I’m always curious about what other runners eat. Ask any long-distance runner about their food habits and you will find they know exactly what agrees with their body and how long they need to wait after eating before running. They can tell you their favourite pre-run breakfast and post-run snacks. But this passion for food is not just for long-distance runners. Even if your long run is closer to 5km or 10km, it is still absolutely worth paying attention to what and when you eat on the days that you run.
Why does it matter?
Put simply, food is fuel. What we eat before we run determines the energy, enthusiasm, focus and power we have for the training session ahead. This energy helps us concentrate, balance and maintain our strength throughout the training session. What we eat after our run is just as important too, but often ignored. Post-run meals and snacks help us repair our muscles and make a good recovery. We bounce back quicker for our next training session, reducing our risk of injury due to fatigue.
You create the menu
As I finished a coaching session one night, I asked my group of runners what they had eaten that day. Interesting, they were all completely different. Some were heading home for a full dinner at 8.30pm, while others had switched their dinner to lunchtime and would only have a small meal such as eggs on toast or soup before bedtime. Most had eaten something small in the early evening (banana at 4pm seemed to be a favourite) but only a few had eaten anything in the hour before the running class. For those that did, a few jelly sweets, dates or a piece of fruit seemed to work for them. Asking about their morning runs, there was no consistency either. Their pre-parkrun breakfast ranged from running on empty right up to cereal two hours before to allow time to digest and have a little snooze back in the bed before the run.
What we should aim for
Just like choosing the perfect running shoes, there is no ideal menu for a runner. There are so many variables that impact our choices beyond basic food preferences. The time of the day we run, the intensity of the training session, stomach sensitives and our own daily lives and routines outside of running can all make each person’s fuelling needs different. But aiming for wholefoods rather than processed foods is always a good start. Guidelines suggest we should aim to eat a meal two hours before our run with a light snack shortly before you start running. Post run, aim to have a small snack that contains protein as well as carbohydrates within 30 minutes of finishing, with your main meal within two hours. Of course, these guidelines are constantly being updated but also they are purely guidelines – a starting point for us to work from.
Comfort over performance
There is no point sticking closely to the guidelines if eating in such a way makes you feel uncomfortable or heavy on the run. Many runners I know couldn’t possibly stomach a snack or drink so close to a run as the guidelines suggest. Others can eat a bowl of porridge and can run straight away. Find first what you feel comfortable eating, what agrees with your stomach and then play around with reducing the gap of time between eating and running. It’s a fine balance to strike between having optimal energy or having a lead weight bouncing in our stomach. We all know that feeling of eating a meal too close to a run. No one wants that, but unless we experiment we will never know what little changes might give us a boost in our running performance.
Planning is key
The runners who are most aware of what they eat are those who suffer with a sensitive tummy or unreliable pelvic floor. Years of adapting and fine-tuning their foods, drinks and timings has been an experiment and they have found their menu. However, if you don’t have any obvious issues with digestion, it can be easy to forget to pay attention to what and when you are eating. It can be hard enough to fit in the time to run, not to mention having to consider rejigging your food for the day to optimise your running performance and recovery. But planning is key. Having some snacks in the boot of your car, office or training kit bag will make you more likely to eat them. Set alarms throughout the day to remind you when you eat and drink until it becomes second nature. Try your best to have your dinner pre prepared so you don’t have to face cooking or be tempted by a quick processed option when you return home tired from training.
An added bonus
Food is more than fuel of course. It can be a motivation too and for many a reward for training. We all love a race goodie bag or a post-run cuppa and brunch with our running buddies. But I’ll leave you with my favourite: a post-run meal that combines motivation, recovery and satisfaction all in one. One member of my running group puts a chicken in the oven to roast while she heads out for her midweek run. By the time she returns, showers and stretches, she has her ultimate comfort dinner waiting for her. A roast chicken might not be your ideal post-run feast, but I bet you could think of an alternative that could hit the spot. Whatever it is, give it a go this week.
- Mary Jennings is founder and running coach at forgetthegym.ie. Her spring term of coaching for runners in Dublin and online is open for booking