If you’re tired of the 5-day-a-week elliptical sessions and feel ready to cover some IRL running distance, good for you. Becoming a runner is a fun and exciting feat — but there’s a little more to it than just lacing up your shoes and hitting the pavement.
Without the proper nutrition, you likely won’t hit Molly Seidel status by your third marathon. OK, that might be a little too ambitious for right now. But in all seriousness, fueling your body appropriately for running is just as important as logging miles.
Here’s the lowdown on how newbie runners should approach food and hydration before attempting their first mile or 5K.
Here’s a closer look at how you should be prepping yourself nutritionally and why it’s important to do it right.
1. Carb it up
Did you pick up running because it’s a sport that supports your pasta and bagel habit? Not so fast. It’s important to carb up correctly: As a general rule, complex carbs such as whole grains, potatoes, and beans are a good idea to eat 2 to 3 hours before a run.
“Carbs are the number-one source of fuel and provide energy for your run,” says Angie Asche, registered dietitian and owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition. In other words, carbs are essential to power you through a new form of exercise.
You can also add some fruit for quick carbs (we love a good banana). But if some of the fiber in certain fruits doesn’t agree with you, you can try low fiber options like dry cereal or applesauce.
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 (hi, marathon), but as a new runner, you’ll start with shorter runs, like a 5K, so you don’t need to go overboard.
It’s often recommended that you get 45 to 65 percent of your calories from carbs on any given day (that’s 225 to 325 grams of carbs on a 2,000-calorie diet). But don’t sweat it if that’s not your norm. 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.
3. Feel free to experiment
The amount of new runner info you find 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. But don’t overhydrate. 🤯
“The truth is that every runner is different, and what doesn’t work for someone else may be just fine for you,” says registered dietitian and running coach Heather Caplan.
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 keeping portions in check. You’ll soon find out which foods give you the best energy and don’t send you running to the bathroom.
4. Know where your line should be and draw it
Here’s the caveat to experimentation: You can change up some things — maybe a piece of toast with smashed berries instead of a banana — but don’t go all-out on Indian food or jalapeño poppers before a run.
Going too far with spices and fats will get you a quick one-way ticket to Indigestion City. The same goes for eating 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 proper 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 to 24 ounces a few hours before a run and 4 ounces every 15 minutes while running,” Asche adds.
The best way to tell whether you’re properly hydrated is to check the color of your urine after a run. If it’s dark yellow or the color of iced tea, you need to drink more water during your run. If it’s more toward the color of light lemonade, you’re properly hydrated.
An imbalance of fluid and electrolytes in your blood can cause muscle cramps and fatigue. Drink up, people!
6. Sports drinks are good for recovery but not essential for short runs
It’s understandable if you’re a little skeptical of sports drinks. After all, we’ve been told that they have too much sugar for the everyday exerciser. However, understanding how they’re best used will help clarify some things.
Sports drinks are formulated for athletes, and they contain sugar, which provides fuel for muscles during endurance sports like running. Also, sports drinks can be essential for replacing electrolytes that get lost when we sweat.
But you really don’t need a sports drink unless your activity lasts longer than an hour or takes place 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. Utilize time to train your stomach
Just like you need to train your body to endure the rigor 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 slows you 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 enough 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 sports drinks, you can avoid any tummy aches that might come from them.
Remember, it’s up to you to determine what’s best for your body. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to reach a certain running milestone, but these tips should keep you on track when you’re just starting out.
Most importantly, give yourself some time. As with any other form of exercise, learning the right running cadence is a marathon, not a sprint. It may take time to figure out how you want your relationship with running to look — but fueling up the right way ahead of time will help you get the most out of your run.