Foods to Eat Before, During, and After Long Distance Runs

By Ted is Dean Karnazes’ primary fuel source when he goes out for a 26-mile jog.

Karnazes, an ultra-marathon man who’s run 10 marathons back-to-back (that’s 262 consecutive miles) frequently delivers pizza to himself, at the halfway point of his training runs.

Mike Arnstein, another ultra marathon runner, only eats bananas – 40 to 50 a day, actually – a fact, which is, in and of itself, sort of bananas.

However unorthodox these diets may seem, every marathon runner will tell you how important nutrition is to maximize your results, your health and your recovery during your training and racing.

But, if a diet of pizza and bananas sounds unappetizing or extreme, then consider the advice below to guide your nutrition choices while preparing for or completing a half, full, or ultra marathon.

Before a Long Training Run or Race

For years, I’ve searched for foods that provide the most energy before races, with a minimal impact on my stomach. I’ve found that calorie-dense foods, in small amounts, don’t give me that heavy feeling during long runs. Anyone who has dealt with stomach problems during a run knows how they can slow you down.

It’s unnecessary to calculate exactly how many calories to consume per hour to prevent cramps and excess trips to the bathroom. Instead, use your training runs to experiment with various food combinations.

Before your long run, see which foods settle best in your stomach. Just like you train your muscles to run, you need to train your stomach to accept foods that sustain you.

Once your stomach adapts to a particular food before long runs, DO NOT introduce a foreign pre-run meal on race day. For example, if you eat a bowl of oatmeal one hour before every training run, then don’t eat a protein bar on race day; treat race day just like every other run. Introducing an unrecognized food into your regimen will only upset your already nervous stomach.

It’s important to eat before long runs. If you’re having stomach issues, here are some food groups to avoid and some to consider:



High-Fiber or Whole Grain Food.
While high fiber vegetables, beans and fruits are great for a runner’s overall health, they can cause gastrointestinal distress, diarrhea, and other digestive discomfort when consumed the night before, or morning of, a long run.

Refined Carbohydrates.
Though processed foods like white pasta, white rice, and bagels are not as nutritious as whole grains, their ingredients are already stripped to their simplest form.  Unlike complex and high-fiber carbs, these foods have been processed externally, and your body doesn’t have to do as much work to digest them. Any extra energy your body expends on digesting foods – those high in fiber – is energy taken away from your running muscles. Thus, a bagel and a glass of water is probably a safe choice before a long run.

Fatty Foods:
It might be self evident to avoid french fries, hamburgers, hotdogs or bacon before a run – you probably know how your stomach feels after you eat a huge hamburger, and it’s not so great. However, nuts are also high in fat and calorie dense, so it will take your body longer to convert to energy. Conisder eating nuts at least an hour or two before you do any exercise.

Low-Fiber Fruits and Veggies: 
If fruits and veggies are the only food that appeals to you before a run, these are the most digestible and the lowest in fiber content: Zucchini, tomatoes, olives, grapes, and grapefruit.

Coffee  or other caffeinated substances, like energy “gels” or “Gu”, are diuretics, which means they induce bowl movement and can cause stomach issues or diarrhea.

If you’re a regular coffee drinker, then your stomach can probably handle caffeine. However, don’t introduce caffeine before race day if you’re not accustomed to coffee or didn’t train with caffeinated energy gels.

Some Dairy:
Lest I state the obvious, if you’re lactose intolerant, avoid dairy before runs. If you do like milk before a run, then try soy, rice, or almond milk as a lactose-free alternative.

While some runners completely avoid dairy before running, others can’t get enough. Dean Karnazes eats whole-fat Greek yogurt before his long runs, and swears by it — Probably because Acidophilus milk and yogurt with live cultures contain bacteria that aid in digestion.

During a Long Training Run or Race

Unlike a race, there are no aid stations providing water or snacks during your long training runs, so you must bring water and sustenance.

It’s not always necessary to eat during a run that’s less than two hours long, as the bulk of your energy is taken from stored muscle glycogen. However, after the two-hour mark, you have depleted your stored glycogen, so your body relies on the sugar in your bloodstream: this means you need to eat.

