It’s not just the quality of the food you eat but the timing of it in relation to when you run that will benefit your performance. It’s important to make sure you time your food intake just right, so that you have enough energy for a run, but don’t feel too bloated.
If you are an early riser and like to jump straight out of bed and run without eating first, you may find it hard to eat before a run. Or you may just be on a tight schedule and may not have time to eat. It’s OK to run on an empty stomach if it’s a relatively easy session, like a recovery run when you won’t be out for more than 90 minutes. Just make sure that you have a good breakfast when you’re finished, such as porridge, muesli and yogurt, or toast and nut butter.
But if you are doing a harder session, such as intervals, hills or a long run over 90 minutes, it is worth getting up ten minutes earlier than usual and fuelling up with a quickly digested source of carbohydrate such as a banana, fruit-flavoured yogurt, or a glass of fruit juice diluted with water. Or you could take an energy gel before heading out. Only have a full breakfast – like porridge – if you have at least 90 minutes to digest it before you run, or you may experience some stomach issues.
If you are a lunchtime runner, make sure that you have a carb-rich breakfast such as porridge, plus a mid-morning snack, like oatcakes or an energy bar, about an hour before your run. You’ll also need to plan a lunch to eat back at your desk. Buying a sandwich and fruit on your way to work or bringing in a packed lunch are good options. Your lunch should contain some carbs – eg bread, rice or pasta – and some protein – such as meat, fish, cheese, beans or eggs – and also some salad and fruit. This will restore your glycogen stores and optimise muscle recovery. Ideally, eat your lunch within 30 minutes of finishing your run, and within two hours at the latest.
Many people favour doing their weekday runs after work. Here, it’s important to have a good lunch with both carbs and protein, as above. Then have a carb-based snack about an hour or 90 minutes before your run. Good choices would be a banana, 50g of dried fruit, a low-fat energy bar, two or three rice cakes with fruit spread, or a fruit yogurt. If you are going to be running for two hours or more, have two of these choices and then top up your glycogen stores during your run with 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour by using an energy drink or gels.
After your run, eat your evening meal as soon as possible, ideally no later than two hours before going to sleep. Include a starchy carbohydrate such as rice, pasta, noodles, potato, sweet potato or bread to replace the energy you used during your run, and make sure you also have some protein, such as meat, fish, eggs, cheese, beans, lentils, chickpeas or tofu to help your muscles to recover. Don’t forget a generous helping of colourful vegetables and a piece of fruit to provide antioxidant nutrients that help to repair muscle damage.
If you have done a long evening run, and don’t finish until around 10pm, it’s not advisable to have a heavy meal before going to bed. A vegetable soup can work well here, especially if you include some beans or lentils for protein. Another option is a homemade smoothie – blend milk, yogurt and fruit together, maybe adding some ground up nuts or protein powder. Don’t go to bed without eating or drinking something. If you did have a very light post-run evening meal, aim for a good-sized breakfast the next morning, such as eggs on wholegrain toast with some fruit.