banana_fruitKnowing what to eat and when to eat it before, during, and after a race or long workout is one of the biggest question marks new runners have.

Throughout training we have access to endless information on our different workouts, training techniques, and pacing strategies, but it’s hard to find good advice when it comes to nutrition.

And with companies pulling us in a million different directions, it’s easy for people to end up eating the wrong thing at the wrong time, just because they don’t know any better.

You can credit the lack of clarity of nutritional advice to many reasons, the biggest and most obvious being that everyone is different.

People have different dietary needs, preferences, tastes, and metabolisms, and all those differences make it hard to tell someone exactly what they should be eating.

But that’s exactly what I’m going to do today.

What You’re Eating Right Now

When I started writing this post other day, I asked on Twitter what everyone’s favorite pre-race meal is. I expected answers to be all over the place, but found myself surprised when after several people had responded, I noticed a ton of similarities.

Here are just some of the responses I got:


See all the similarities?

Lots of nuts or nut butters, fruit, and some sort of carbohydrate, the most popular being oats and toast.

Even though we have different preferences and dietary needs, most of us seem to be drawn to the same types of foods before a big workout or race.

And if you ask me, there’s a good reason for that.

Because no matter who you are, certain fueling advice rings true. Today I’m going to focus on that advice.

Why Proper Fueling is Important

This one’s so obvious I almost left it out, but I decided it’s too important to not give a mention.

What you eat before your workout can affect:

  • Energy levels before and throughout your run,
  • Muscle fatigue,
  • Muscle cramps,
  • Stomach issues, and
  • Mental strength (there’s nothing worse than being hungry mid race when you can’t eat).

I’ve had some people tell me that they prefer not to eat anything before a big run.

As you grow stronger and more experienced, it’s easier to know what maximum distance you can go before that pre-run meal becomes incredibly important, but no matter who you are, if it’s a big race or workout, you probably shouldn’t be running on an empty stomach.

It’s just not a good idea.

It’s All About the Timing

So when should you eat this meal?

Eating too close to the start of the run leaves many runners feeling heavy or crampy.  Eating too early may leave you hungry or depleted half way through.

Unfortunately there’s no perfect answer for this question, but a general rule is to give yourself one hour to digest the larger meal, then supplement with a smaller, easily digestible snack about 15 minutes before you run.

Timing is key, and it’s only through trial and error that you can really know what works for you.

5 Key Components to a Good Pre-Race Meal

Remember how I mentioned that certain fueling advice that rings true to everyone? These are the five pieces of advice I was referring to:

1) Follow the 3:1 Carbohydrate to Protein Ratio

Loading up on super high protein foods right before a big run is a bad idea. It will leave you feeling heavy, your stomach working extra hard, and your body unable to process it quick enough to be useful.

The optimal absorption ratio is 3:1 when it comes to carbohydrates and protein.

That means your combined meal should have about three times more carbohydrates than protein.

2) Make Sure You’re Eating the Right Kind of Carbohydrates

High glycemic carbohydrates, which are found in fruits like dates or bananas, are great at releasing instant energy (sugar, the good kind) into your system for immediate energy.

But part of fueling before a race is providing your body with energy later on.

Slower release carbs, like those that come from breads and oats, will help keep you going as the miles pass by.

A good pre-race meal has both high-glycemic carbohydrates and slower release carbohydrates to be enjoyed later on.

3) Eat Fat, But Not Too Much

Some fat is a good, in part because it’s an easy way to keep up the calories. Just make sure you’re keeping it to a minimum.

Fats from different oils (think coconut, flax, or a blend like Udo’s), nuts, seeds, or fruits like avocados are the best sources of good fats.

4) Avoid Eating Too Much Fiber

All those multi-grain breads and bagels might be delicious and healthier, but they are also packed with fiber.

And eating too much fiber before your run might just mean you’re making a few extra stops along the way. You know what I’m talking about.

Avoid that issue by avoiding high-fiber foods.

5) Front-load on the Electrolytes

Running low on electrolytes like sodium, also known as Hyponatremia, is the quickest road to a major bonk.

Loading up on salty foods ahead of time can help avert off some of those issues. But remember that it’s also possible to take in too much sodium. This is where proper hydration techniques come in to play.

So what is the perfect pre-race meal?

At the beginning of the post I promised to tell you what the perfect meal would be. Well, I’m kind of bailing on that promise.

The perfect meal depends on who’s eating it, so the promise was a bust before I even wrote it. Sorry.

But what I will do is tell you the perfect meal for me. One so simple that most of us could make a version right now, without even going to the store. And judging by the response I got on Twitter, it looks like many of you are already eating it.

Here’s what I eat before any long run or race:

Two pieces of non-whole grain toast topped with Earth Balance coconut and peanut spread and 4 dates or 1 banana.

My Perfect Pre-Race Meal, Broken Down

Curious what the breakdown of that meal is? Here you go:

Bread (2 slices):

  • Calories: 370
  • Carbohydrate: 72g
  • Sugars: 3g
  • Protein: 16g
  • Sodium: 656mg

Earth Balance Coconut Spread (2 tbs):

  • Calories: 190
  • Carbohydrates: 7g
  • Sugars: 2g
  • Protein: 6g
  • Sodium: 95mg

Dates (2):

  • Calories: 50
  • Carbohydrates: 10g
  • Sugar: 9g
  • Protein: 0.2g
  • Sodium: 0


  • Calories: 610
  • Carbohydrates: 89g
  • Sugars: 14g
  • Protein: 22.2g
  • Sodium: 751mg

Now It’s Time to Experiment

This weekend I’m running the Bel Monte 50-miler in Virginia. It’s a part of my training for the Massanutten Mountain 100 just over a month away.

A major part of that training has been experimentation. Experimenting with the mileage. Experimenting with training techniques. And experimenting with what I’m eating both before and during the run.

The only way to find the perfect meal for your pre-race mornings is to experiment. Try new things and see how it makes you feel.

You might have a go-to now and not even realize that a small adjustment could make you feel that much better.

Try out my perfect meal, or maybe some of the recommendations from Twitter. But no matter what you do, keep the five key components in mind when developing your menu.

Photo Credit


Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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2 thoughts on “The Perfect Pre-Race (or Long Run) Meal

  1. I’m a big fan of the Earth Balance coconut spread too. Having had it in awhile though.

    I also take dates with my on long runs (the fruit, not female companions). I was a little skeptical at first, but I find I like dates much better than any type of gel or gu. I’m at the point now where gels upset my stomach.

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