Eating And Training: How To Time It Right

If you can coordinate your appetite with your training, you'll become a more effective runner


Posted: 5 August 2002
by Liz Applegate

Many runners know exactly what they should eat and when they should eat it. It’s the practical application of this theory that messes them up. You are either ravenous when you don’t want to be – during training – or not hungry when you should be – immediately after training. The problem is that when you are planning your run around a busy work schedule, your brain, leg muscles and stomach don’t always stay in sync.

An early-morning run, for example, can leave you feeling fatigued during your working day. A midday training session may become no more than an afterthought if hunger overrides your motivation. And an after-work jaunt may press your dinnertime perilously close to bedtime.

If you are looking for ways to get back into sync, read on. The following advice will help you coordinate your meals with your training schedule, based on the time of day you run.

Early Birds

To eat or not to eat? That is the eternal question of those who like to run as the sun is coming up.

The answer is, if you can, you should fuel up before your morning run. This performs two functions. First your muscles receive an energy supply to help you power through the run. Secondly, your entire body, especially your brain, receives the fuel and nutrients it needs for optimal functioning. It shouldn’t be a surprise that studies support this and that eating before a run boosts endurance compared with fasting for 12 hours. People who eat before exercise rate the exercise as better and as less rigorous compared with those who fast.

That said, not everyone can eat before a morning run. If you’re the type of person who sleeps until the minute before you head out of the door, you might not be able to fit in the meal before you run. Eating too close to your run may spoil it by causing cramps and nausea. On the other hand, if you’re a true early bird, you may have the time to eat breakfast, read the paper and wash up before you head out of the door. Here are a few refuelling strategies for both types of morning exercisers:

Early risers
Choose high-carbohydrate foods that are low in fat and moderate in protein. Aim for about 400-800 calories, which will fuel your training without making you feel sluggish. Drink about half a pint of water two hours before your run to offset sweat loss.

Try these 400- to 800-calorie pre-run breakfasts:

  • Two slices of toast and a piece of fruit
  • Cereal with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk and fresh fruit
  • A toasted bagel topped with low-fat cheese and tomato slices

Late sleepers
Most runners fall into this category and don’t have time to eat and digest a full meal before they head out of the door.If you fall into this camp, experiment to see what you can stomach before you train. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Half a pint of a carbohydrate drink
  • An energy gel washed down with water
  • Half a bagel
If none of these sits well with you just before a run, then fuel up the night before with a large dinner. As long as you don’t plan a long or intense run in the morning, a high-carbohydrate evening meal should power you through your pre-breakfast run.

For both types
Whether you are an early or late riser, your body needs calories from carbohydrate, protein and other nutrients after you have finished running. A recovery meal will help fuel your morning at work, preventing post-run fatigue. Eat within an hour of your training and be sure to include both carbohydrate and protein. Here are some options:

  • A fruit smoothie made with a tablespoon of protein powder
  • Eggs on whole-wheat toast and fruit juice or fresh fruit
  • Leftovers from dinner – pasta, soup, chilli or even vegetable pizza

The Lunchtime Crowd

People who run during lunch hours sometimes find that hunger gets the better of them. That’s because if you ate breakfast at 6am, you’ve gone six hours without food. By noon, your fuel from breakfast is long gone and your blood sugar may start to dip. Rather than increasing the size of your breakfast (which may just leave you feeling sluggish), you should bring a light, pre-run snack to work.

Remember the following three points as you run:

1) Timing Eat one to four hours before your run to allow enough time to food to leave your stomach.

2) Quantity Eat 100-400 calories, depending upon your body size and what you had for breakfast.

3) Content Select foods that are rich in carbohydrate, low in fat and moderately high in nutrients. Try these mid-morning snacks:

  • A breakfast or energy bar with five grams of fat or less
  • One slice of whole-wheat toast topped with fruit spread
  • A 75g serving of dried fruit with a can of vegetable juice
  • One packet of instant oatmeal made with skimmed milk

Post-run lunch
The obvious problem with lunch-hour exercise is that you don’t have time for lunch. But you need fluid and food to recover and fuel your brain for the rest of the working day. Packing your own lunch becomes a must – unless you have a work cafeteria where you can grab food for desktop dining. Packed lunches don’t have to take a lot of time. Try these tips:

