Running

Running: How to eat before and after exercise?

The popularity of running has grown a lot in recent years. In fact, it is one of the most popular sports activities today. Although running is so popular, few runners have an idea of ​​how important nutrition is to them. However, that is a great pity.

For runners, diet is more than just food – food is fuel for optimal sports performance . A runner’s menu should therefore generally consist of a healthy and varied diet . But that alone is often not enough – nutrition before and after training is also important.

Whether you are a beginner, intermediate runner, or marathon runner, you should focus on your pre- and post-run eating habits. Why? This will fundamentally affect regeneration and your sports performance.

A proper pre-run diet will give your body the energy it needs for the upcoming performance. The diet after running then helps with recovery from training, minimizes fatigue and supports immune function .

Spacing meals too long, eating too much or too little, eating the wrong types of food before training or racing, not drinking enough fluids or delaying recovery nutrition all affect every aspect of your performance. So what and when should you ideally eat before, during and after a run?  

What (not) to eat before running?

Eating before running has two different meanings. The first is to prevent feeling hungry before and during running. The second goal is to maintain optimal blood sugar levels for your working muscles.

Do you think that not eating anything before running is the best solution? Error! A properly put together meal before training will be the fuel for you to enable a smooth run. You probably wouldn’t hit the road without refueling your car, right? The same principle applies to preparing your body for running. Therefore, give your body quality nutrients even before training.

In general, the last large meal is recommended 3 to 4 hours before physical activity . Food before training should be easily digestible and should contain a higher amount of complex carbohydrates (slowly absorbed) and a reasonable amount of protein .

Before running, on the other hand, avoid foods with a high fiber and fat content (fried foods, classic Czech foods, legumes, woody vegetables). These nutrients are harder to digest and could weigh on your stomach. 

During intense physical activity, blood is diverted from most organs (including the stomach) to the muscles. Because fats and fiber take longer to digest, undigested food can remain in the stomach and intestines, which can cause unpleasant indigestion during physical exertion. 

Also avoid consuming simple sugars, for example in the form of sweets, biscuits, chocolate or sugary drinks, before running. These so-called “fast sugars” can cause a massive insulin reaction and subsequent hypoglycemia . 

A large dose of simple sugars will cause the blood sugar level to rise sharply, a large amount of the hormone insulin will be washed away and the blood sugar level will drop even below the original value. This manifests as malaise, fatigue or weakness.

What, when and how much to eat depends mainly on the distance or time you are running . The longer you plan to run, the more fuel you need for your performance, and the more you need to address nutrient timing.

Running within 60 minutes

For runs of less than an hour, don’t worry too much about what you eat beforehand—especially if you’ll be running at a moderate pace. If you’ve been eating healthy and balanced all day, you don’t have to deal with anything special . 

You’ll likely have plenty of fuel in reserve, and your body should be equipped with enough glycogen (the stored form of energy in your muscles and liver) to sustain you throughout your run.

However, avoid hard-to-digest and large meals rich in fat a few hours before running . Plan your last big meal about 2-3 hours before your run. Focus on complex carbohydrates and quality protein in this meal. An example could be:

  • chicken pieces on carrots with rice
  • fish fillet with mashed potatoes
  • baked spinach pancakes with cheese
  • oatmeal with yogurt and fruit
  • pasta with tuna and spinach

If you ate a larger meal more than 4 hours ago, it’s a good idea to include a smaller carbohydrate-protein snack about 1-2 hours before running. For example, it can be:

  • whole grain bread with ham and cheese
  • blueberry smoothie with kefir
  • white yogurt with fruit

During running training of up to 60 minutes, there is no need to replenish energy during performance. However, focus on a sufficient drinking regime before training and on quality post-training food.

Running for 60 to 90 minutes

Three to four hours before training, eat a nutritionally balanced meal that contains more carbohydrates and a reasonable amount of protein. Such a meal can be, for example, risotto with vegetables and chicken, pasta with cottage cheese or oatmeal with fruit.

30 to 60 minutes before your run, you can have a small snack that is low in fiber and fat, higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein. Choose foods that won’t stay in your stomach for a long time (difficult to digest foods), but also won’t cause a quick increase and subsequent drop in energy (for example, sweets or sugary drinks).

