Not sure what to eat before a long run or short, hard time trial? Or perhaps you’re keen to get your healthy eating plan back on track but you’re not sure where to start? The good news is, when it comes to running nutrition, we’ve got you covered. 

For runners, food is more than simple nutrition – food is fuel, and it can either help or hinder your running goals. Just a few tweaks to your daily diet can make the biggest difference to how you feel on the road, track or trail – trust us, we know! 

Whether you’re training for your fastest 5km, or you’re building base miles for the next long-distance race, we asked Sarah Wildy
, a registered dietitian with the Health Professionals Council of South Africa and one of our Fitnacity experts, (see below for more info on this 12-week wellness and fitness program) to answer your most pressing running nutrition questions.


Which Foods Should Every Runner Eat?

Sarah believes it’s a good idea to include a healthy mix of low GI carbohydrates, that are as unprocessed as possible, into your daily diet. Carbohydrates with a low GI ranking (less than 55) are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolised by the body. This results in a lower and slower rise in blood glucose levels, thereby helping to keep your energy levels stable throughout the day. 

Some great low GI carbohydrates include sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, wholewheat pasta, baby potatoes and legumes such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils. 

“Lean protein is also important to retain muscle mass and speed up recovery, as protein contains essential amino acids that aren’t made by the body,” says Sarah. Ideal lean protein sources include skinless chicken and fish, eggs, tofu, low-fat cottage cheese, peas, beans and lentils. 

A variety of fruits and vegetables, which are high in vitamin C and antioxidants are essential to help prevent oxidative damage and reduce inflammation in the body. Many fruits and vegetables are also high in fibre which promotes a healthy gut and better digestion – which all runners need!


Foods Best Eaten in Moderation Or Not At All

It’s important to limit refined carbohydrates and sugars such as fizzy drinks, white bread, cakes and muffins, as well as sweets and chocolates, says Sarah. 

“Not only do these foods contain unhealthy trans fats, which can raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol, they’re also high in sugar and salt which can lead to a host of chronic health issues such as heart disease and diabetes if eaten in excess,” she adds. 

Just because you’re using up a lot of energy (calories) when you run, doesn’t mean you should live off a high sugar diet. 


What Should I Eat Before A Long Run?

 “This does depend on you as an individual – as every person is different and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer,” explains Sarah. However, a general guide is to have a bigger meal about 3-4 hours before exercise or a lighter snack about 1-2 hours before. You don’t want to eat too much just before a run and feel ill throughout your session because your body can’t digest the foods you’ve just eaten, in time. 

Experiment to find out the best timing, amount of food and combinations to eat, to best suit your energy requirements. 

For example, some runners love a breakfast smoothie packed with a variety of fruit, a healthy fat such as peanut butter and a portion of dairy such as milk or yoghurt before a run, whereas others prefer a simpler, lighter snack such as wholewheat toast with a spread or oats – which is easier to digest. 

The following foods are ideal to eat 3-4 hours before exercise:

  • Breakfast cereal with milk e.g. Pronutro/Futurelife/oats, plus fruit
  • Bread roll with cheese/meat filling and a banana
  • Pasta or rice with a sauce based on low-fat ingredients (e.g. tomato, vegetables, lean protein)
  • Crumpets with jam or honey and flavoured milk
  • Baked potato with cottage cheese filling and a glass of milk

The following snacks are ideal to eat 1-2 hours before exercise:

  • A liquid meal supplement such as Ensure
  • A fruit smoothie
  • Breakfast cereal such as Futurelife Smart Food with milk
  • Cereal bars such as Jungle Energy Bar
  • Fruit and flavoured yoghurt


What Should I Eat To Give Me Quick Energy Before A Short, More Intense Run?

Sarah says that one of the light snacks listed above would be suitable to eat before an intense effort. “It’s more important to be hydrated before a short run,” she adds. So, make sure to drink water, diluted juice, or herbal tea before your run – but not too close to your run as you don’t want a full, uncomfortable bladder before you exercise. 


How Important Are Post-Workout Meals To Speed Up Recovery?

Research shows that post-workout meals do assist with better recovery as they help to replenish lost nutrients and glycogen stores. 

Your “recovery” meal should contain a good balance between carbohydrates and protein. “A simple, easily digested recovery meal could be a chocolate milk, plus a peanut butter sandwich and a banana,” says Sarah


Should I Be Counting Calories?

Your healthy eating plan to support your running goals should be primarily focused on nutritional quality, not quantity, explains Sarah. “While you don’t want to be overeating or undereating, it’s vital that you get plenty of good-quality nutrients in your diet, with a focus on nourishing foods to help fuel your body, rather than just focusing on calories in - calories out.”

Top Tip

If you’re unsure how many calories you should be eating to support the amount of exercise you’re doing daily, consider speaking to a registered dietitian – who can help you work out the total number of calories you need based on a variety of factors such as your weight, height, sex, and level of activity.  


Are Energy Gels A Good Choice Before A Long Run, Or Should I Be Eating Whole Foods Such As Potatoes And Banana's

Again, this is an individual choice, but Sarah says that if you’re running marathons or ultras you may want a combination of all of the above. Some sports supplements can upset the digestive system, so make sure you test anything new out before your long run to establish what you can tolerate, as well as what works best for you.

Fast-Track Your Wellness Goals with FITnacity

Have you reached a diet and fitness plateau despite your best efforts? Perhaps it’s time to take the guesswork out of the equation and call in the experts to help you get to the next level.  

We’ve joined forces with professionals in the field to create the ultimate, all-in-one, 12-week wellness and fitness program – called Fitnacity.

What can you expect when you sign up? 

You’ll get: 

  • The big 3! Your own coach, dietitian and biokineticist
  • A 12-week personalised training program for either 5 km, 10km, 21km, 42km, Comrades, Triathlon, Cycle race
  • A personalised nutrition program with race nutrition strategies by a registered dietitian
  • An individualised plan to resolve muscle imbalances, strength or injury concerns
  • Daily training tracking and assessment - looking at your history, lifestyle and goals
  • Continued support with weekly online sessions and follow-ups