  • Opt for convenience and shop for lunch items that save time, such as yoghurts, raisins, nuts and cereal bars
  • Always add fruit. Toss one or two pieces of fruit in your lunch bag for a reliable source of nutrient-packed carbohydrate
  • Make the most of leftovers. Choose any food from the previous night’s dinner that you’ve already packed in a sealed container ready for transport, reheating and eating

Evening Exercise

After a stressful day at the office, there’s nothing like a run to burn off excess tension. The problem is that you sometimes don’t feel like heading out of the door if you’re hungry or just exhausted. If you do manage to run, sometimes you return home so ravenous that you eat everything in sight as you make your evening meal. Then you might eat dinner as late as 8pm and end up going to bed with a full stomach.

What to do?
It’s very simple – just stick to the following two principles:

1. Eat healthily during the day to avoid any intestinal upset that might thwart your training plans. Also eat often and enough that you’re adequately fuelled for your session to avoid the ‘I’m too hungry’ excuse.

2. Eat lightly after exercise to recover well without causing digestion to interfere with your sleep.

Here are some tips for evening exercisers:

  • Never skip breakfast. Eat at least 500 calories for your morning meal. For example, quickly throw together a fruit smoothie made with yoghurt, fruit and juice. Or try cereal topped with nuts, skimmed milk and a piece of fruit.
  • Make lunch your main meal of the day. Focus on high-quality protein, such as fish, tofu, lean beef, chicken or bread with cooked grain, along with fresh fruit.
  • Always eat a mid-afternoon snack. Around three hours before your run, eat a snack of fruit or an energy bar together with half a pint of water.
  • Drink more fluids. Grab a drink as soon as you step back through the door after your run. And keep drinking as you prepare your meal. This helps replace sweat loss and may prevent you trying to eat everything in sight.
  • Eat moderately at dinner. Some people worry about eating too close to bedtime because they fear the calories will go straight to their fat cells. That’s simply not true. Your body will use those calories to stockpile fuel in your muscles. On the other hand if you eat more calories than your body needs – no matter what time of day or night – your body will eventually store the excess as fat.

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Discuss this article

I find after a run the last thing I want to do is eat. After an evening run I could easily go to bed without eating anything (but drink a lot). Am I best to do this, or is it better to eat something? If I didn't eat would I feel worse in the morning?

Suz

(I am only running around 6miles at the moment but building up to a half marathon)
Posted: 22/08/2002 at 09:53


Nic
Suz,
I am the same i dont like to eat straight after running. I am assuming you run in the evening? Have your main meal at lunch time. Then you can have something lite at night. try eating a banana after your run. This will help refueling. But your body does need to be refueled.

Expect V-Rap to give you the full reasons why, and probably a better answer.


Nic
Posted: 22/08/2002 at 10:06

Try to have something within an hour of your run, Suz, especially if you plan to exercise again the following day. After 6 miles, your leg muscle glycogen stores will have fallen and need refilling.

If you can't face food (and I'm with you there in not finding it easy to eat after an evening run), have half a litre of sports drink or squash (not the sugar-free sort) as part of your post-run rehydration, and maybe a couple of biscuits with your bedtime cocoa. Then follow up with a big breakfast!

Athletes aiming mainly to lose fat do use a technique in which they do an evening exercise session, don't eat afterwards, then do another hard session early in the morning before eating breakfast. In theory, the muscle glycogen depletion forces them to burn fat for the second workout. I suspect that assumption oversimplifies the way our bodies work.

As your aim is to train for endurance running and the amount and intensity of exercise you do is going to increase, you'll need to get used to refuelling after your long runs. The situation may sort itself out in time. Once you're doing more miles a week, and longer long runs, you'll probably be so hungry all the time that you'll gladly fall in the front door and straight into a plate of treacle sponge and custard.
Posted: 22/08/2002 at 10:13

Nic, my answer may not be better, my reasons may not be full, but your telepathy can't be faulted.
Posted: 22/08/2002 at 10:14


Nic
V-rap,
I knew you would explain it better. Just saw that you hadn't got round to answering this and thought i would sneak in ;)

Nic
Posted: 22/08/2002 at 10:20

Hadn't got round to it!? Nic, my response went up 20 minutes after Suz posted, which must be something of a record for me! Nice to be wanted, but...

