’t have to be hard or complicated to be healthy – and in fact, it can even be fun! Anne is an avid runner and has completed 2 full marathons and over 10 half marathons. Check out her blog for easy healthy recipes, quick meal ideas and packable lunches, daily fitness and running adventures, health tips, and more. You can also find her on Twitter @fANNEtasticfood, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook.