Nikki Mueller is an AFAA certified group fitness trainer, personal trainer, and an RRCA certified running coach. She’s also a Gorgeous Guru, and she has offered to share her most frequently asked questions from runners - and the answers!
“What do you eat before you run?”
This is easily the question I get asked the most as a coach and unfortunately, it’s not a question that has a great answer because we are ALL different. I personally like to eat one of the following before a long run: 1.) Peanut butter on whole wheat toast, 2.) Grape Nuts with bananas or blueberries in Greek yogurt or 3.) Oatmeal with peanut butter and berries. And always coffee. Always. However, one of my best friends, a really fast runner, can’t STAND peanut butter before a run because she burps it up for hours afterwards. Another runner friend eats sardines before a big race and I shudder to think about even the smell of that in the morning let alone the taste.
So the answer to this question is always .. Experiment. And NOT the day of an important benchmark run or race. Try eating an hour before a run and try to go for something that will stick with you for awhile.. peanut butter, oatmeal, maybe some chia seeds and avocado on whole wheat toast. See how it goes.
Sometimes things change too. As I entered my 40’s, I found I needed more time between breakfast and running than I did in my 20’s. At minimum, I need at least an hour and half now. And quite honestly, I ALWAYS take some toilet paper with me on a long run and sometimes it really comes in handy. TMI, but still helpful information.
Most importantly, DO eat something. You wouldn’t go on a road trip without filling your tank with gas right? Why would your body be any different? You need calories.
“What do you eat WHILE you run and how often?”
For shorter runs (for example, a 5k distance,) I’d say most people don’t really need to worry about fueling, but if you’re going to be out there pounding the pavement or the trail for an hour or longer, you need to think about eating something so you don’t bonk. The tricky thing about nutrition and running is that you often don’t feel hungry when you actually need to start consuming calories. By the time your brain catches up to your body, sometimes you are actually feeling light-headed and/or sluggish. In my opinion, the longer you will be out there, the earlier you should start fueling. Again, this is about experimentation. When I’ve run ultra distances that will take me several hours to complete, I start eating 30 to 40 minutes into the run and just a little at a time every hour or so. If I’m going to be out for 2 hours, I’ll fuel a bit at the 1 hour mark and I’m fine until I’m done.
As far as WHAT to eat, I used to use a lot of gels and GU and Shot Bloks and those work great for many people. They are super portable and convenient and portion controlled. After I got into trail running, I found a lot of trail races had REAL food at aid stations and I now prefer things like pretzels, goldfish crackers, oranges, trail mix, and bananas. At the Portland Marathon last year, I had one too many GU’s and though I got in my calories, I spend almost 3 miles feeling like I was going to throw up all over the course because they just didn’t agree with my stomach and I was craving salt. I do tend to carry salt tablets with me on long runs now too, because you lose a lot in your sweat while you run and it makes sense that you’d want to replace it. Again, everyone is different. I have one friend who swears by Wheat Thins. I like making energy bites from the Shalane Flannagan cookbook “Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.”
Please do yourself a favor and get some protein in no later than 20 minutes after a long run. I spent years worrying about the “before” and “during” parts of a run and not enough time on the “after” part and this is just as important! You want to recover well and live to run again, don’t you? And nothing tastes better than chocolate milk after a long run. Trust me!
“What about hydration?”
Drink plenty of water no matter what. Lots of water! Some people will tell you stories about hyponatremia (which is when someone drinks an excessive amount of water and gets very sick or could even die, yikes!) and though this does happen and the symptoms are actually very similar to dehydration, I would say cases of it are fairly rare. Most people don’t get enough water rather than too much. Water is the Holy Grail for runners.
For longer runs, you need electrolytes. A lot of people love Nuun. Nuun is great because you can dilute it as much as you like, and I personally don’t like my electrolytes terribly sweet, especially if I am using GU or gels also. Gatorade has a lot of sugar in it, but some people think it works great for them. It used to be pretty much the only thing you’d find on a racecourse. I love Tailwind, as it’s claim is for “no gut bombs” and you can even buy it in an unflavored variety. There are many different hydration options now. Go to a running store and try a small portion of one to see if it works. If you are training for a specific race, find out what’s going to be on the course and start there.
My advice on how much to drink and how often is very similar to what I’ve told you for nutrition. It depends on how long you are going to be out there, how hot it is, and how hard you are working. If I’m out for an hour, I generally don’t take water, but I fuel up before and after. If I’m out for longer, I bring it and start drinking at 45 minutes or an hour in and drink about every 30 minutes.
Some people will weigh themselves before a run and after to see how much their weight fluctuates. It’s not an exact science, but the theory is that if you weigh less after your run than you did at the beginning, you’re a bit dehydrated. If you’re heavier after, than you actually got a bit too much hydration. The goal is to weigh about the same before and after, so you can adjust through trial and error. I’ve never employed this method personally, but many elite runners do. Keep your urine a pale yellow and you’re good to go!!
More on Nikki’s classes and coaching at Healthy Girl Fitness LLC. Feel free to reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.