How to Eat During Long Runs

A runner holds an energy bar and a bottle of water during the Virgin Money London Marathon on April 13, 2014 in London, England.

Alan Crowhurst / Getty Images

It is not uncommon for runners to carefully plan pre-workout and post-workout snacks or meals. But sometimes you may need to eat during your run—especially during long runs. Use this guide to learn what to eat, when to eat, and why you should eat during long runs.

Why Eat During Runs

There are different considerations to take into account when thinking about eating and running. You need to make sure that you can carry whatever you decide to eat, you may want access to bathrooms, and sometimes even weather conditions come into play.

But running duration, rather running distance, is the most important factor to consider when choosing whether or not to eat during a run.

When you run for under 90 minutes, most of your energy comes from stored muscle glycogen. When you run for longer than 90 minutes stored muscle glycogen gets depleted.

When stored glycogen stores are low, then the sugar in your blood and liver glycogen become more important Fueling with carbohydrate foods and beverages during your longer runs will prevent you from running out of energy and help boost your performance.

Refueling during your long runs helps to replace essential glucose that is burned as fuel. Most experts advise refueling with some form of carbohydrate during runs lasting longer than 90 minutes.

How Much to Eat

How much you should eat when running is also determined by a few different factors. Your body size, the intensity of your run, and the duration will play a role in how much you need to eat.

It's smart to spend some time experimenting. But don't do this too close to race day if you are signed up for a half or full marathon. You'll need quite a few long training runs to determine when and how much to consume.

A basic rule of thumb is that you should be taking in about 100 calories after about an hour of running and then another 100 calories every 40 to 45 minutes after that.

You may need more depending on your size and speed, so make sure you carry an extra one or two gels (or other food). If you feel hungry or low on energy, you can definitely consume calories "off-schedule".

Experimentation is the key to success when figuring out what, when, and how much to eat while running. Keep a running log and take notes about how you felt after consuming different types and amounts of fuel.

Timing Your Food Intake

You should never wait until you feel depleted to refuel. It is not likely that you'll need to eat right away during your run. However, most coaches recommend refueling every 30-45 minutes or so during long runs.

But the timing of your food intake may also depend on what you eat. For example, some gels and other foods require that you drink water when you consume the food. So the timing of your intake will depend on the location of a drinking fountain. You can also choose to carry water, but most likely, you'll need to refill your bottle at some point during a long run.

You might also need to time your food intake with a bathroom location. When you are experimenting with different foods this factor should be taken into account. Certain foods or gels can cause nausea or other stomach disruptions. Having a bathroom nearby will reduce your risk of discomfort.

Best Foods to Eat

There is no shortage of options when it comes to the foods you might eat during a run. Again, it is smart to experiment with different types of foods to find out what works best for you.

Sports Drinks

One way to get carbs on the run is through sports drinks. They are designed to provide not only carbs but also electrolytes (salts) that you are sweating away. Both are important to replenish.

The advantage of liquid calories is that you need to rehydrate anyway, and it is convenient to take in your fuel calories at the same time. Also, you won't have to chew and risk choking while you are breathing hard from your running effort.

Gel Packets

Energy gels are also designed for ease of use by runners. And the packets make it easy to judge how many calories you are taking in.

One of the great advantages of gels is that you won't need to chew. But the disadvantage is that you most products need water or sports drink to wash them down. Otherwise, you have a lot of sugary residue in your mouth.

Solid Foods

Solid foods can be tolerated, but they need to be small and easy to digest. There are numerous products on the market, such as sports gummy chews, energy bars, and even sports jelly beans, designed for long-distance runners to eat on the run.

These often provide a little salt replacement as well as carbs. Experiment with what works best, especially for the amount of chewing needed and ease of use. You may also find your digestive system does better with one product or another.

Real Food

Some runners prefer to eat pretzels or sugary candy such as gummy bears or candy corn. Fig Newtons or other cookies may be just as energizing as an energy bar.

These are far less expensive than the products designed and marketed for runners, and they may be just as good for fuel. Start experimenting with different foods, gels, and bars on your long runs to see what you prefer.

Foods to Avoid

Fiber-rich foods, spicy foods, and dairy products should be avoided during your run. Each of these food types is likely to cause gastrointestinal discomfort if you consume them while you are running.

Also if you don't have access to water, avoid dry or crunchy foods that need fluids to fully chew and swallow.

Safety Tips

Eating while running may put you at risk for choking if you're not careful. Especially if you choose to consume real foods (like pretzels, bars, or other crunchy snacks).

If you're concerned about choking, stick to gels and liquids. These fuels go down easy and are not likely to present a choking hazard.

Consume foods near water. Especially if you are eating a food for the first time, consume your snack at a drinking fountain. Your mouth may be more dry than normal and you will probably need some fluid to wash down your food completely.

Don't chew and swallow while running. Again, gels and liquids are easy to consume on the go. But foods that require more chewing should probably be consumed while standing still.

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