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What to eat before a long run

We're continuing my Fuel Your Workout blog series by exploring what to eat before a long run or other endurance activity, which is anything >60-90 minutes. If you missed my last blog post on how to fuel a short training session, including general tips on what to eat and drink before ANY type of workout, check it out because we're building on these concepts today.

what to eat before long training session

But first - what is an endurance athlete?

Before we dive in, I want to clarify what it means to be an endurance athlete. People often assume that you have to be exercising for hours upon hours to be one, and that just isn't true! If you're training most days, and especially if you're including at least one weekly >60-90min session, you're an endurance athlete, whether you consider yourself one or not. You do NOT need to run marathons and ultras, do Ironman triathlons, be fast, look a certain way, be a certain age, or even compete in events for you and your nutrition to matter. If you are putting in the training time, no matter what your goals are, you need to take your fueling seriously.

As I always tell my clients, you cannot prioritize any exercise and especially endurance training without also prioritizing nutrition. They go hand in hand, otherwise you put your health at risk. You may be able to "get away with" inadequate nutrition at first, but I promise you that chronic underfueling (whether that's surrounding exercise or generally speaking) has serious consequences that will catch up to you.

Believe me, I get it - you don't want to wake up even earlier to eat more. Or you feel fine exercising for longer than 60 minutes without eating much. Or maybe your stomach can't handle eating more. All of these are solvable problems, and they're well-worth solving too if you care about your health and performance.

How is fueling different before a long run?

If we boil it down to one thing, it's that we need to eat more carbs. That's because carbs (glucose) are your muscles preferred fuel source, but your carb stores (glycogen) are limited in the body. For shorter runs (<60min), it's important to consume adequate carbs for overall health as well as for performance in that session as we discussed in my last post, but you're you're not depleting your carb stores in such a short period of time. You will, however, deplete your energy stores in longer runs, which means you need to fuel well beforehand, while also taking on additional carbs during the session, so that you can make your energy stores last longer and not feel like hot garbage during or after.

If you're training for an endurance event, it's crucial that you practice eating what you plan to eat on race morning. Keep in mind what you like and tolerate but also logistical things like what will be available when figuring out what to eat. If you don't have access to a kitchen, for example, you need to plan accordingly.

Lastly, it's not just the meal right before exercise that you have to consider when preparing for longer training sessions and events. If you're doing a 2+ hour run, for example, you should also be thinking about what to eat the night before too. I'll save that for another post, but for now, the main thing to note is that we need more carbs at dinner, with a subsequent reduction in fiber and fat. Again, read this blog post for more information on how to build an athlete performance plate tailored to different types of activities and training phases.

The details: What to eat and drink before a long run

If you're about to do a run longer than 60 min, aim for around 60-90g of carbs 1-3 hours before you start. You can individualize this general recommendation by calculating 1-2g carbs per kg bodyweight 1-2 hours before you begin. So the minimum amount of carbs you should be taking in is your bodyweight in pounds divided by 2.2, as that gives kg and you shouldn't be consuming below 1g/kg of carbs.

If you're struggling to get anything in and/or the idea of taking in this many carbs is freaking you out, don't worry - it's a process and it sounds like you have some gut training to do. Start with small amounts of easy-to-digest simple carbs like sports products (drinks, chews, gels etc), applesauce, graham crackers, white toast, rice cake etc and slowly work your way up. The important thing is to stick to carbs only, be consistent, start slow, and gradually increase.

Along with the carbs, aim to have a small amount of protein (e.g. 8-10g). This helps to prevent you from getting hungry during your longer session, and also gets a jumpstart on the recovery process. If you're cycling or doing another non-running sport, you may find that you want or need more than 10g of protein here. Refer back to my last blog post for examples of popular pre-exercise carbs and proteins that will help you reach these goals.

You also need adequate fluids so that you can start your longer run well-hydrated. First, make sure you're meeting baseline daily hydration needs by taking your weight in pounds and dividing by 2. This gives you your daily fluid goal in ounces. Then, you can add what you need from exercise by measuring your sweat rate and aiming to replace the fluid you lose as sweat.

Before a long run specifically, aim to drink 16-24oz of fluid around 1-3 hours before you start, and remember that this includes coffee, tea, water, juice, sports drink etc. You may need more fluid if you are a heavy sweater. I recommend including a sports drink for longer sessions, especially if it's warm out or you're a heavy and/or salty sweater, as this will improve your hydration status and help get more carbs in. This instagram post summarizes how to nail your hydration as an endurance athlete!

Lastly, a very common and useful strategy before a long session is to have a final top-up of fuel 5-15min before you start. This should be about 20-30g of carbs, so a gel, chews, sports drink, or something along those lines are great options.

Visuals are always helpful, so here's an example that follows the above guidelines of 1-2g/kg of carbs + protein + fluids 2 hours before a longer training session. Remember, all of this also applies to triathletes, cyclists, swimmers, and other endurance athletes.

What to eat before long run training session

A bagel is about 50-60g of carbs. We can add peanut butter for protein plus either honey, jam or banana for additional carbs. And then we get our fluids from water, tea, coffee and/or sports drink.

I often build sports drink into race morning plans, as it's such an easy way to increase carb intake, especially if appetite is low. Plus, you get your electrolytes and fluids in! This sample meal meal with sports drink can easily reach 110g carbs, which is still less than 2g/kg, just to put it into perspective.

We could also do oatmeal made with milk or soy milk, pancakes or waffles with fruit and syrup, or there are of course many other options. Again, we have to keep in mind what's feasible on competition day if that is your goal, as well as what you prefer and tolerate.

What if I run later in the day?

For longer sessions, we need to make a few more adjustments to your meals and snacks throughout the day to make sure you don't have GI issues during your workout later on.

For breakfast, eat normally but with a focus on carbs - aim for 1-2g/kg carbs plus 20-40g+ protein (this is general goal, and should be individualized), some fat (not too much), and limit high fiber foods. Drink 8-16oz fluid which can include your coffee, tea, juice, water, or sports drink. If you are a heavy and/or salty sweater, or if it's warm out, this is where adding sports drink is very helpful.

For lunch, eat similarly to breakfast but with slightly fewer carbs (1g/kg is fine). If this is your last meal prior to your long run, make sure that what you're consuming is easy to digest (aka lower fiber and fat). If you're not running, and thus not jostling your stomach as much, you may be able to tolerate some slightly higher fiber foods (eg more fruit/veg, whole grains etc). Tolerance is always very individual!

And then depending on the timing of your session, you may need a carb rich snack 60-90min before you start. Again, aim for 1g/kg carbs, limit fat and fiber, and include 8oz fluid. If you're going soon after lunch (within 1-2 hours), you don't need to do this, but you should include the final top-up of fuel recommended previously.

See below for an example day of meals and snacks prior to an afternoon session.

What to eat before afternoon evening long run

Questions? Let me know! I'll be covering what to eat during a long (>60min) session next. And if you want all of the above in a FREE 4-page digital download, join my monthly newsletter!

If you found this post helpful, you will likely enjoy my self-paced course Peak Performance for Endurance Athletes: Your Ultimate Guide to Strategic Fueling. This 7-part series is packed with evidence based, easy to understand information with tons of visuals covering everyday nutrition, hydration, intraworkout fueling, training the gut, performance and micronutrient supplementation, and preparing for race day. Preview the course, the full curriculum, and get all your questions answered here.


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