How long does it take for food to digest before running? How much time should I give myself between meals?
Running is a great way to burn calories and get fit. If you want to start running regularly, you’ll need to figure out how long it takes for food to digest before you can exercise without any digestive repercussions.
But how long is too long that you’ll lose the nutritional benefit, and how soon after your meal can you head out?
The Definitive Guide To Running After Eating
Let’s start with the basics. Eating a large meal before going out for a run is probably not going to be a good idea. We all know that heavy, sluggish feelings that affect our performance.
This is down to undigested food sloshing around our stomachs which can negatively impact how far you run, and your ability to focus.
As a general rule of thumb, you should wait around 2 to 4 hours between your meal and your run.
However, within this timeframe, you want to experiment with your own personal preference and determine whether you need a shorter interval, or the full 4 hours to wait.
Bear in mind this will also depend on the size of the meal. Typically we can define a large meal as anything over 600 calories.
This will likely contain a serving of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Protein and fibers in particular are what keep us full for the longest, and as such can make us feel the fullest.
A banana with a protein shake is a lot different from a chicken pasta with salad.
One meal is going to take a lot less time to break down and digest whilst the other is prone to sitting in your stomach for hours (I bet you can guess which one is which in our example!)
Why Does A Heavy Meal Affect Running Performance?
Put simply, we were never designed for eating large meals and moving at the same time.
This dates back as far as our caveman days where we’d spend a good portion of the day hunting for our food, and then taking the time to prepare and cook the meal in a warm and cozy cave.
In order for the digestive system to work its magic, it requires energy from the body in order to achieve.
The body will direct blood flow to the stomach and internal organs, meaning that there is less demand for energy in other aspects of our body, i.e. our large muscles that allow us to move long distances in a short amount of time.
When we exercise or enter a fight or flight mode during stressful times, our body will direct blood flow and energy away from the digestive system and prioritize moving or escaping from that Lion hiding in the bushes.
Now, whilst we wouldn’t expect you to have a Lion in your local neighborhood, your brain does not distinguish between different stressors (even exercise is a physical stressor!), and so our body simply shifts its energy output to running over digestion.
It makes logical sense when you consider that your body’s survival is more important than digesting a steak and fries.
We also don’t recommend you purposely wait too long after eating either. As we’ve already touched upon; food is still energy, and will ultimately fuel your workouts, including a long distance run.
Therefore, finding the sweet spot with your meal timings will help take your performance to the next level.
What Should You Eat Before A Run?
Now that we know when and why eating too close or too far off your schedule time to run is a bad idea: what sorts of foods should you eat to help your performance?
Here are some examples of meals you can try before running, at different meals of the day, as not everybody runs at the same time of day.
Banana with a protein shake (whey protein, or a vegan blend work well.)
Energy bar or granola bar
Yogurt with berries
Whole Grain bagel with a couple of fried eggs
Small bowl of oatmeal
Smoothie with berries and spinach (homemade if possible)
Salad with fish
Energy bar or granola bar
Banana with a protein shake
Oatcakes with peanut butter
Can You Eat Whilst Running?
Is it a good idea to eat whilst running? We know that fitting in meals around a scheduled workout can be tough; especially with work, family and other commitments that can stretch our time and make sticking to a perfect routine difficult.
But eating whilst running is not always necessary, however there are situations where taking on nutrients during a run can be beneficial.
Your body will use stored carbohydrates for energy, which is the body’s main source of energy.
This stored carbohydrates source is known as glycogen, and the body will store around 500 grams of glycogen in the muscles and liver.
When your body begins exercise and carries it on for a long period of time it will use up this stored glycogen.
So should you take on carbohydrates during a run? This all depends on how long the run is going to be.
Most glycogen depletion takes around 90 minutes to occur, at which point you might start to feel your performance dipping, which is more commonly referred to as “hitting the wall.”
Replenishing your glycogen stores with a simple carbohydrate source such as a carb gel, or piece of candy can help bring back energy in your body so that you can feel energized on long-distance runs.
Therefore, for long-distance runs that are likely to last over 60 minutes, it might be worth taking on board extra fuel. Anything under this is likely not necessary.
One thing to note is that protein can slow down the digestive system, and therefore sticking to carbohydrate as opposed to something that contains a healthy portion of protein is advised, i.e. avoid portion shakes and stick with energy bars.
Is Water Ok To Consume Before And During A Run?
Runners should always prioritize their hydration levels before, during and after a run. This is especially important on hot days when the body is likely to lose a lot of water due to sweating.
We recommend that you consume around 2-3 liters of water per day, and add an extra liter if going for a run on that day.
This should help maintain your performance and avoid you becoming dehydrated which will inevitably slow you down.
What’s important is that you don’t wait until you start your run to become hydrated, and to make sure you are constantly drinking water throughout the day.
Drinking a liter of water 1 minute before you go out for a run is likely too late.
And if you want to take a bottle of water with you on a run, that is perfectly fine.
In fact, some runners enjoy having water on their person as it can help keep them motivated knowing they can stay hydrated, even on the toughest of runs.
We know the importance of feeling good on a run, and finding the perfect balance between fully fueled and light on your feet can be a tricky balancing act.
With a little bit of trial and error, you will be able to determine how long before a run will work for you, as well as what meals will effectively fuel your workouts.
Be your own scientist and listen to your body. It’s the easiest way to long-term success!