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The Most Googled Trail Running Nutrition Questions, Answered



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Should Runners Always Eat Healthy?

“Healthy” is a loaded term and can mean lots of things. Over the long-term, it’s important to balance things like mental health when it comes to nutrition, to make sure you’re not fixating on the perceived healthfulness of your food to the detriment of your mental health, and to consume enough calories to support your activity. Runners do not need to eat healthily all the time to perform well.

“Having a balance of foods that align with performance goals and also understand what your foundational, personal values are help runners understand what amounts of foods feel best for them,” says Starla Garcia, an endurance runner and registered dietitian nutritionist who works with athletes to dial in their nutrition. 

Dive Deeper

Here’s when healthy eating might be hurting your performance. Ever wonder what healthy eating is, and what it isn’t? Us too! Here’s what to know about when plant-based eating becomes unhealthy. Here’s why you should eat food that you enjoy. And lastly, here’s why you should ditch “guilt” altogether. 

“While I don’t think that a runner should just consume cookies all day long every day to recover and perform well, I suggest starting with a balanced approach to eating and asking yourself if you have a carbohydrate, protein, fat, and fruit and/or veggie at every meal. If you want to have a cookie as part of that meal, that’s completely up to you. Demonizing or restricting foods just creates a negative focus on them, and can create an unhealthy relationship to them,” says Kylee Van Horn, a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with many professional endurance athletes. 

What Should You Eat Before You Run?

What you need to eat before a run depends on how long your run is, and what your energy needs will be. Runners should reach for snacks and meals with lots of easily digestible carbohydrates.

For runs less than an hour, consume 35-30 grams of carbohydrates. That could look like

  • Two graham crackers 
  • One Belvita crackers pack
  • Two to four Fig Newtons
  • One scoop of your favorite sports drink mixed in eight fluid ounces of water, 
  • A banana
  •  One honey stinger waffle

“Runs over 60 minutes should be fueled with 50-90 grams of carbohydrate,” says Garcia.  “For this, you may also need closer to an hour or longer to let it digest. This looks like: 4 graham crackers with your favorite sports drink, one packet of Belvita crackers and a banana, 2 pop tarts, one cup of oatmeal and two tbsp of maple syrup mixed in.”

Van Horn recommends toast with peanut butter, frozen protein waffles, bananas with peanut butter, Bobo Bar, quick oats with peanut butter.

Dive Deeper

Here’s how to strategize your pre-run fiber intake. Here are some fun foods that aren’t pasta for your pre-run meal. See our tips for eating for all-day energy here. Here’s how NOT to screw up your pre-race breakfast. 

Should You Eat Breakfast Before You Run in the Morning?

For most runners, it’s ideal to get at least something in your stomach before a morning run, even if it’s a simple banana with peanut butter or a plain piece of toast. Experts recommend that runners eat before the run if they’re hungry,  if they’re going for an hour or longer, or if the run incorporates intervals. 

“This helps  give your body enough fuel to do the exercise sessions successfully, maintain healthy blood sugars, and sustain efforts on runs, a good practice for future pre-race day fuel,” says Garcia. 

Van Horn says runners can tailor their pre-run breakfast depending on time. ”If short on time (<1 hr), have a snack, and I highly recommend breakfast before a long run.” She suggests a bagel with cream cheese, toast with nut butter, toaster waffles, or some low-fiber cereal or granola. 

Dive Deeper

Here’s why you should get something other than coffee in your tummy. Want to get faster? Stop fasting. Here’s why fasting has long-term risks, especially for female athletes

How Much Water Should You Drink Throughout the Day?

You don’t (and probably shouldn’t) just chug a gallon of water throughout the day to hydrate. 

“Most runners need at least 64 fluid ounces per day plus more fluids based on how much fluid they are losing and needing to replenish.,” says Garcia. 

Van Horn says runners should factor in their activity levels as they hydrate throughout the day. “A general rule of thumb is to start with a baseline of half your body weight in ounces then add an additional 20-24 ounces for every hour of exercise you are engaging in.”

Dive Deeper

Here’s how much you should be drinking during a run. And heads up! You still need to hydrate in winter. 

Do You Need to Fuel During Runs? How much?

Yes! At a certain point in training and racing, runners will reach the point where they need to fuel during their run. Van Horn recommends fueling for every run that’s over an hour in duration. “200 calories per hour is a good starting point, but this should be adjusted based on body frame size, duration of the activity, and terrain,” says Van Horn. Note: just because you’re “moving slowly” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fuel! 

