Broad Street Training: The Best Pre-Run Foods

Want to maximize your performance? Here's how to fuel up before a race or workout.

As a runner, you probably already know the healthy foods you’re supposed to be eating on a regular basis: lean sources of protein, veggies, fruits and whole grains. But do you know what you’re supposed to eat right before a workout?

Sharon Collison, a board-certified sports dietician in Newark, says that choosing the right snack can do a world of good. “If you make the right choice, eating before a run can help prevent gastrointestinal distress and discomfort, stabilize blood sugar, top off glycogen stores, and help with adequate hydration,” she says.

Aim to snack on something 50 to 70 minutes before you head out. Kristine Clark, a sports nutritionist at Penn State, says that a pre-workout snack should consist of foods with a high glycemic index. By definition, the glycemic index (GI) is a scale used to provide at-a-glance information about how a food’s carbohydrates affect blood sugar—more specifically, how quickly and how high those carbs cause blood-sugar levels to rise. Foods are assigned a GI ranking between 0 and 100 (100 is pure glucose). Low GI foods absorb and digest more slowly, causing blood-sugar levels to rise slowly, too.

Runners want high glycemic index foods right before and during a run. These foods are highly refined and easily digestible. They break down quickly during digestion and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream, giving you energy quickly.

Believe it or not, this means you should skip the whole grains (gasp!) and opt for choices like white rice and white bread. You’ll lower the risk of cramps and stomachaches since your body won’t have to exert much effort in digestion. While these foods have a lower nutritional value, they provide energy faster—your main concern an hour before your workout. Eating things like whole grains on a regular basis will help maintain your long-haul energy storage.

If your stomach is easily unsettled, Clark advises avoiding foods that are super high in protein or fiber. Your body needs more time to digest them, and they might sit uncomfortably in your stomach during the run. So while peanut butter on whole-wheat toast is technically a healthy choice, save it for after your run—it won’t help your performance if consumed too close to the start time.

Just how big should your pre-race snack be? Collison says portion size is a tough call because some people can tolerate more food than others before activity. But the general guideline is this: Have one gram of carbohydrates per kilogram of weight one hour before the race. That means if you’re a 150-pound athlete, you can handle about 70 grams of carbs.

“The key is to experiment with your eating throughout your training, not the day of the race,” explains Collison. “This way, you can fine-tune your choice until you figure out exactly what works best for the individual athlete.”

She adds that while a pre-race snack is important, don’t forget to eat a fuller meal three to four hours before the race so that you can get a little protein and fat in your system. If you’re running Broad Street, which starts at 8:30 a.m., that means eating breakfast at 5:30. (Sorry for the early wake-up call.)

Below, check out some of the pre-run snack foods our experts recommend.

  • White-bread products, such as toast, bagels, animal crackers, graham crackers, pretzels, Fig Newtons, and English muffins.
  • Fruits, such as pineapple, apricots, bananas, mango, watermelon, and raisins. (Note: limit quantities since fruit contains fiber.)
  • Regular pasta (not whole wheat)
  • Corn flakes
  • White rice
  • Orange juice

>> To find other high glycemic index foods—and to learn the GI of your favorite pre-run eats—check out this handy GI Database.