:-)

Anyway, nothing I can pull from the textbooks is worth a fraction of one Forumite coming on and saying "think about trying this, it may not be in any running book but it works for me".

Posted: 22/08/2002 at 10:29

Thanks to you BOTH for your quick replies!!!

It is the evenining runs when this happens. Last night I had a small bowl of pasta when I got back, and didn't feel and better or worse for it. I had read something somewhere about refuelling, but I do like the idea of a sportsdrink followed by a big breakfast in the morning! Even better, the long runs followed by treacle and custard!

Thanks again for you advice.

Cheers
Suz
Posted: 22/08/2002 at 10:49

I usually have a bowl of porrige mid to late afternoon if i'm doing an evening run (usually a hard session with the guys so i need something!). When i come in afterwards i have a banana and 1/2 litre sports drink, then my shower, then (about 45 mins after run) have a yogurt and a couple of slices of toast before bed.

Posted: 22/08/2002 at 14:06

I usually try to eat something after a long run, even if I feel a bit sick (sometimes do if its hot or has been really long). I can usually stomach a cereal bar and some sports drink pre shower, then something like malt loaf or toast afterwards. I also quite like those little pots of instant mashed potato with onion........couldn't eat them any other time, but after a run they do taste good.
Posted: 22/08/2002 at 15:54

Sometimes in the evening I have a bowl of soup which although not ideal, at least replaces some fluids. Get some crusty bread as well , good for 'dunking' !
Posted: 22/08/2002 at 15:57

I know I'm posting over a year late on this one, but this is important.

After exercise your muscles have a 'glycogen window'. This occurs 30-90 mins after you finish exercising.

Glucose (from carbs or sports drinks etc) is converted to glycogen to replenish your muscle store.

During this window, you will store glycogen at four times the normal rate.

If you want to fuel you next running session. Eat!

I always eat a full meal after training, sometime within 30 mins. As my heart rate returns to normal pretty quickly, I'm not stressing my system.

I eat fat, carbs and protein in my meal to help repair tissue damage and prevent muscle breakdown.

One other point. My uncle doesn't bother when or what he eats and still runs my arse off!
Posted: 01/10/2003 at 20:58

Just imagine how good your uncle could be then!
Posted: 01/10/2003 at 21:29

He's old school! I can't tell him anything.

If I can beat his PBs one day, he'll have to listen.
Posted: 01/10/2003 at 23:55

I just cant eat for 2 hours post running
destined to be crap
Posted: 02/10/2003 at 00:16

Hey Hippo, try a sports drink or some fruit if you can face it. Also I doubt you're destined to be crap. C'mon, at least you're running, so who cares when you eat! Like I said, it never did my uncle any harm.
Posted: 02/10/2003 at 00:29

I'm a beginner and started running with a club about 2 months ago. I tend to eat a banana a few hours before I run but then I enjoy eating a full meal about an hour after my run...pasta or something. It's kind of like my 'prize' after my run. Most people at the club I've joined don't feel like eating so was beginning to feel like I was doing something wrong! Thanks for the info.
Posted: 06/10/2003 at 14:12

I eat a banana drink a milky drink or protein shake (not too filling). It seems to help my energy level regain to exercise the next day. Starting with my carbs in the morning
Posted: 22/06/2005 at 11:50

I know I know... 3 years later... I don't care

I just came back from a 16-mile run. Since I don't really know much about running theory, I had to look up info about whether to eat after running or not on the net. I found your forum... helped me a lot, thanks a lot!

I decided to eat a bunch of stuff. I had a big bowl of cereal with milk, a cup of hot milk chocolate with marshmallows, and a full glass of apple juice (Couldn't find any fruits/vegetables ). My stomach is huuuuuurting now, but I'm pretty confident that it will, as you say, refuel my muscles. They sure felt tired after the run.

I'll post how I felt after tonight later on to share my full experience.


