Congratulations on taking up running! It’s an enjoyable, exhilarating and inexpensive sport, so you’ve made a good decision! I have been running on and off for nearly 40 years, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have, and still do.
You’ll soon discover that running makes you hungry... sometimes very hungry! Running burns calories fast, so you’ll need to make sure you are eating enough to fuel your runs. But what are good things to eat before a run?
Of the three main macro-nutrient food groups – protein, fats and carbohydrates – the latter two are the best for providing energy. Protein also provides calories but is a less efficient source. Rather, its main role is building and repairing tissues like muscle fibres, so it’s ideal for after running. I am not a dietician but I made sure I learned as much as I could about nutrition while I was competing, to stay healthy and support my training.
Here are my five top tips for how to fuel yourself before running.
1. Provide energy
Any food that provides energy for your run, ideally as carbohydrate and/or fats, is ideal. Our bodies also store energy, but foods consumed and digested before a run will offer a readily available source of energy. Examples include bananas or a cheese sandwich.
2. Make digestion easy
The purpose of eating before a run is to make energy available for your exertions, so easy digestion is a must. Simple foods are therefore better than anything too heavy, oily, spicy or fibrous. Having to stop mid-run for the toilet is something we all want to avoid!
3. Allow enough time
Digestion takes time, so leave plenty of time between eating and running. How long depends on how much you eat, what you eat, and how well you can run after food. For a small snack, one hour before a run is a good start. Then you can adjust this according to how you feel.
4. Remember hydration
Dehydration makes you feel drowsy and out of sorts, and won’t help your run. So try to make sure you’re topped up with fluids at least two hours before a run. Snacks like smoothies, which include fluid as well as calories, are a good choice.
5. Low GI
GI stands for glycaemic index, which means how quickly glucose is absorbed from your gut into your bloodstream. High GI foods (eg sugar, white bread, white rice) absorb quickly and give a glucose boost which doesn’t last long. Low GI foods absorb more slowly and supply glucose for longer. A lower, sustained glucose supply is a better source of energy for running. Protein, fats and fibre all lower the GI of any carbohydrate source.
Recipe: malt loaf
When I was a full-time athlete, I often spent time in Albuquerque, New Mexico, doing altitude training. At the local supermarket, they had aisles displaying what they called ‘international foods’. There were aisles for Chinese, Thai, Mexican and Indian, but to my surprise they also had a ‘British’ aisle. I was intrigued to see what foods they considered typically British. Of course there was tea, but also shortbread and custard cream biscuits, HP sauce, custard powder – what you might call the ‘usual suspects’.
But they also had malt loaf, a unique half-bread, half-cake, squidgy, slightly sweet, fruity loaf. The most distinct characteristic of malt loaf though is that all runners seem to love it. So here is my recipe for a home-made version. Malt loaf on its own would be relatively high GI, so I eat it spread with nut butter on top to lower the GI.
150ml hot black tea
180g malt extract
85g muscovado sugar
2 eggs, beaten
250g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
• Grease and then line a loaf tin with baking paper. In a large bowl, mix the tea, malt extract, sugar and sultanas. Beat the eggs and add them too, stirring everything well.
• Add the flour and baking powder and mix well. Pour into the lined tin and cook at 150C for about 50 minutes until risen and a knife inserted into the loaf comes out clean.