How to Start Running | Part 5: Fueling & Running Nutrition


This topic was requested by Samantha, and it's one I became more interested in when I started my marathon training. I wanted to know how to eat both before and after a training run, as well as during the race itself, since I was going to be burning so many more calories. (Fun fact: I burned an estimated 3,300 calories during my marathon! That's a lot.)

What I've ultimately decided is not going to be very helpful for anyone who's not me. Basically, I've come to the conclusion that how much you eat and when is a matter of personal preference that comes from a long series of trial and error. 

Case in point: I have learned the hard way that eating Mexican food two hours before a run is a terrible idea. I realize this should have been obvious just in theory, but apparently I like learning these types of things for myself. (Remember what happened during my half marathon last Saturday?)

I mentioned this as one of my 10 things I've learned in my first 3 years of running, but I can't handle very much food before a run. Some people can eat a lot and be fine. I can't, although I do still try to eat a little something because, well, because you're supposed to. However, I am always so hungry after a run! I used to wonder how people could possibly eat right after a run, but now I pretty much shovel it in.

Other than personal preference, there are a few basic rules of fuel that are good for everyone to keep in mind. As you may have already gathered from reading my blog, I am not a poster child for eating healthy or dieting. I'll admit right now that I don't do everything/anything right when it comes to my eating habits, but hopefully in this post I can offer some practical advice to get you started. 

And maaaaybe some of my running friends will offer advice in the comments?

1. Eat something within the first 10-15 minutes after your run/workout.

For me, this usually means a glass of chocolate milk and a protein bar. You might be interested in reading this post, where I broke down the nutritional value of 4 different energy bars. As you will see,  Cliff Bars are my favorite, but I was sad the learn they have a lot of sugar. This shouldn't have surprised me, seeing as how they taste like a dang candy bar. You might be interested in checking out something like the Kona case, which sends a box of healthy, organic snacks for runners right to your mailbox every month. You can find my review of the July box here. I would totally buy this if I didn't have a budget. For real.

I might not eat a lot or eat something that's necessarily the best for me, but I always try to eat something. A bowl of cereal, some oatmeal, a bagel... Your body needs it!

2. If you're going on a long run, make sure you stop to eat & drink every couple of miles.

What I like to do is carry a protein bar with me or leave one in my car if I'll be making loops around my neighborhood. Every 3 miles or so I'll stop, get a drink, and take a bite of the energy bar. There's a science to fueling that I won't get into in this post (mostly because I don't really know what it is), but basically as you run your body is losing its stores of energy, so you need to be fueling during the run to build those stores back up. 

Have you heard of "the wall" a runner hits during a race? This is due to the fact that your body has been depleted of glycogen. (For more, read "How Hitting the Wall Works") You are going to hurt yourself if you don't take time to stop and get a drink. That's why there are water stops throughout races.

One reason I feel like my marathon went so well was because I ate throughout the race. Orange slices, GU, part of a banana... all those are good to build back the stored energy that I'm burning as I run. The hard part is figuring out exactly how YOUR body stores energy and what is the right method for fueling during a run. Some people love GU; some hate it. Some people carry Snickers bars with them (it's true! I've seen it); some people love energy chews; others eat fruit. I really don't think there's a right or wrong method to what you should or shouldn't eat during a run as long as you feel strong and healthy. That's where the trial and error comes in.

In the book I talked about in Part 1 (Run Less, Run Faster), they offer this formula as a simple way to estimate the number of calories needed on race morning:

(hours before the race) x (body weight in pounds) 
= (number of calories to eat)

I've never personally tried this, but it seems like it would work as least as a good estimation.

Hopefully this has helped to give you a little idea about how fueling works and at least a place to start. I don't pay as much attention to it as I should, but I think you'll be fine as long as you listen to your body, drink often, and avoid Mexican food for at least 5-6 hours before a run. 

Note: If you actually want to get faster and stronger, you should definitely look into more specific nutrition habits. My point for this post is that if you're just starting out, don't be intimidated by all the information out there on fuel and just do what feels right for you. Maybe keep a log of what you ate and whether your runs felt easy, hard, etc. to see if there's anything in particular that doesn't agree with your stomach while running.

If you have any additional questions, shout it out in the comments! Maybe a seasoned runner will be able to offer advice if I can't. *crosses fingers*

Check out these articles for more:

A Quick Comment on Weight Loss

Something interesting I discovered that many of you may already know is that it's actually not uncommon to gain weight while training. This most often happens while marathon training, although it has been known to occur during half marathon training as well. Usually with 5k and 10k training, weight gain isn't as common. Here is an interesting article on the topic.

The point here is that I know more than one person who started running "to lose weight" and then was disappointed when the weight wasn't falling off as quickly as they would like, if at all. I also know a few people who actually gained 10-15 pounds during marathon training. If weight loss is one of your reasons for starting to run, paying attention to your eating habits is going to be just as important as making sure you get your workouts in. Running alone isn't going to be the key to weight loss for most people.

Here is a helpful PDF on nutrition from Runner's World that I recommend checking out for more on running nutrition. And, as always, you can follow my boards on Pinterest for more great articles and tips.

Meet today's featured running bloggers!

< Claire's Blog | My Devising >

< Abbey's Blog | Finding My Forever >

What's your go-to meal before/after a run?
Any other helpful fueling tips to add?