Posted: 16/05/2008 at 07:13

Eat. The time you benefit from a long run is only when it's over - when your muscles rebuild and repair themselves and they need fuel to do it otherwise not only are you not replacing energy you're also leaving yourself more open to injuries.
Eat bananas. Eat cereal. Drink protein shakes. Bagel with PB and banana...
But eat something at least 30 mins after a long run of 6 - 8 miles or more (anything that goes over the hour).
Then stretch. Then jump in an icy bath. Extreme recovery for your muscles. Stops the inflammation and helps reduce delayed sore muscles (you know the ones you get two days later and wonder WHY????)
That's all I know.

Posted: 21/09/2009 at 13:47

But what if you need to loose a few pounds ? and only exercise every other day so you dont need to refuel so quickly. Surely it would be best not to eat after a run ?

Any thoughts ?


Posted: 22/04/2010 at 16:23

Hi SmilerChris

I guess the generally accepted best way to 'lose a few pounds' is to 'do more eat less.'
But if you're running you have to eat 'right' not less, so snack on a banana and some nuts Just a few or a fruit smoothie to refuel. Try to avoid empty calories, like sugary sweets, chocolate and overly processed foods. It's all about balance.

If you aren't running more than 30 min in session and not every day, bananas or a piece of wholemeal toast with Peanut butter should do and plenty of fluids. Just make sure to eat right at every other meal as well. Starving your body of calories makes it go into hibernation mode where it will hang on to all the energy stores it has (mainly your fat stores) and you'll either find you stop losing weight or only lose it very very slowly. The more you exercise and build up muscle and stamina the more energy (calories) you'll burn because you will have changed your metabolic rate and muscle burns more energy than fat even when you're not exercising.

Slow release carbs, wholewheat bread, pasta, basmati rice, brown pasta, good low fat sources of protein skinless chicken, fish, beans, pulses, nuts have 'good' fats such as brazil, cashews. Loads of fresh salad, veg, fruit ALL GOOD STUFF, for runners and dieters alike.

And there's NOTHING wrong with a bit of cake now and then.

Posted: 22/04/2010 at 18:22

Hi Lisa thanks for the great tips (I chuckled at the cake comment), my diet is pretty healthy and I eat most of those things you suggest.

My thoughts were to consume less calories and burn more calories, as Im new to running I guess eating what I do now with the extra exercise will let me loose those few pounds.

You didnt mention monkey nuts ! are they okay ? I had a binge on those last night !


Posted: 23/04/2010 at 14:43

Go for it on the monkey nuts. Someone has to eat them I guess!
I tried to eat less and exercise more, but honestly and this might just be me, I ended up feeling ill and then actually being quite 'run down' for a couple of months. You might be be more robust than me! I just gotta eat.
Good luck with it all, it does eventually pay off.
Posted: 23/04/2010 at 14:59

for some reason i always have a chocolate bar, usually one with nuts in it as well like a snickers or sometimes a boost and a glass of chocolate milk. I do have a sweet tooth which may have something to do with it. I usually run midday. after eating this i have my usual evening meal between 6 and 7. since i started having something sugary and chocolate milk i always feel much better. Dunno if there's any science behind it but it works for me!
Posted: 22/10/2010 at 13:25


This advice is awesome... I found out the hard way not to eat much BEFORE my runs.... I had the most awful heartburn... and the "need to go" (if you know what I mean).

One thing that gets me is - advice says, you should not eat a late meal (if trying to lose a few pounds). I have no problem eating after a run - but what is worse....

to eat after a run - but eat late at night before bed

or

to have a massive brekky the next day and not eat late at night?

Any ideas? (Not that I am overanalysing at ALL.)

J
Posted: 23/11/2010 at 17:39

I'm a beginner and started running with a club about 2 months ago. I tend to eat a banana a few hours before I run. One important thing to remember is that there isn’t one method that works for everyone, rather, there are guidelines to follow and work with to see what works best for you and your body. That’s because your body will react and process food differently than someone else.. Thanks for the info. 

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Posted: 17/05/2011 at 09:23

Another 3 years later! Thanks for the thought everyone.  I have just come back from a 10mile run (long for me, only done it once before) and can't eat 3 hours later. I managed a yoghurt and lots to drink, and aim to eat a good dinner tonight.


Posted: 29/01/2014 at 15:53

If I go for a 10 mile run I generally arrive back at the house and eat pretty much everything not nailed down in the kitchen. I suspect that's at the other extreme of "bad".
Posted: 04/02/2014 at 12:59

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