“Runners can fuel with 30-50 grams of carbohydrates for efforts less than 2 hours long and go up to 90 grams of carbohydrates for efforts longer than 2 hours. The amount of gels will vary depending on the brand: how many carbs are in each gel, gummy, or food product, how often they need to take gels to reach the recommended carbs per hour and is also dependent on how much their gut can tolerate per hour. It is encouraged to gut train, to help each runner be able to start ingesting higher amounts of carbs per hour as their runs get longer in preparation for an endurance event,” says Garcia. 

Dive Deeper

Check out our tips for gut training here. Here’s what to eat during a workout. It’s important to tweak your nutrition to keep your training in full gear as temperatures plunge. Here’s how to fuel in cold-weather conditions. Check out our step-by-step guide to keep in mind when picking the right fuel for your next adventure. Big runs require big foods. Here’s how to incorporate more whole foods into your long runs and races. Here’s our guide to nailing your long-run nutrition


Do I Need to Carb Load Before Races and Long Runs?

While you should increase your carbohydrate intake before races and long runs, science has come a long way from the days of bottomless pasta dinners. 

“A gradual carbohydrate increase can be helpful to help top off glycogen stores before a long run or race. The length of the carb increase depends on the distance and predicted time of the event. Typically for half marathons and training long runs, a one-day increase is sufficient, while marathons and beyond may be better with a 2-3 day increase. When doing this, 5-12 g/2 lbs. body weight is recommended, using simple carbohydrates,” says Van Horn. 

“Carb loading allows runners to not only help restore muscle glycogen from the weeks and months of training leading up to a race. It also helps  “top off” stores before race days,” says Garcia. Runners don’t need to carb load before runs, but eating similar meals to what you will be eating the week of a race is helpful, to avoid potential GI distress.

“You want to make sure you are familiar with a food option and can successfully cook, find a meal similar at restaurants, and feel good with this option on long runs in a training cycle.” 

Dive Deeper

Here’s our science-backed guide to carb loading. Loading up on carbs and fat is proven to work, but only for certain races and with its own side effects. Here’s the science on what actually works.

What Should I Eat After a Run?

What you eat right after you run is almost as important as the run itself, as it kick-starts the recovery process. Here’s what to look for. 

“You want to cover the three R’s: Rehydrate with fluids. Refuel With carbohydrates. Repair with protein. Rehydration is important so that you avoid cramping later in the day, and replace fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat. Carbohydrates help to refuel your body after depletion and also help to re-energize your body for the next day’s activities. Eating enough protein is key to reducing soreness, rebuilding and repairing muscles, preventing injury, and keeping your appetite satiated after hard and/or long efforts. Aim for a 3:2:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein,” says Garcia.


  • Oatmeal with protein powder mixed in
  • Greek yogurt and nut butter
  • Greek yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit
  • Graham crackers with chocolate milk
  • Breakfast burritos
  • Omelet with toast and fruit

Van Horn agrees that runners should aim for a mix of carbohydrates and protein to help with glycogen replenishment and muscle protein re-synthesis. She recommends a breakdown of 20 grams of high-quality protein to start the process, along with 45-60 grams of carbohydrates. Examples include Greek yogurt with granola, two to three hard-boiled eggs and dried fruit, protein shake with two cookies. 

How much do I need to eat? How do I know if I’m eating enough?

How much you need to eat will vary depending on your training volume, intensity, height, current weight, and age. Chronically under-fueling while training is dangerous and can inhibit your ability to train and impact on your long-term health. Our bodies are actually great at letting us know when we are not properly refueling and tuning in to it can prove to be very beneficial. To reference another of Trail Runner’s columnists, “Eat enough, always. Eat too much, sometimes. Eat too little, never.”

Van Horn points to some common acute signs and symptoms of under-fueling including the following:

Muscle soreness



Sleep disturbances

Muscle cramping/pain

Insatiable hunger 

“Most runners can easily refer to performance plates and assess whether they are eating enough food based on their training status. Runners know if they are eating enough if they can keep up volume and intensity in training, can bounce back after workouts well, eating regular meals with snacks in the day, reduce soreness, minimal injury, less soreness,and energized through the day,” says Garcia. 

Dive Deeper

Here’s why eating protein before bed may benefit your workout. Eat (and drink) these items to up your carbohydrate intake and reap their endurance performance benefits. Here’s how to know if your nutrition plan is working for you, and here’s how to know if you’re eating enough. A new study out of the University of Montana finds that carbohydrates from just about anywhere do a good job of muscle glycogen recovery, as long as the numbers add up.Here’s how plant-based runners can maximize their recovery

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