2892-during-a-run.jpgIngesting carbs during runs over 1.5 hours prevents racers from hitting the dreaded “wall,” or running out of energy.

Sports drinks are an efficient way to deliver quick sugar to your bloodstream. However, solid foods in small, easily digestible amounts are also effective when you need something more substantial.

Energy gels and protein bars are meant for distance runners to consume on the move. Experiment with various simple foods, gels and bars during your training runs to see what works best for you. FindTheBest is a great Web resource for runners researching carb to protein ratios, sugar levels and other nutritional information for their protein bars and sports drinks.

Some experts say that runners should take in 100 calories after running for an hour, and another 100 calories every 40-45 minutes after that. But, depending on your size, speed or metabolism, you may require more or less than that. Be proactive: do your research and know what your body needs.

After a Long Training Run or Race

Studies show that after vigorous, or duration intense, exercise there is a 30-45 minute window in which athletes should replace expended energy. This window for consumption is important because muscles, directly after a workout, are at their peak glycogen rebuilding phase.

During this phase, muscles are actively seeking nutrients to repair broken down tissue. Thus, the sooner you eat after your workout, the less muscle stiffness and soreness you’ll experience in the following days.

After a race or training run, consume a ratio of 1 gram of protein to 3 grams of carbs. Nutrition bars, whole grain bread with almond butter or a smoothie made with fruit and yogurt are delicious and nutritious options.

Though Karnazes and Arnsteins’ diets seem a little extreme, both of these incredible athletes have found what works for them. Half the battle when training for a long distance run is finding a diet that is best for you. Once you’ve done that, all you have to do is run 26.2-miles! Piece of cake…Er, better make that a protein bar.

Brandon Coakley is a recent grad at UC Santa Barbara and a business development manager at FindTheBest-Health, which helps users find accurate health information on everything from the Best Nursing Homes to Health Centers.

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  1. Kishor

    Thanks very much being fruitful

  2. Lalli singh

    I am long distance runner How I increase my speed

    • Joel

      Fartleks are good for speed increase.

  3. Trey

    What should my daily calorie intake be on long run and short run or rest days be? I just started training for my first marathon and I’m 195lbs but I know I should be closer to 180 so I’m hoping to meet that weight in the next few months.

  4. Charlotte

    I can run a lot and I’m 15 a freshman and I have a spot on varsity but I can’t find a good way to eat the only thing that seems to work is not eating the day of a meet and not eating a lot on practice days and it’s scaring family any suggestions?

    • Ted

      Are you able to eat a lot after meets and after practice?

      • Charlotte

        Not really just a. Sandwich or some fruit

        • Ted

          Well I suggest that you load up after your meet or practice. If you want to be a great runner, you’ll have to start giving your body the fuel it needs.

          • Charlotte

            Thank you for for the advice I’ll try it

  5. Mike

    You know, lots of runners and coaches are drinking chocolate milk after runs. It has the right balance of proteins and carbs. Weird.

    • Rebekah

      Even chocolate soy milk has that ideal ratio, so even vegan and lactose intolerant runners can enjoy that 3:1 carb to protein ratio

  6. kas2omb

    What equipment do you need for p90x Here you find out all the right info to get you started to leanness!

  7. runningmom

    I realized when I moved to ultras that for some of us, what works for us before and during a run must be like a science.

    I can run a marathon with nothing on my stomach and water. Not so for ultras. Yet, so much makes my stomach go south. It starts days before with precision detail just to get best odds.

    To correct this article though, for best recovery the ratio should be 1 gram protein to 4 grams carbs, not 3. Chocolate milk is usually in this ratio, which is why you hear it touted so often.

  8. Spectra

    I don’t run as much as I used to anymore, but when I was running about 10 to 12 miles a day, I usually ran without anything in my stomach most of the time–usually about an hour of running. Then I’d just eat something when I got back. It really seemed to work well for me. I will say though, that eating a lot of fiber the night before a long run is not a great idea. I have had a few close calls and have been VERY glad that many of my routes went near restrooms.