If you’re tired of five-day-a-week elliptical sessions and are ready to try running, good for you. Becoming a runner is an exciting and challenging feat, but it can be a little more complicated than lacing up your sneaks and hitting the pavement. Without the proper nutrition, you’ll never reach Shalane status. OK, fine that might be too ambitious for right now, but in all seriousness, fueling your body appropriately is just as important for running as logging miles.
Here’s the low-down on what newbie runners should know about eating, fueling, and hydrating before their first mile or 5K. Follow these sports nutrition guidelines to feel your best out there on your first (or 15th) run.
1. Carb up.
Did you pick up running because it’s a sport that supports your pasta and bagel binges? Not so fast. It’s important to carb up correctly: As a general rule, complex carbs, like whole grains, potatoes, and beans are smart to eat about 2-3 hours before a run. Simple carbs, like fruit, are best about an hour before a run (we love a good banana).
“Carbs are the number one source of fuel and provide energy for your run,” says Angie Asche M.S., R.D., and owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition. In other words, carbs are essential to power you through your new form of exercise. This doesn’t mean you have to eat a bowl of pasta before a short run (sorry), but enjoying oats for breakfast or adding sweet potatoes to your salad at lunch are good choices when it comes to getting in your complex carbs.
2. But wait, don’t “over-carb.”
If you’re on your second bagel of the day because you didn’t read past our first tip, back away from the bread. Carbo-loading definitely helps with long distances (for when you do get to Shalane status), but many new runners start with shorter runs, like a 5K, so you don’t need to go overboard.
Most people eat about 45-65 percent (200-300 grams on a 2,000 calorie diet) of their calories from carbs on any given day. As long as you’re not on a keto or protein-centric diet, the amount of carbs you normally eat is probably enough to power your new sport. Just choose healthy carbs like fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, rice, quinoa, and whole grains within a few hours of your run (of course, if you have a gluten-intolerance or are Celiac, choose the carbs that work for you).
3. Experiment to find what works for you.
Being a new runner can be exciting, but the amount of new information you read online can be overwhelming. It probably looks something like this: Load up on carbs. Eat protein. But not too much protein. Avoid fat. Drink water. Don’t over hydrate. *head explodes*
“The truth is that every runner is different, and what doesn’t work for someone else may be just fine for you,” says Heather Caplan, R.D. and running coach. She suggests experimenting with foods you already enjoy (we aren’t talking about your Snickers habit, but your favorite oatmeal is a good start) and to make sure you keep portions in check. You’ll soon find out which foods give you the best energy and won’t cause you to search for a bathroom mid-run.
4. Don’t get too crazy.
Here’s the caveat to experimentation: You can experiment with some things—maybe a piece of toast with smashed berries instead of a banana—but don’t go all out and chow down on Indian food or jalapeño poppers before a run. You’re going to learn the hard way that it’s a one-way ticket to indigestion city because the spiciness and high-fat might be enough to upset your stomach. Same goes with too much fiber. Asche suggests avoiding too much fiber before a run because those foods can cause bloating or gas. No bueno.
5. Hydrate (duh).
If there’s one thing you remember about sports nutrition, let it be that hydration is essential. “So many runners underestimate their hydration needs,” Caplan says. She suggests bringing or having access to water on most of your runs. “Drink at least 16-24 ounces a few hours before a run and 4 ounces every 15 minutes while running,” Asche says.
The best way to tell if you’re properly hydrated is to check the color of your urine after a run. If it’s dark yellow or the color of lemonade, you need to drink more water during your run. If it’s a pale yellow, you’re properly hydrated. A lack of proper amounts of fluid and electrolyte imbalances in the blood can cause unnecessary muscle cramps and fatigue. Drink up, people!
6. You probably don’t need to down sports drinks pre or post run.
You’re probably skeptical of sports drinks: After all, we’ve been told that they have too much sugar for the everyday exerciser (which is true since most of us aren’t training for a marathon on any given day). But sports drinks were formulated for athletes, and they contain sugar, which can be essential for replacing electrolytes that get lost in sweat.
With that being said, you really only need a sports drink for activity that lasts longer than an hour or is in a severely hot and/or humid environment. “Again, experiment with different electrolyte mixes to see what you like,” Caplan says. “If you’re just starting out, and/or sticking to shorter distances, it’s OK to stick with water for the most part.”
7. Train your stomach.
Just like you need to train your legs to endure the stress of running, you need to train your stomach to handle the constant up and down motion. Cramps and runners trots (the urgent need for a bowel movement mid-run) are all too familiar, especially for newbies, so don’t get discouraged if that sharp pain in your side makes you slow down.
The good news is that avoiding GI distress can be fairly straightforward: Don’t eat too much right before a run and give yourself time to digest after eating your carb snack. You’ll find out which foods work best for you and which to stay away from (we’re looking at you, breakfast burrito). And since most new runners don’t need a sports drink, you’re in the clear because they can cause some tummy aches too.
The Finish Line
Remember, it’s up to you to determine what’s best for your body, but use these tips when you’re feeling a little lost. These snack combos are simple suggestions that will help you choose the right foods before any run. And just like running, learning the perfect fueling plan is a marathon, not a sprint. It may take time to figure out what works for you, but two tips will help you get the most out of your run.
Tip No. 1
Two to three hours before a run, eat a snack or meal rich in carbs with a small amount of protein and fats: an apple or banana with peanut butter, whole-wheat toast with a slice of turkey, crackers with a cheese stick, or vegetables and hummus.
Tip No. 2
About 30-60 minutes before a run, eat a small snack that’s high in carbs, low in protein, and contains very little fat: a piece of fruit (no nut butter); a small handful of raisins and granola; or a handful of pretzels, crackers, or plain popcorn.