What You Should (And Shouldn’t!) Eat Before Long Runs, According to a Philly Dietitian

Hint: Fried foods are not your friend.

My mother makes the best lasagna. (I know you think your mom does, but I’m here to tell you that this stuff is heaven in a Pyrex pan.) A few summers ago, I visited home while training for the Philly Marathon. Mom felt particularly adventurous one afternoon and decided to whip up a double-ricotta version of her lasagna. I had a post-dinner training run planned, but hey – how much harm can an ooey-gooey plate of pre-run pasta actually cause?

Answer: Somewhere out there is a porta potty that hasn’t been the same since 2014.

My parents’ house sits atop a steep hill, so the first mile or so was business as usual. However, the second my sneakers hit level ground, all the saucy business inside my gut began to bubble, toil, and create allll kinds of trouble. I had to pull the plug at mile three, and the walk home was (literally) an uphill battle.

I consider it my duty to save other stomachs from this now-proven recipe for disaster. Fortunately, Philly-based registered dietitian and sports nutritionist Jenna Stranzl feels the same way. Read on for her breakdown of the best and worst foods to feast on in the hours leading up to your next long run.

Dietary dos and don’ts for the day before your run:

Thinking ahead isn’t the easiest thing to do, but believe me, your body will thank you. According to Jenna, your meal strategy is as valuable as your training plan. She says, “Easily digestible carbohydrates are good, along with foods that fight inflammation and are rich in antioxidants.”

What does this mean for you? Well, it means you’ve got a ton of tasty options to choose from: For carbs, Jenna suggests rice, tortillas, potatoes, oatmeal, and pasta. (Whether or not these are whole grain is up to you.) To steer clear of inflammation, she says to “focus on healthy omega-3 fats like olive oil, avocado, fish oil, algae oil, flaxseed, cashews, almonds, and nut butters.” Tie everything together with antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies, which will make your post-run recovery process go much smoother than it would without their immune system-sharpening superpowers.

Now that you know what to eat, Jenna’s got the lowdown on when you need to nosh. “Like logs on a fire, keep your metabolism going strong by staying well-fueled throughout those 24 hours!” she says. So basically, you have Jenna’s full permission to be a permanent fixture in your kitchen, having a snack or a meal every three to four hours. Snacks should set you up with a full serving of carbohydrate (Jenna’s top picks include granola bars, dried fruit, graham crackers, and popcorn), and the best meal is a blend of lean proteins, healthy fats, carbs, fruits, and veggies. No matter what you choose, make sure you’re chowing down on a steady stream of carbs throughout the day, not just loading up on rolls at the dinner table.

And as you are planning your meals, know: There are three key things to keep in mind as you map out your meal plan. The first is that inflammation truly is out to get you. “Pizza, cheeseburgers, cheesesteaks, butters, fried foods, chips, and baked goods are not in your favor leading up to the run,” Jenna states. Why? Foods high in saturated fat (sorry, Mom – your lasagna’s on the chopping block) make a mess of your digestive system. Too much fiber is also a no-go, so save your salad and black bean binge for another day. Finally, eating too few calories can – and will – hold you back. Don’t be afraid to feast!

How to top off your tank the day of the run:

Pouring your heart, soul, and snack drawer into prepping your body the day prior to a long run means nothing if you don’t pay close attention to what you’re eating the day of your run. Yes, I get it – you’re tired of tortillas and ready to throw in the carb towel. Lucky for you, most of the work is already behind you. “Your muscles should be properly stored with plenty of glycogen from the previous day,” Jenna says, adding that, assuming you’re hitting the road in the morning, the only grub needed to finish the job is a dose of easily digestible carbs that are low in both fat and fiber.

About an hour or two before you start running, reach for a bagel, a bowl of cereal/oatmeal, a granola bar, an English muffin, a serving of yogurt, some toast, or a potassium-packed banana. If you simply can’t stomach the thought of eating solid foods, Jenna suggests combining yogurt, coconut water, and a banana in a blender to make a satisfying smoothie. (Want more calories? Jenna once added a NutriGrain bar to her smoothie ingredient list. Sneaky, sneaky!)

Now, on to the bad stuff. According to Jenna, “The worst foods you can eat are high in fat, as it delays the absorption of the other important nutrients needed for your run.” In those precious, pre-run moments, play it smart by putting down the doughnut, cake, pastry, breakfast sandwich, or burrito you’ve been eyeing up since yesterday. These greasy options will do nothing but sabotage your stride. Jenna points out that peanut butter, though fatty, can be a good thing (as long as you don’t overdo it).

Because your future’s probably chock-full of fun summer races, it’s definitely important to have a handle on the foods that’ll get you to the finish line of each training run. Sure, turning down a delightfully heavy home-cooked meal may sting a little, but you’ll thank yourself when you’re not keeled over far before the finish line.

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