One of my favorite parts of going on runs is the meal or snack that seems to always follow. While I’m not the best at remembering to have a pre-run snack, I always look forward to a post-run treat. Whether I’m running to brunch or refueling on a spoonful of peanut butter immediately after a long run, I know that my body needs the proper fuel to recover enough to crush my next workout.
Depending on how long you’re running or what you’re training for, you might need to fuel up beforehand as well. Even if you’re the person who can’t stomach anything before a morning workout, it’s important to try to get something down for those long run days, or any long workout.
I haven’t quite been able to master the whole eating beforehand (after is easier for me!), so when I was given the chance to chat with four pro runners at Adidas’s shoe launch event earlier this year in San Francisco, I made sure to ask the experts what pre-run snack works for them.
Coffee is a food group.
The one thing runners agreed on was what they do before a race—caffeinate. “The one thing I do before a race is have a good dark-roast drip coffee and listen to pump-up jams, to go into a zone. It can go anywhere from Beyoncé to The Head and the Heart, really everything,” Leah O’Connor, a middle-distance runner, tells SELF. She currently holds the Michigan State University record for the 1,500 meters and the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
There’s a lot of research on coffee and athletic performance. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), caffeine has been shown to improve endurance exercise performance (like running) in trained athletes. Depending on how it makes you feel, experts recommend consuming a max of 400 milligrams of caffeine each day, but “individuals should adjust this moderate amount based on how it makes them feel,” Beth Witherspoon, M.P.H., R.D.N., registered dietitian consultant for Community Coffee Company, told SELF. Don’t start drinking coffee on race day; incorporate it into your routine (if you’re already a coffee drinker) during your regular training runs, so you can figure out how early you should start drinking so you don’t end up having to go to the bathroom while you’re running.
If you prefer to stick with actual food, bananas are a staple for a reason.
They seem to be at every single break station at races—mostly because runners like bananas, but also because bananas can help combat nausea and provide your body with electrolytes. O’Connor agrees that before a run, she’ll eat “something bland that won’t upset my stomach, like a banana.” Bananas also are loaded with potassium and are easy to peel on the go.
Middle-distance runner Dominique Scott-Efurd from South Africa, who competed in the Rio Olympics, also agrees with eating bananas or something else pretty bland about an hour before her run. “If I’m hungry before a run, I grab a handful of pretzels or dry crackers. They’re not the most delicious, but it does subside any cravings or hunger and they sit well in my stomach.”
Bars are also worth a try, especially since there are so many to choose from.
“Right before a run, [I’ll snack on] bars because they have sugar. I eat Power Bars, Clif bars, and Kind bars,” says professional middle distance runner Brie Felnagle. Try to look for ones with a good mix of protein and carbs to help boost your energy, Edwina Clark, M.S., R.D., certified sports dietitian and head of nutrition and wellness at Yummly, told SELF. Look for at least 20 grams of carbohydrates, and try to keep the sugar under 20 grams, Sarah-Jane Bedwell, R.D., told SELF.
Another great perk of grab-and-go bars? They’re easy to pack, Neely Spence Gracey, a long-distance runner in everything from the 5000 meters to marathons, tells SELF.
There are also all-natural options, especially if you are willing to make them yourself.
“My favorite [prerun snack] is a scone with coffee. I usually like berry scones,” Gracey says. She even bakes them herself! “I have [professional runner] Shalane [Flanagan’s] new cookbook, and she has some pretty good options in there that are easy to make and pack on the go. Everyone is different with what their stomach can handle, but it’s good to find your staples of safe before-running foods and just stick with that.” Gracey also bakes homemade muffins and packs them in her gym bag.
The idea of finding go-to foods is important. You might not know the next time you have to rise early and go for a run, so if you can figure out what your body can handle and what works well with your schedule, your body will thank you.
All of these suggestions can be applied to race day and the night before, too.
You want to practice eating the way you’ll eat on the big day so your body doesn’t encounter any surprises—including your dinner of choice the night before the race. Every person is different, and it may take some experimenting to learn what works for you. “For myself, I actually go for a protein meal,” Scott-Efurd says. She likes to cook salmon with rice and vegetables—food that doesn’t leave her feeling heavy for the big day. Track coach Andrew Kastor of the ASICS Mammoth Track Club and LA Road Runners, agrees. Eat healthy and maybe turn up the carbs a little bit, but keep your meals simple, he told SELF.
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