Early in the morning, during lunchtime or evening — runners always need to navigate the balance of run times with meal timing to maintain a placid stomach, prevent hunger and boost energy. But, when done right, snacking can be part of the perfect meal plan for runners. "I look at snacking as a fueling advantage," says sports dietitian Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN. "I tell my athletes that food and fluid are part of their internal equipment."
Snacks can be consumed any time of day, but offer performance advantages when carefully timed before or after a run. The right food choices in the right portions provide a fuel boost. Sometimes, less is more — that's why snacks are the perfect fit for runners. "Smaller, more frequent eating occasions help to provide adequate body fuel and brain fuel, and also translates to better hydration," says Bonci.
Before the Run
Pre-run snacks boost blood glucose levels, and can top off muscle carbohydrate stores — essential fuel for longer, harder runs. The more time for digestion, the larger the snack. "For a snack two hours ahead, try an option such as a bowl of cereal or peanut butter sandwich, or a small smoothie and muffin — not one the size of an SUV tire," says Bonci. This snack can help to delay fuel depletion during the run, and prevent hunger as well. Fifty to 75 grams of easily-digested carbohydrates can be consumed two hours before a run.
Of course, real-life schedules could require that you gently fuel up one hour before a run. "When short on time, I prefer lighter [snacks]. So try a sports drink, or a handful of dry cereal, or a slice of toast with honey, or a waffle with jam," advises Bonci. Aim for 15 to 25 grams of carbohydrates in the hour before a run. You can also pop in a carbohydrate gel or half an energy bar for easy digestion.
After the Run
Post-run, snacks reload muscles with fuel and your body with fluid and electrolytes. "I really like runners to cool and refuel together. Post-run snacking is going to repair, restore and replete, so I recommend both protein and carbohydrate-containing foods within 15 minutes," says Bonci. "I really like the idea of mini-meals, rather than single food items. Rather than just fruit, have fruit and yogurt."
Bonci recommends aiming for 12 to 15 grams protein, and 35 to 50 grams of carbohydrates, and not much more, to prevent over-eating and keeping weight in check. Check food labels to determine optimal snack portions. Savory snacks are appealing if your appetite is diminished after a hard run.
Some post-run suggestions from Bonci include:
- 8 ounces of low-fat chocolate milk
- Trail mix with dried fruit, soybeans, cereal or pretzels
- A peanut butter and jelly sandwich or wrap
- An energy bar with a mix of carbohydrates and protein
- A handful of salted nuts with pretzels
- Pita bread with hummus
Besides the pre- and post-run time period, snacking can be a useful carb-loading tool to fill up muscle carbohydrate stores. "Rather than eating a large amount the day before a race, try to eat a little bit more throughout the day in the three days before endurance events or track meets," advises Bonci.