A man drinking energy sports nutrition energy gel while resting after trail running

How To Fuel for Running

Photo: Alena Kovalenko

Fueling up properly is essential for performing at your best.

Fueling on the run can be tricky. First, there’s the issue of mechanics: getting something into your mouth and down your throat while in motion. Second, finding what works with your digestion—again, while running—is key. Even foods that are easily digestible while sitting at home can react differently in your system due to the jostling and effort of running.

So how much fuel, and what kind of fuel, do you need to consume? The short answer: It depends. Here’s a guide to help determine what will work best for you.

Get To Know Your Body

Your body is unique, and your nutrition needs will be, too. For example, heavier runners will often need more mid-run fuel than lighter runners, and people with faster metabolisms will burn through calories and require more food than those with slower metabolisms.

Experimenting is the only way to determine what pre-, post-, and mid-run nutrition will work for you. A good rule of thumb is to experiment on training runs, but when race day comes around, stick to familiar and proven fare. Follow a few general guidelines to figure your fueling needs.

What To Eat Before a Run

Generally speaking, it’s best to stick to simple carbohydrates before a run. Avoid consuming large amounts of fat and protein, which take longer to digest. It’s also best to avoid high-fiber foods and coffee, both of which can necessitate finding a bathroom mid-run. Examples of good pre-run simple carbohydrates include:

  • Bananas
  • Bagels
  • Toast
  • Oatmeal
  • Pasta
  • Rice

Consuming a small amount of fat or protein before longer runs can be a good idea: The slower digestion times for these foods can provide more sustained energy for longer efforts. Try adding cream cheese or peanut butter to toast or oatmeal, or add small amounts of avocado, cheese, or nuts to other pre-run meals.

A woman eats nutrition gummies at sunrise on the trails of Green Mountain near Denver, Colorado. Photo: Matt Trappe/TandemStock

What To Eat While Running

The best mid-run fuel is both easily digestible and quickly absorbed by your body to give you the instant energy you need.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbs in easily digestible forms are best. Gels, those little packets of flavored viscous fuel, are a good source. They also contain minerals like sodium that are beneficial to runners, and some contain caffeine to give you a mid-run pick-me-up as well. Other options include energy chews, which also offer easily digestible carbohydrates and minerals beneficial to runners. Both gels and chews come in packets designed for easy carrying (and eating) on the run.

 Energy Bars

Energy bars and other solid foods can be more difficult to consume and digest during a run, but that largely depends on your preferences and your body. If you’re running at a slower pace or will be taking breaks to eat, energy bars, packaged waffles, and other solid foods may work just fine for you. If you’re racing or speed training, however, the streamlined packaging and easy-to-digest formulations of gels and chews are the better choice.

Wash It Down

No matter what you eat on the run, make sure you hydrate after eating. Water (or other fluids) helps disperse the food in your system so nutrients can get to your muscles faster.

How Much to Eat While Running

Research shows that it’s best to ingest roughly 100 calories after the first hour of a run and then 100 calories every 45 minutes thereafter. Of course, your exact calorie needs will vary: Some runners may need more calories per hour, others will require less.

Also consider your calorie intake over the previous 12 hours or so. If you’re running in the morning and ate breakfast beforehand, you’ll need less mid-run fuel than someone who didn’t eat prior to the run. (The same rule applies if you ate a healthy, large dinner later in the evening the night before a morning run.)

Basically, if you’re well-nourished prior to a run, you’ll need less fuel to keep you going during your effort.

What to Eat After a Run

To help your body recover, you’ll want to ingest protein within a half-hour of finishing your run. Examples of good post-run protein include:

  • Protein shakes
  • Chocolate milk
  • Protein bars
  • Eggs
  • Sandwich with meat or vegetarian protein

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.