Long runs have long mystified many runners. They often take more planning than the actual race, as you have to figure out all the details yourself. How much should you add each week? Where should you go? Should you include hills? How many layers should you wear? The question that seems to give most runners a hard time, however, is what should you eat. Do you really need to carbo-load before a long run? Should you eat while running? Won’t that give you a sideache? And what foods should you recover with? There are definitely answers to these questions, so hopefully this guide will provide a basis on where to start with your long run nutrition.
Carbo-loading has somehow gained notoriety as a staple pre-long run or pre-race meal, but the truth is it’s really not that helpful to you the night before. If you want to benefit from the extra carbohydrates, have your carb-rich meal two days prior to your long run. It’s also vital to distinguish that carbo-loading is not synonymous with overloading your plate. You should eat a higher percentage of carbohydrates at a meal, but not a higher number of calories overall. Three heaping plates of spaghetti will merely accomplish a stomachache or bloating on your run because your body is still working on breaking it down.
Known gas-inducing foods should also be avoided a day or two before a long run for obvious reasons, but avoiding unfamiliar foods is also wise. Midway through a 17-miler is not when you want to learn that your body does not take well to the new Thai restaurant down the street.
In an effort to begin your run as fully hydrated as possible, skip the beer the day before your run and add in an extra glass or two of water. The beer will taste better after the run anyway.
What you select for breakfast the morning of the long run is really going to make or break the run – it should never be skipped! Beginning a long run on an empty tank is about as smart as popping a squat in a field of poison ivy. The vital meal should be eaten 1-2 hours before the run, depending on how sensitive your stomach is, and would ideally involve carbohydrates and protein. For example, a piece of toast with nut butter or a banana and a small energy bar. Don’t forget a glass of water with that meal!
Once you’re properly nutritionally prepared to begin the long run, what should you pack with you to eat along the way? There are plenty of options these days. Many runners opt for energy gels, blocks, chews, and jelly beans (not the candy ones) which are designed to provide the quick carbohydrates you’ll need while on the run. Chewed with a bit of water, these energy foods enter the blood stream quickly, delivering simple carbohydrates directly to your muscles and helping keep blood sugar levels even. Most runners can actually feel the energy kick in a few minutes after ingesting a chew or gel.
Other natural foods that work as quick and easy energy boosters while on the run include raisins, orange slices, banana chunks, and pre-soaked chia seeds. Go ahead and use your long runs to experiment with different foods, chews, or gels to figure out which one works best with your body. Always chase anything you eat with water though, as your stomach can only absorb a limited number of carbohydrates at a time, so the water will help dilute the energy and stretch it out.
Runners should generally begin taking in calories on a long run 30-45 minutes into it. This is likely before you actually feel hungry, which is the goal. Once you begin feeling hungry or thirsty, your blood sugar and hydration levels are already unbalanced, and it’s a very slippery slope from there. An ideal long run keeps blood sugar and hydration as even as possible the entire time.
After the long run, it’s easy to just hop in the shower then crash out on the couch. You have a limited amount of time, however, to replenish the calories and nutrients you just burned. Within half an hour of returning from your long run, eat something with both carbohydrates and protein, like a sandwich or smoothie and a large glass of water.
Then, by all means, sit down and rest. You’ve earned it!