Also, just FYI, I have for sure one more post in this series planned and then possibly a runner's FAQ to end of the series. Let me know if you have any questions you want answered or anything to add that I have missed so far!

*I am not a personal trainer or physician. This post is not intended to offer medical advice. Contact your doctor before beginning a fitness routine or if you experience pain while exercising.
shelleystirs said...

Thanks so much, Amanda! I have just started to do some research on what I should be eating before and after a run. Your post and the links you suggest will certainly help!

Anonymous said...

Great advice, Amanda! I'm like you in that I can't eat too close to race time. I typically set an alarm for 4 hours before.

One thing I've learned nutritionally is that while a low-carb diet may help with weight loss, it impedes performance in endurance sports. You will likely run slower if you don't eat many carbs. Glycogen (complex carbs) is the most oxygen-efficient form of energy. Burning fat/protein requires more oxygen, and your body typically has to slow down in order to consume enough of it (thus, "the wall").

Kate said...

Yet again, another great post!

I have just recently really started getting into the need for fueling during my run. It's something that I'm going to need to get used to, for sure! I tried a GU beforrre I went on a run a few weeks ago, just because I didn't want to be one of those people that didn't handle them well.. only to find out during a long run.

This is actually my question about fueling during a run. What do you do with your fuel DURING the long run? Women's shorts don't often have pockets, can't find a good armband with a pocket for my ipod nano, and I really don't WANT to add any more gear like a SPIbelt unless I have to. What's your method?
(This is one of those things that I know is different for everyone, I just like to get new ideas!)

Anonymous said...

The marathon that I'm doing only gives out Gu, which stinks. I was hoping for bananas or something else. I just can't do the Gu consistency. I will try to bring some of my own stuff like applesauce and have George meet me at a couple points in the course with other goodies. I've read that sometimes the spectators hand out candy, but I don't know if I'll be desperate enough to take candy from strangers haha.

Amber Marie said...

I haven't had a long enough run to have to eat in the middle of it, but I know it's coming. I just am scared of getting cramps.

Now, mexican food is a must, but definitely after! :)

I have 5k this Saturday, wish me luck!

Molly McCarty said...

During my run this morning it thought "Oh! it is Wednesday! Amanda will have her running post today!" I am really likin it! :)
Before I run, i usually grab a piece of fruit. Enough to give me some sugar, but not too much to where it slows me down a lot!
Running a 5K this weekend and CAN NOT wait!!

Tamara said...

My biggest concern right now with marathon training is what I should be fueling with during the marathon and how I'm supposed to carry that stuff around? For my half's I usually have a couple of GUs (I actually like the taste!) that I can can carry on me but adding another 13 miles to that? I just don't know.

Thank goodness for training runs.

Unknown said...

Thanks for including this! It's helpful to know you eat like a normal person! And is really encouraging when wanting to pursue running! I'm a trail by error person so I liked that you said to see what works best and try different things.

Megan said...

Great post - yet again! :) I've been asking everyone I know what they eat before a race haha - and how long before. I'm going to try half a bagel with peanut butter and a banana before my ten-mile on Sunday and see how that works. If I like it, I'll probably do that before the half. And my fiance is really into supplements so he got me some Shot Blocks to try out on my long training run, too.

17 Perth said...

As a long time runner--these are great tips!! Can I just say too--that I am SO impressed you can drink chocolate milk before you run? Lol. That would NOT be pretty for me. haha. I love how you pointed out how important food is while training though--so many times I think people miss that (and how it really is about fueling your body!).

Jennie and Husband said...

wow! You're amazing! I need to get my lazy butt out the door and start running! thanks for the inspiration! xo

Sarah said...

So much good info and links!!

I am just now figuring out what works for my body and what doesnt...
Shot blox do not work for me but I love the theory. I've been thinking of jolly ranchers for my next race for sugar...crazy?!

Raige Creations said...

I normally run after a cup of coffee, then eat after I cool down a bit or after a shower. Then I eat again in like one hour. lol.

I LOVE that chocolate milk is suggested after a race. I am so going to do that. Otherwise, I try not to eat too soon before a race. I have only done morning ones so far, so for me that is not tough. I do sample the fruit after the race tho. YUM.

For before, I go with the suggested meal before a swim meet (I was on the swim team in HS). I have pasta. A nice and easy and healthy pre-race meal.

Now I am hungry.

Amanda said...

Honestly, I don't carry fuel with me during a run. What I like to do is just make laps back to my car/apartment to grab some water and a few bites of protein bar. I know some people who drive the route and hide water bottles or snacks along the way. That's a little bit intense for me, but it might be something to think about!

Amanda said...

Molly, thank you so much for the sweet comment! I'm glad you're liking the series!

Amanda said...

Haha! No, I drink chocolate milk after :) I don't think my stomach would like me if I drank it before a run!

Amanda said...

No, that's a great idea! Jolly ranchers and gummie bears are fun to suck on during a race.

Jordan said...

I've tried Cliff but ran into the same problem you did when I read the nutrition facts. Same with Luna! PowerBars are ok but I've found that Quest Bars pretty much beat out all the other ones, in terms of nutritional facts at least. Check them out next time you're at the store!