One for the Road: How to Fuel Your Runs
by Molly Bradley
Running can tire you out, but it’s not nearly as exhausting as trying to figure out what to eat to keep pounding the pavement with gusto. Try these techniques to fuel your runs.
I’ve been a runner for ten years. It started when I decided to tag along with my older cousin on a run around her neighborhood in Mesa, Arizona. It seemed like fun, I thought, and so we headed out. But even at dusk — and even without humidity — the heat was oppressive. Besides that, I hadn’t run a single time outside of the mandatory one-mile run I’d had to do in PE classes in middle school. I was out of breath within a quarter mile.
“How much farther are we going?” I asked my cousin, hands on my knees, panting.
“As far as we can!” she said.
She, of course, could have gone much farther than we did that evening — she was a good sport, and slowed her pace and shortened her circuit for my sake. She helped me learn how to pace myself, and, after our run, how to refuel so I wouldn’t hit a wall later.
And with that, I was hooked. I kept my cousin’s tips in mind as I slowly built a running routine that year: thirty minutes, at a pace that felt challenging but not bad, trotting around my neighborhood at home. My mileage in those thirty minutes went slowly but steadily up over the course of the next couple years, and soon I was playing with longer distances: five miles, seven miles, ten miles.
But no matter what my mileage is on a run — three miles or thirteen — I keep in mind those two core things my cousin taught me: pacing myself and nourishing myself so that the run feels good. For pacing, sometimes a fast pace feels good, and other days I want to take it easier.
But the main thing that keeps me feeling good on runs? Eating right before and after a run — and, if the run is long enough, eating sometime in between.
K'ul's functional chocolate and energy bars
Before a run
Generally speaking, you don’t want to eat right before a run. You want to have enough fuel in you to give the run the energy it requires, but you don’t want to be weighed down by a full stomach, either. Even if you’re digesting something small, eating too close to your run can mess with your energy.
If you’re a morning runner, what and how much you eat will definitely depend on what works best for you (you’ll have to do some experimentation), but it’s often a good idea to have something small but that contains good immediate energy, like a banana or a small energy bar. BuckWHAT!, based in New York City, makes a great bar that comes in just under 200 calories made of just fruits, nuts, oats, almonds, chia seeds, and cinnamon — all good, natural fuel to get you going. Whatever you eat, give yourself at least half an hour to an hour to digest, as your morning timing allows.
If you go for a run after a substantial breakfast, or in the evening after work, your body will be working on digesting that last full meal. In this case, definitely allow at least hour before you hit the road, trail, or treadmill so that you don’t feel heavy and uncomfortable with a meal still in your stomach, and so that you can make use of the energy you just consumed.
After a run
Once you’re done, the first and most important thing to do is drink a lot of water to replace what you sweated out. Drinking something with electrolytes is also a good idea, but ideally, steer clear of an energy drink packed with sugar: what you need in terms of substance is a balance of carbohydrates and protein, so we recommend drinking water and then finding your way to a snack within 20 or 30 minutes of the end of your run.
Some good snack ideas: yogurt, a slice of bread/toast and nut butter, toast and a hard-boiled egg or two, chocolate milk (a classic post-workout treat). Alternatively, reach for an all-in-one snack designed for energy and activity: K’ul Superfood Bars are a great option, with a blend of macronutrients and a pretty outstanding chocolate flavor.
BuckWHAT!'s Nosh Bar
When to eat during a run
For the most part, if your run is under an hour, you don’t need to eat in the middle of it: you should have enough fuel in your regular diet to see you through it.
Over an hour, and you should consider feeding your body during the run. Why? Somewhere between the 60-minute and the 75-minute mark (depending on the runner), your body will really and truly have run out of fuel, and you’ll hit a wall. You can probably push through, but if your body isn’t accustomed to prying less-readily available energy from your body (i.e., from your fat stores), it’s going to be uncomfortable. And whether you’re training for a race or just building up your mileage, hitting that wall during one run might mean an overall setback in your progress.
The trick, if you’re going for a run longer than an hour, is to give yourself that extra fuel before you’re going to need it. So about 30 minutes into your run, ingest something — ideally some high-octane fuel in the form of gels or chews, but otherwise, something quick and easy to eat, like Owl Pellets or BuckWHAT! Noshes — and you’ll get that boost right when you need it.
A good rule of thumb: for every hour you run above 60-75 minutes, you’ll need between 30-60 grams of carbohydrates.
For all of the above, bear in mind that what you personally will need might diverge a little bit from these tips, or it might be dramatically different! Every body is different, and it always takes some playing around to figure out what works best for you. Try some different fueling methods and timing, keep a log of how each feels, and you’ll gradually work your way toward the ideal fueling method for you and you alone.