Tips for suitable pre-run snacks:

  • white yogurt with fruit
  • oatmeal with cinnamon and banana
  • cottage cheese with blueberries

Running longer than 90 minutes 

When running longer distances, it will probably be necessary to supplement nutrients not only before, but also during exercise . When you run for a long time, the reserves of carbohydrates in the body are depleted, and therefore it will be necessary to compensate for the lost energy even during running.

During endurance physical activity (e.g. jogging) of medium to high intensity (65-80% VO2max), our body mostly uses carbohydrates as a source of energy . We receive carbohydrates in our diet and our body can store them in the form of glycogen (liver, muscles). However, the amount of glycogen is limited and its reserves can be depleted within one to two hours of endurance activity. If there is a greater decrease in glycogen, it will negatively affect sports performance.

Again, eat your last big meal 3-4 hours before training. Next, eat a meal containing easily digestible carbohydrates and a smaller amount of protein approximately one hour before exercise . This will pre-fuel you for the first 60 to 90 minutes of your workout. It can be rice with milk, a fruit smoothie with milk, a banana with yogurt, a quality energy bar, rice sandwiches with ham or maybe toast with peanut butter and jam. 

If you run longer than 90 minutes or more than 10 kilometers, you should plan not only to have a pre-run snack, but also to have additional energy intake during exercise to maintain normal blood sugar levels. 

Replenish energy even during load:

  • 30-60g of carbs for every hour of running that lasts 2-3 hours
  • 60-90 grams of carbohydrates for each hour of extremely long running (eg, all-day trail running, Ironman, triathlon, ultramarathon)

Carbohydrates during exercise should be consumed 15 to 20 minutes apart. The easiest way to continuously replenish energy is isotonic sports drinks . Sports drinks will not only tempt you, but thanks to their sugar content, they will also quickly give you energy. 

At the same time, sports drinks will replenish electrolytes that will replace sweated minerals (especially sodium, potassium and calcium). Electrolytes are essential for maintaining the balance of body fluids and enabling muscle contractions, so replenishing them will prevent cramps, fatigue and dizziness.

Alternative solutions can be sports bars or energy gels . These products provide energy in a concentrated form that the body can absorb quickly. The advantage is that they are literally designed to be easily carried and consumed. If you prefer a more natural fuel source, bring along a banana, dates or raisins.

Table No. 1: Recommendations for carbohydrate intake during loading

Run length The need for carbohydrates Recommended intake of carbohydrates Type of carbohydrate
<45 minutes No
45-75 minutes no / very small amount up to 30 g glucose, maltodextrin
1-2 hours small amount 30-60 g/hour glucose
2-3 hours medium amount 50-70 g/hour glucose, fructose, maltodextrin
over 3 hours high amount 60–110 g/hour combination – glucose + fructose / maltodextrin + fructose (2:1)

What to eat after running 

In terms of nutrition, the time interval after training is very important. Eating after exercise plays a vital role in how your body recovers. The goal of the post-workout meal is to restore glycogen reserves, repair strained muscle fibers, replenish lost minerals and fluids, and maintain immune functions . All of this will affect how quickly you recover for your next run.

For these reasons, don’t underestimate your post-workout meal. The body needs to replenish what it consumes during training. The right food after training will start regeneration, help repair muscle fibers and replenish lost energy.

The main priority after the finish is to replenish the lost fluids . Within an hour of running, you should drink 480-720ml of fluids for every 0.5kg lost . Fluids should be replenished continuously and not suddenly in excessively large quantities.

What you should eat after your workout depends on how long you run and how intense the run was. Post-workout nutrition will also be influenced by what your main goal is – for example, if you want to increase your running performance or lose weight. 

