How to Fuel Your Runs and Avoid Stomach Problems

One of the most common questions that new runners have is whether they should eat before running. Many worry that eating anything before running will lead to cramping or gastrointestinal issues. But they're also concerned that not fueling before a run will leave them feeling weak, lethargic, and hungry while they're running.

When you begin a run, you should feel neither starved nor stuffed. You don't want to eat immediately before running because it could lead to cramping or annoying side stitches. But running on an empty stomach may cause you to run out of energy and leave you feeling very fatigued during your runs.

Your best bet is to eat a light meal about 1 1/2 to 2 hours before you start running, or a small snack 30 minutes to an hour before running.

What to Eat Before a Run

Your choice of a pre-run meal is important, as eating the wrong foods could send you looking for the closest bathroom during your run or just leave you feeling very uncomfortable. Choose something high in carbohydrates and lower in fat, fiber, and protein.

Some examples of good pre-workout fuel include a bagel with peanut butter; turkey and cheese on whole wheat bread; oatmeal with berries; a banana and an energy bar; or a bowl of cold cereal with a cup of milk.

If you decide to start on empty, you should have enough energy stores to last for a shorter run. But if you have time for a light snack, a piece of toast with jam or half of an energy bar can be a good choice. Focus on carbohydrates and easy-to-digest foods.

If you run in the evening and it's been a few hours since lunch (but you haven't had dinner yet), try eating a healthy 100-calorie snack about an hour before your run. Ideas include low-fat frozen yogurt, an apple with cheese, or about 40 Goldfish crackers.

To Avoid Runner's Trots

If you've had issues with gastrointestinal distress (also known as runner's trots) during or after your runs, the foods you're eating in the 24 hours before your runs may be the culprit. Here's a guide to what you should and shouldn't eat before your runs.

Foods to Avoid

Try limiting or eliminating some of these foods before running to see if it makes a difference:

  • High-fat foods: Foods with a lot of fat, such as fried foods, cheese, hamburgers, or bacon, digest slowly and will feel like they're sitting in your stomach.
  • Caffeine: Coffee or other caffeinated beverages can cause stomach issues or diarrhea on a long run.
  • Dairy foods: If you are lactose-intolerant, dairy foods can set off runner's trots. If you have a mild intolerance, it may only show up with the stress you place on your body with running. Try eliminating dairy in the 24 hours before your run.

Safer Foods

Safer pre-run foods to avoid runner's diarrhea include:

  • Refined Carbs: Processed white foods, like regular pasta, white rice, and plain bagels are good choices. Although they're not as nutritious as whole grain and unprocessed foods, they're easier on your stomach because the whole grain is already broken down. A plain bagel with some peanut butter (and a glass of water) would be a safe choice before a long run.
  • Low-Fiber Fruits and Veggies: If you really want to eat fruits or vegetables before runs, zucchini, tomatoes, olives, grapes, and grapefruit are all low in fiber.
  • Dairy Substitutes: Some people have issues when they consume dairy products before runs. Soy, rice and almond milk are generally safe because they don't contain the sugar lactose, which can be tough to digest. You can also try acidophilus milk and yogurts with live cultures, which contain bacteria that help with digestion.

How Long to Wait After Eating to Run

If you eat a very big meal, you should wait at least two hours before running. This is especially true if you eat foods that take a long time to digest, such as greasy, fatty, or fried foods. (In general, it's best to avoid those kinds of foods before running.)

If you eat something smaller, like a light breakfast or lunch, you should be fine to run about an hour after you eat. But, it again depends on what you're eating.

If you prefer to run in the morning and you don't want to wake up really early to give yourself enough time to eat, try eating a small snack so you're not starting your run with an empty tank. You can have an energy bar, a banana, some toast, or something else that's light and easily digestible. You still should try to finish eating your snack about 30 minutes before you start.

Everyone has different digestive systems and what works for someone else may not necessarily work for you. It may be a bit of trial and error until you figure out exactly what works for you. Some runners like to write down what they eat before runs (especially long runs) and then write down how they felt, so they can look back at their training logs and figure out which foods had the best effect on performance.

If you're running for more than 45 minutes, carry an energy gel or a small snack with you in case you get hungry.

Nothing New on Race Day

If you're training for a big race, it's important that you try out different pre-run foods and practice the timing of it all so you can figure out what works for you. You don't want to have any surprises on race day. The morning of your race, you'll want to eat the same foods with the same timing as you did during your training. Unlike race day weather or course conditions, your nutrition is one area that you have complete control over. With proper planning of your pre-race meal, you'll feel more confident and prepared knowing that you already have a nutrition plan worked out.

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