Most distance runners have heard nutritionists and coaches compare fueling for a run to fueling up your car. The gist is simple: you cannot run (well) on empty.
Your body has a limited storage capacity for any nutrient, but especially its fuel of choice for activity—carbohydrates. If you want to run far, long, fast, and hard, you need fuel to do so. Fueling for every workout is one way to improve your strength, endurance, and speed.
General nutrient needs to fuel every workout
Daily carbohydrate and protein needs are increased during endurance training, while fat needs remain relatively the same. The average runner can consume an adequate amount of all three of these macronutrients by balancing meals throughout the day, fueling before and after workouts, and being mindful of meal and snack planning. Sports dietitian Natalie Rizzo, RDN, also stresses the importance of staying hydrated throughout the day, not just before or during a run.
How to fuel before your workout
There are many runners who actually do run on empty (i.e. a fasted state). They prefer to not eat before a run, for a number of reasons. This can be okay for a short or easy run, but it’s not ideal.
“I hear a lot of runners say that they can’t eat before they run because they will get sick, but that’s just not true,” says Denver-based sports dietitian, Amanda Turner, RDN. Even if a runner feels queasy when eating before a run today, it’s possible to train the gut to take in fuel. Turner notes that experimenting with timing, types and amounts of food is important.
If you’re in a training cycle, your body’s energy needs are higher and you’re consistently emptying your carbohydrate storage tanks. Fueling adequately, and often, for every workout no matter your running level, will help you avoid underfueling.
READ MORE: How to Develop a Race Day Fueling Strategy
Before any run, eat a high carb meal or snack. The right timing, portion, and mix of foods will vary by runner, so it helps to accept that you might need to experiment before nailing your perfect combo Start by allowing at least an hour to digest small snacks for shorter runs, strength, or speed workouts. Allow up to two or three hours for meals before a longer run. No matter when you’re eating, focus on carbohydrates. Rizzo notes, “People tend to forget that carbs are fruits, vegetables, dairy, and whole grains.” There are plenty of options to choose from! Experiment with foods you like and food combinations that are easy to digest—low protein, low fat, and low fiber.
How to fuel during your workout
Our bodies store nutrients and use this energy during exercise. Carbohydrates are primarily stored (as glycogen) in the muscles and liver. Fat stores far exceed carbohydrates in terms of total energy available, but it’s not an efficient source of fuel during intense exercise (i.e. racing).
The carbohydrates we have in storage are used during the first ten to fifteen minutes of exercise, and then complemented by fuel we take in before and during a run as we keep going (long or hard).
General recommendations for fueling during the run are to get in between 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Just like when you experiment with the food you eat before a run, know it may take some practice to get your gut used to digesting fuel on the run. Start on the lower end of the range, and build up as needed. Work with a sports dietitian to determine your needs based on your training, body type, and goals.
When you’re fueling during a run, try to avoid or minimize protein, fiber, and fat. Try out a variety of sports products such as Skratch Fruit Drops, CLIF Shot Bloks, gels, or even gummy candies. Consuming one serving of each product, or candy, often provides somewhere between 30-60g of carbohydrates.
Stay hydrated during your run to help your body digest this fuel and maintain electrolyte balance. Sports nutrition recommendations are to hydrate with one-half to a full cup of fluid per fifteen minutes. Start on the lower range, or with just a few sips every ten to fifteen minutes, and build up as needed. Hydration needs will change based on weather, endurance, intensity, and body types.
Try one of two hydration tests to see if you’re hydrating well during your training runs:
- Weigh in before and after your run. For each pound lost during the workout, you may need up to sixteen additional ounces of fluid.
- Check your urine color before and after your run. A well-hydrated body produces a clear or very light yellow colored urine. Dark yellow urine is one symptom of dehydration.
Tips for fueling during every workout:
Long Workouts: Fuel with a carbohydrate-based meal 2 to 3 hours before your run, and add a light snack 30-45 minutes before you head out. (This might be waking up a little bit earlier, for morning runners!) Fuel with 30-60g of carbohydrates every hour. Hydrate before the run (up to 20-30 ounces should be sufficient), and drink up to eight ounces every half hour during the run.
Speed Workouts: Fuel with a carbohydrate-based snack up to an hour before the run, and stay hydrated throughout the day (or drink something before you head out in the morning). Hydrate and fuel during the run as needed, especially if the run exceeds 60 minutes.
Strength Workouts: Fuel with a carbohydrate-based snack up to an hour before the workout. Stay hydrated before and during the workout.
Easy Workouts: Fuel with a light carbohydrate-based snack up to an hour before the workout. Hydrate before the run. It is unlikely you’ll need fuel during this workout (if it’s under one hour).
How to fuel after your workout
Fueling after your workout is the first step to gaining strength and fitness through your training. Your recovery meal or snack–consumed within the first hour after exercise, to help aid muscle tissue recovery and restore glycogen—is what will refill those glycogen stores in the muscles and liver, and provide protein to help rebuild and repair muscle tissues. This is the best time to mix in fats, proteins, and fiber (e.g. an egg and cheese sandwich, or fruit and nut butter smoothie).
Recovery doesn’t end with one meal or snack—it’s all about balance, with your meals, drinks, and snacks each day. When you’re training, every day is an opportunity to fuel your body with the food it needs to keep going!