Food is fuel: run better on the trails with these fueling tips.
Trail running burns a lot of energy, and like getting dressed to run, nailing your pre-run fueling strategy takes some trial and error to figure out what works (for your schedule and stomach). So, you may be wondering what you should eat before a run to keep your energy high and avoid the dreaded bonk while you’re out on the trails.
Fueling for a run isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone has different dietary needs and restrictions, so when in doubt, have a conversation with your doctor. However, to get you started, here are some tips for what to eat before a trail run.
Tips for what to eat before a trail run
Fueling before a trail run doesn’t have to be difficult for shorter distances. You might opt for a light meal, maybe a cup of coffee or even to skip the meal all together.
A light meal
Having a small meal a little heavier on the carbohydrates is a great way to boost your energy levels for your run. The goal is to eat something that is light and easy to digest. Some good breakfasts before a trail run include:
- Toast with peanut butter, banana slices and honey
- Fruit smoothie with Greek yogurt
- Oatmeal with fruit, nuts and a drizzle of honey
- A bagel with nut butter or Nutella
- A granola bar and a piece of fruit
Aiming to eat one to four hours before your run should be plenty of time to digest beforehand.
Coffee is okay to have before a run. Some people drink it for the potential performance benefits caffeine offers, but others use it to jumpstart digestion.
If you’re worried about feeling full or find yourself wishing for a bathroom early in your run, consider drinking a cup of coffee and running a “poop loop” near home. This is an easy neighborhood loop that helps get digestion going, allowing you to take care of business at home and get on with the rest of your run in comfort.
Some people who run first-thing in the morning will skip breakfast in favor of running fasted. It’s also possible for those who do intermittent fasting and run later in the day to do fasted cardio. The idea is that instead of running on glycogen stores, the body is burning fat for fuel and this can result in weight loss. Fasted cardio isn’t ideal for everyone, so have a conversation with your doctor if you’d like to give it a try.
Fueling for a hard effort
Fueling for endurance is important. Proper fueling for a hard-effort trail run (like a long run or a race) should start a week before the run, or at the very least, with dinner the night before.
You might have heard of runners talking about “carb loading,” which is eating a carbohydrate-heavy meal to beef up glycogen stores. Glycogen is a fuel source burned during a run. However, eating a lot of carbs, especially if they are high in fiber, can cause bloating and intestinal distress.
If you’re carb loading throughout the week before a hard effort or trail race, slightly increase your carbohydrate intake at each meal with a focus on high-quality, low-fiber carbs like potatoes, rice, bread, pasta, fruit and some vegetables.
Dinner the night before
The night before the effort, it’s best to eat a balanced meal with ingredients that are easy to digest. This includes your carbs, plus a serving of protein and healthy fat. Here are some examples:
- Steak, baked potato with organic butter and grilled zucchini
- Grilled chicken, sweet potato and asparagus drizzled with olive oil
- Salmon, rice, pico de gallo and avocado
- Stir fry with eggs and low-fiber veggies
- Pizza (but not too much!)
You might even enjoy a non-alcoholic beer from Athletic Brewing with dinner. Finishing your meal with dessert is a nice treat. If you’ve been avoiding refined sugars and grains during training, know that they’re quick to digest and can be easier on the stomach than high-fiber grains and veggies.
Fueling the morning of
A hard effort or race day can have a slightly different schedule than a regular training run, so it’s important to adjust for this change. For example, you might find yourself traveling a bit further for your long run or a race, and the gap between breakfast and starting your run can be much longer.
If you find yourself needing a little extra something immediately before your run, here are some good options that are easy to pack:
- Banana with nut butter
- Protein shake
- Peanut-butter-filled pretzels
Don’t forget to get ahead of your hydration. Including a sports drink or electrolyte mix will help keep your muscles hydrated and performing their best.
Fueling during your run
Fueling during long trail runs is important, too. Many runners use gels or chews to keep energy up, whereas others seek out solid foods or other fuel options. We love 2Betties and Endurance Tap for fuel on the trails. Testing out fueling options during shorter runs will help you know how your energy levels and stomach do. Check out this guide for carbs and endurance training to learn more about timing and how many carbs to consume.
Check out our blog for more tips to help you take the trail less traveled.