Whilst it’s okay to do shorter runs on an empty stomach you will want to ensure you’re fueled correctly before longer runs to ensure your glycogen stores are topped up. If you’re not fueled correctly before you head out then you’re asking for trouble and risk ‘hitting the wall’ or ‘bonking’.
I normally go on my long runs on a Sunday morning, and that’s the same for most runners I know. Part of this is because it’s the practically the only available time, but it’s also most running events take place on Sunday’s so it’s good practice for those conditions.
As we’re talking about morning runs we’ll focus on breakfast option in this article but most of these food are great at any time of the day.
Obviously fueling this is only one factor, and should be coupled up with good training and being well rested but this will help go some way to ensuring optimal performance and prevent fatigue.
Why do I need food before my long run?
The most obvious answer is that it will give you extra energy stores that you’ll need for your run.
Not only does it give your body the energy it needs but it can also give your metabolism a kick-start and having food in your stomach ensures that there’s blood flow to your GI system (stomach and intestines). Why do we want blood flow to your GI? On long runs blood is traditionally diverted away from the organs to power those leg muscles, but that can make it hard to fuel on runs with either food or gels. Eat early and you should be able to take on fuel easier.
Your breakfast or pre-run meal choices should consist of carbohydrates and proteins, about a 3:1 ratio should do and I’ve listed a selection of each below. Don’t forget about hydrating too.
Opt for easily digestible complex carbohydrates to provide a steady source of energy during your run rather than giving you a sugar spike, so avoid the white bread and try the following:
- Whole-grain bread: Opt for whole-grain or whole-wheat bread, which is higher in fiber and nutrients compared to white bread. Use it for toast, sandwiches, or French toast.
- Oatmeal: A healthy and versatile option, oatmeal can be topped with fruits, nuts, seeds, or yogurt for a filling breakfast.
- Whole-grain cereals: Choose cereals made from whole grains, such as bran flakes or muesli, and pair them with milk or yogurt.
- Whole-grain waffles or pancakes: Make waffles or pancakes with whole-grain flour, and top them with fruits, yogurt, or nut butter for added nutrition.
- Quinoa or barley: Use these whole grains as a base for a breakfast porridge.
- Brown rice or wild rice: Create a savory breakfast bowl by combining cooked rice with vegetables, eggs, and your choice of protein.
- Bananas: These are a great source of quick-releasing carbohydrates and are also high in potassium and magnesium.
- Sweet potatoes: Roasted, mashed, or made into a hash, sweet potatoes can be a great source of complex carbohydrates for breakfast.
- Fresh fruit: Fruits like bananas, apples, berries, and oranges provide natural sugars and fiber, making them an excellent carbohydrate choice for breakfast.
- Dried fruit: Raisins, dried apricots, dates, or figs can be added to cereal, oatmeal, or yogurt for a natural source of carbohydrates.
- Smoothies: Blend fruits, vegetables, and a source of protein (like yogurt or protein powder) for a nutritious and carb-rich breakfast smoothie.
- Whole-grain tortillas or wraps: Use whole-grain tortillas for breakfast burritos or wraps, filled with eggs, vegetables, and your choice of protein.
- Whole-grain pasta: Consider making a breakfast pasta dish with whole-grain pasta, vegetables, and a protein source like eggs or chicken.
Breakfast Protein Choices
Some quick and easy examples of lean protein that can help with muscle repair and recovery include:
- Eggs: A versatile and nutritious option, eggs can be prepared in various ways, such as scrambled, poached, hard-boiled, or made into an omelette or frittata.
- Greek yogurt: Higher in protein than regular yogurt, Greek yogurt is a great choice for breakfast. You can eat it on its own, mix it with fruit, or use it as a base for a smoothie.
- Cottage cheese: A high-protein, low-fat dairy option, cottage cheese pairs well with fruits, nuts, seeds, or whole-grain toast.
- Milk or plant-based milk alternatives: A glass of milk, soy milk, or other protein-rich plant-based milk can be a simple addition to your breakfast. Use it in a smoothie, with cereal, or in your coffee or tea. Be aware that dairy can affect some people’s stomachs so don’t go overboard.
- Nut and seed butters: Almond, peanut, and sunflower seed butters are good sources of protein and healthy fats. Spread them on whole-grain toast, add them to oatmeal, or mix them into a smoothie.
- Protein powder: Adding protein powder to a smoothie, oatmeal, or pancake batter is a convenient way to boost your protein intake at breakfast.
- Smoked salmon: Rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids, smoked salmon can be enjoyed with whole-grain toast, cream cheese, and capers, or added to an omelette or frittata.
- Lean meats: Turkey or chicken slices can be added to breakfast sandwiches, wraps, or omelettes for a protein boost.
- Legumes: Beans, lentils, and chickpeas can be used to create savory breakfast dishes like breakfast burritos, shakshuka, or huevos rancheros.
- Tofu or tempeh: These plant-based protein sources can be scrambled like eggs, added to breakfast wraps, or used to make a breakfast stir-fry.
Fats can be good for you so try to consume a small amount of healthy fats such as avocado, nuts, and seeds.
When should I eat breakfast?
You have to be practical and ideally 1-2 hours before your run is the sweet spot but we know that’s not always practical. That extra 30 minutes sleep is sometimes worth it, but try to give yourself the maximum digestion time.
A tip is to have your breakfast as soon as you get up, before you change into your running gear. We all faff a little before leaving the house, checking routes, or deciding what clothes to wear, so by having food before hand, you’re giving your body extra time to digest the food.
Just remember that we’re all different and have different tolerances to eating and running. Some people may require more time to digest their food, while others may feel comfortable eating closer to their run.
It’s essential to listen to your body and experiment with different timings and foods to find the best pre-run routine for you. Use your long runs for experimenting in a safe environment rather than on race day.
Don’t eat too much!
All that running and movement will have an effect on your bowels, especially if you’re out for a couple of hours, so make sure you try to go to the toilet before you head out.
Also make sure you don’t eat too much either as you can get a stitch, feel lethargic as your body tries to digest the food, and worst case you may feel the need for a toilet during your run. That’s not a great feeling I can tell you!
What do you eat before long runs?
I prefer to eat something like porridge in the morning of a long run as I can cook it in the microwave for 2 minutes, and will have it with a some berries, chia seeds, or anything else I have in the cupboard.
It works for me but let me know your favourite meals, nibbles, and breakfasts in the comments below.