Fueling for a Run: Tips, Tricks and Myths

Here's some help figuring out the best way to fuel for a run

Sometimes it can seem like you spend as much time focusing on nutrition as you do running. And with the array of products on the market and all of the advice from experts and friends, deciding what to eat and drink can be downright overwhelming. But proper fueling can make a huge difference in performance, so we talked with a few sports nutrition experts to uncover their top tips, tricks, myths and fallacies about fueling for a run.

Morning Run Myth

Kim Schwabenbauer, a sports dietitian, founder of Fuel Your Passion and professional triathlete from Clarion, Penn., says too many runners are rolling out of bed and going for runs for an hour or longer without any fuel, sometimes because they think it’s better for their stomachs.

“Every runner can and should eat breakfast and fuel during these training runs and races. I have never met a runner I could not fuel—sometimes with a bit of trial and error,” she says. “Never say, ‘I can’t’ in running, life or fueling!”

Schwabenbauer recommends waking up 30–60 minutes before a longer run to allow time to top off circulating blood glucose with a small high-carbohydrate snack like a Nutri-Grain bar, bagel thin with jelly or oatmeal, plus consume 12–20 oz. of water or sports drink, “so you are ready to rock your long run.” Every 35–45 minutes (for runs over the 1-hour mark), have 50g of carbohydrates via sports drink and gels/blocks to keep sodium levels up and carbs available “to avoid the bonk.”  

The Truth About Bananas

You’ve likely noticed all the bananas races, and you’ve probably heard how important it is to replenish potassium. But Wendy Bazilian, a doctor of public health and nutritionist in San Diego, says the most important electrolyte for exercise is sodium. “Many people believe that potassium is the most important electrolyte, especially because sodium (in general) gets such a bad rap in the general diet (and at times, deservedly so). But in an athlete/active person, sodium is the primary electrolyte to pay attention to since so much can be lost in hard training or endurance events,” she says.

A sports drink before, during and after running can ensure a constant stream of sodium. Bazilian says potassium is also important, but bananas aren’t enough for either fuel or recovery. She says, “Sodium also helps increase the desire to drink, helps with absorption and overall fluid balance.”

Sugar Tip

There’s a lot of pressure these days to eschew sugar, but that shouldn’t be the mantra of runners, says Lauren Antonucci, the director of Nutrition Energy in New York and a specialist in sports dietetics. She says runners need this sweet fuel to decrease injury risk and have longevity in sport.

“I see many women runners ‘afraid’ to take in sports drinks/gels/calories and sugar during training and racing and that is a big mistake,” she says. “We need the carbs/sugar to fuel our bodies.”

READ MORE: The Benefits of Reducing Sugar in Your Diet

Hydration Trick

Bazilian has worked with many athletes who aren’t good at drinking enough—whether water or sports drink. “There’s a million reasons why you could be distracted,” she says. Her solution? “Count and measure your sips and gulps.” She says most runners should consume about 4–6 oz. every 15–20 minutes, so if you figure out how quickly you tend to down that amount, then you’ll know how much to drink during training and racing.

“When you’re out running, you’re not going to be exactly measuring out every time you take some sips from your bottle. Of course, you can draw lines on your bottle as a reference or take a look at your bottle to estimate, but it’s even easier if you know how many sips or gulps it takes for you to drink a certain amount.” She recommends measuring out water and practicing to determine your intake levels. Do it a few times over a couple of days to determine an average. Then whether you carry a bottle or hit a hydration station while racing, you can dial in how many sips to take and how often.

READ MORE: How to Dial In Your Daily Hydration

Protein Myth

Bazilian says people tend to think we need much more protein than we actually do, and Americans tend to eat more than necessary. The key for runners is to pay attention to how much and when you eat protein. “According to science, as little as 10g of protein has been shown to kick-start muscle repair,” she says, “but consuming about 20g of protein shortly following exercise has been the best to aid in muscle recovery.”

It’s also important to pair 10-20g of protein with carbohydrates for the most benefit for your muscles. “Protein helps replenish (glycogen, alongside carbohydrates), repair and rebuild,” Bazilian says.

READ MORE: Pack Protein into Your Recovery Routine

Tricks for a Tender Tummy

GI issues on long runs tend to make runners want to skimp on calories and fluids, but Antonucci says, “Many times those issues can be abated with adequate fueling. Fuel early and often—don’t wait until 1-plus hours in to fuel.”

There are also studies that suggest gargling with a sports drink instead of ingesting it can increase performance without making an already testy stomach worse mid-run. Schwabenbauer says, “We have been programmed to like and respond to the ‘sweet’ taste of drinks, candy, etc., so this may go back to the very beginning of time when we responded to different stimuli to help us run away from bears and avoid poisonous foods.”

READ MORE: Runner’s Gut—Dealing with GI Issues

Fat Lies

Schwabenbauer cautions about the hype around depletion runs—“going out on a very long run with no fuel before and very little (if any) during.” She says the scientific benefits and risks are unknown, and acknowledges elite runners searching for the gains of fat adaptation may find an edge from these types of run, but “the majority of people should focus on stressing the body in other ways, such as increasing mileage or adding slight bits of intensity.”

“The risk of not recovering well from these types of runs, especially late in the training cycle, is very high and could sideline a runner for days, if not weeks, if they get sick or injured,” she explains. “Take calculated risks and make it to the race safe and healthy!”

READ MORE: Ignore These Food Rules and Run Better

Nicki Miller

Nicki Miller is the former editor-in-chief of Competitor Running and managing editor of Women’s Running and is an RRCA certified coach. She loves encouraging runners, helping them avoid injury, covering sports nutrition and developing healthy recipes. Follow her at @nickiontherun