“You Ate What?!” The Weirdest Pre-Run Fuel That Actually Works
Most runners are familiar with tummy troubles.
They seem to strike when you least expect it, or at least that’s what happened to me during my most recent training cycle. It had been years since I’d had a stomach issue on a long run, but suddenly, during my second-longest run of training, disaster hit.
Luckily I was on the treadmill for that one and didn’t have to go far to find relief. But when the problem continued through my next three (much shorter) runs, I began to grow frustrated. The blander the food I ate beforehand, the worst the troubles got.
By the time my next long run came around, I was super frustrated, and admittedly not making the best decisions.
After a long and not-awesome morning at work, I decided to reward myself at lunchtime with a chai latte and shrimp sushi. Delicious. Decadent. Definitely not something I’d ever eaten before a run before. But at that point, I wasn’t sure it mattered.
If bananas, rice and applesauce were upsetting my stomach, then why bother playing nice? At least I got to enjoy something tasty before getting sick.
A few hours later, I set off on my long run. I was ready to duck into the bushes at any moment. The miles ticked by—1, 2, 3, 4. And … nothing.
My stomach felt fine. In fact, my entire body felt fantastic. My legs were fresh, my core was strong, even my usually cranky IT band seemed to have gotten the memo that today was going to be a good run.
I finished off my 11-miler with my fastest mile in weeks and walked back into the house proud — and puzzled. Why, after days of belly ballistics, had my stomach finally calmed with that odd combination of pre-run fuel?
There’s no scientific answer, of course. The body is a peculiar machine. You can find dozens of nutritionists who will offer advice on the right ratio of carbs to fats to protein to keep you going strong during your run, but their suggestions won’t work for everyone.
When I trained for my first marathon, for instance, I was reduced to eating a Pop-Tart® before a long run while on a business trip, because nothing else was available. I had a fantastic run, and from then on, Pop-Tarts became my go-to long run breakfast all the way to race day. No nutritionist worth the alphabet soup of letters behind their name would ever recommend Pop-Tarts as part of a healthy diet.
The bottom line is, while you can read all you want on what you should and shouldn’t eat pre-run, your body is the best gauge of what works for you. It may not work for your best running friend, but it doesn’t have to. Running is an individual thing.
Over the years I have taken notes on what my body does and doesn’t like prerun. Here are the weirdest combinations I’ve tried, and my (decidedly amateur) interpretation of why they work.
Avocado Toast on High-Fiber Bread and Oranges
OK, maybe these days avocado toast doesn’t seem so weird — thank you, foodie bloggers obsessed with superfoods — but 15 years ago when I ate this before races, I would get weird looks. I generally try to stick to carbs rather than fats before runs, but the avocado sits well in my stomach, and the oranges provide glucose my body can access for a quick hit at the beginning of a long run. The fiber has never bothered me, despite nutritionists’ warnings.
Sweet Potato Wedges and Applesauce
I use applesauce packets instead of energy gels on most of my long runs. I find real foods more palatable when I’m tired. But I also use it to fuel before runs, and adding roasted sweet potato wedges (with ketchup, of course) gives me lots of carbs to draw on during the run.
Hungarian Mushroom Soup and a Cinnamon Roll
There’s a coffee shop where I eat lunch once a month with a friend, and it serves the most delicious Hungarian mushroom soup. It’s creamy, rich and full of dairy — the exact opposite of what you should be eating before a run.
But I’ve done many of my best midweek runs a few hours after indulging in this high-calorie combo, with the coffee shop’s flourless pastry on the side. You’d think that would sit like an anvil in my stomach, yet I make sure to eat only enough to be satisfied, not so much that I’ll puke during my run. I have an amazing second wind on these soup days.
Graham Crackers and Pudding
Dairy doesn’t work for many runners before a run, but I do OK as long as it’s not plain milk, which can cause running-induced heartburn. Graham crackers are by far my favorite prerun snack for a 3-mile run or less, but if I’m going longer, I toss in the vanilla pudding. It’s denser, so it fills me up, but it’s still light enough that you avoid that “log in the stomach” feeling.
Baked Potato with Mashed Banana
This sounds disgusting, right? It’s actually delicious and satisfies sweet cravings as well. I add a dash of cinnamon to mine to give it more taste. You can also dab on a pat of butter, though I prefer it without. Mash up the inside of the potato with the banana, and get a carb load that has helped me through many a 10-plus-mile run.
Evol Beef and Bean Burrito
This sounds like it should be on the list of prerun “never eats,” right? Who wants all that fiber and spice sloshing around in their stomach on a long run. But once when I arrived later than expected to a race far from home, I found limited options at the convenience store and opted for this as my night-before-the-half dinner. And guess what? I ran a half marathon PR the next day and had zero stomach issues. It’s since become my go-to night-before meal, even though my sister makes fun of me every time I eat it.
I’d love to hear from you — what strange food combinations work for you before a run and why? You can leave a note in the comments section below.