  • If your goal is to get better at running , after finishing, supply your body with carbohydrates and proteins in a well-digested and quickly absorbable form. Proteins are intended to support muscle regeneration, and carbohydrates replace depleted glycogen reserves. After exercise, it is recommended to provide 0.8 g/kg of carbohydrates along with 0.2-0.4 g/kg of protein within 30 minutes of exercise. 5.6 It is ideal to reach for a protein shake and add a banana to it. An alternative can be a fruit smoothie with a dairy product or a homemade cocoa drink. If you don’t have time to eat after training, reach for an energy bar that will have a balanced ratio of carbohydrates to protein (3-4:1).
  • If you run mainly to lose weight , skip the quick snack after exercise or just have a protein shake (it supplies protein to protect muscle mass).
  • If you’re a professional runner and you’re about to race, consider carbohydrate-protein recovery supplements. Depending on the intensity of the training, supply 1.0-1.5 g/kg of carbohydrates along with 0.2-0.4 g/kg of protein within 30 minutes of the end of the exercise.

Whatever your goal is, a full meal containing carbohydrates, protein and fat should follow in about 1-2 hours . Treat yourself to a classic lunch or dinner. Don’t miss a meal even after an evening workout. If you will be awake for at least two hours, treat yourself to a full dinner. Otherwise, at least reach for a quick snack with protein. Skyr with a little marmalade or homemade cocoa is suitable, for example.

Ideal post-run meals

  • Chicken slice with potatoes
  • Scrambled eggs with whole wheat toast
  • Couscous salad with tuna
  • Chicken sandwich with wholemeal bread
  • Whole grain pasta with tomato sauce and turkey meat

When you run in the morning before breakfast

If you are a morning person and run in the morning before work or school, it will be practically impossible to eat several hours before running. That is, of course, if you are not willing to get up and eat breakfast at 4 in the morning. Therefore, make sure that you “refueled” with quality food the night before .

It doesn’t have to be a big meal, but it should contain protein (meat, fish, eggs, dairy) and complex carbohydrates – such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, couscous or whole grain pasta.

If you are planning a shorter, low-intensity run, you can easily do without breakfast. However, do not forget to hydrate yourself sufficiently with water. The blood sugar level will be relatively low, but sufficient for a shorter run (up to 45 minutes) at a slower pace.

But if you are planning a longer morning run of more than 5 kilometers, you cannot do without food. If nothing else, at least have a banana before a long run. It will quickly give you energy after a night of starvation and will not burden your digestion. 

After the finish, add fluids and have a full breakfast with protein and carbohydrates within an hour. For breakfast, you can have oatmeal with fruit, whole grain cereal with plain yogurt, scrambled eggs with whole grain toast, or sandwich bread with ham and cheese .

Pay attention to the drinking regime

Nothing is more important when running than drinking. So make sure you drink enough. If you don’t drink enough fluids before or during training, your performance and health will suffer.

Drink 500-600ml of fluids one to two hours before running to ensure you are adequately hydrated. About 15 minutes before running, drink another 150 ml. If you run more than 10 km or longer than an hour, add an additional 600 to 1200 ml of fluids every hour during exercise .

If you plan to run less than 45 minutes, water should be enough . But if you are planning a longer run, you should take an ionic sports drink with electrolytes. The human body loses fluids through sweat, which is hypotonic. For this reason, it is advisable to replenish fluids with hypotonic drinks (osmolality 250 milliosmoles/l or less)  during longer running performance .

For endurance activities longer than 90 minutes, it is also possible to use energy sports drinks . The optimal concentration of carbohydrates in the drink is 4-8%. Drinks with a high osmolality or carbohydrate concentration can start to cause indigestion, so watch out for them.

 Table No. 2: Recommendations for fluid intake

Run length Amount of fluids Type of drink
Before exercise (30-60 minutes) 6-8 ml/kg body weight water
During the load 30 minutes not necessary
30-60 minutes individual (2-3 ml/kg every 15-20 minutes) water
1-3 hours 600–1200 ml/hour water + energy
over 3 hours 600–1200 ml/hour water + energy + sodium
After load 120 to 150% of lost weight water / ionic rehydration drinks

What to take away from the article?

Although sports nutrition is individual and something may suit everyone differently, there are several main principles for the nutrition of runners:

  • Eat a varied and balanced diet throughout the day.
  • Don’t run hungry or stuffed.
  • Avoid hard-to-digest and heavy foods before running.
  • Add fluids continuously.

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