Training Fuel: What and How Runners Eat

Running Nutrition Strategy

How do you fuel yourself when training for a Half or Marathon? Tough question, and one that sparks a range of debate in the endurance community. Don't spend too long on the internet- you'll go nuts. In this article I'm not going to extol any particular mode of thinking or diet plan. I'm just going to show you how I fuel my long miles in my training. If you want some highly qualified and sensible advice look out for top dietician, Renee McGregor. She advises a number of top endurance runners including Holly Rush and Alyson Dixon and I can highly recommend her book here on Amazon

So here is my 'nutrition strategy'. It gives you an idea of what I eat and when I eat it;

Runners Diet: what to eat

  • Avoid eating too much stuff that comes in a packet 

Obviously most stuff is packaged these days but there's a big difference between chicken breast and chicken dippers. If it's undergone a degree of assembly its generally not as good. There's too much sugar added for starters. Eat more fresh, natural food. I think if you stick to this principle you can't lose really.

  • Avoid sugary foods if possible

You don't need to be draconian but you should minimise refined sugars. Fizzy drinks are an easy thing to cut out for example. Refinement has eliminated all of the fiber and plant nutrients and contributes very little other than a quick shot of energy.

  • Substitute refined grains for whole grains if possible

I do eat white pasta because I like it but I tend to go for whole grains 9 times out of 10. Bulgar wheat, barley, oats and quinoa are all great. Refinement removes dietary fiber, iron, and many B vitamins. Again a quicker energy boost but less nutritional value.

  • Balance is key

You don't need masses of carbs to perform well, but equally you cant cut them out and rely on fats if you want to be a good runner. It's nice to have a bit of variety, and, let's face it, we're probably not going to qualify for the Olympics. Is it really worth being that hard on yourself! I love pizza and pasta way too much to deny myself.

Nutrition timing


What I eat before I run depends on the type of run I am doing. My morning runs tend to be of low-medium intensity (runs shorter than 70mins at aerobic pace) and I wouldn't eat before I run. I tend to do my higher intensity sessions in the evening and would ensure I have a decent lunch or snack in the afternoon. I tend to snack on dried fruit, nuts and seeds but a bit of toast or a bagel is perfect for a pre run snack an hour or so before. Carbs are particularly important for fuelling more intense sessions. They will help you perform better in the workout allowing you to gain greater benefit from it.

Long Runs are a bit more difficult. I always prefer to get them done in the morning so they don't take over the entire weekend. As a result they require a bit more planning.

Fat fuelling debate

There's a lot of debate about the importance of becoming a better 'fat burner' for longer distance events. Fat is a useful fuel source; the 'system' takes longer to get going but it burns long and slow. This is great for longer aerobic races but not so good for events where you need to run at a reasonable intensity from the outset. Marathon running does require (for everyone!) a degree of higher intensity running and therefore carbs will always be the fuel of choice. If you are training for an Ultra the approach might be slightly different. 

For longer and lower intensity training runs some people advocate approaching in a slightly fasted state (ie no breakfast) to force your body to turn to your fat stores in the absence of adequate glycogen (from carbohydrate). However I am training for 10k-Marathon and therefore don't tend to do this.

For runs of 90mins + nutrition starts the evening before the run. You don't need to stuff yourself with pasta, but a good quality meal with some low GI carbs is key. I personally like brown rice, sweet potato, lentils or bulgar wheat and lots of veg.  Before a long run of 2-3 hours at a low intensity you might want to prioritise fats and protein in this meal. I don't personally eat meat, because I feel leaner without it, but it you do then stick to something easily digestible like white meat or fish. This is particularly important the night before you race.

On the morning of the run make sure you have something moderate to keep you stocked up- smoothies, a banana on toast, or some porridge with honey are all good options. I personally would keep this breakfast light.

Running a Marathon? Practising Race Day nutrition

On most of my longer less intense runs I would not fuel on the run. However if running a Marathon you should practise your 'race day nutrition' on a couple of occasions in your build up. I would do this on a long run where I will be spending some time running in and round my goal race pace (Higher intensity = carbs more important). Practising taking on gels at pace is a good idea allowing you to best replicate the situation you will find yourself in on race day. Its a difficult skill- I ran a good mile with an eyeful of gel at last years London Marathon!   

In terms of gel recommendations I would preferably go for something a bit more natural. Ben Greenfield is an American Triathlete who writes extensively on nutrition and recommends a gel called Justin’s Nut Butter, which can be found on Amazon. If you don't like Nuts you can find some other Chia based alternatives online. I have used SiS gels with caffeine in the past.

Post Run

The timing of your post-run eating should always follow a similar pattern. The whole purpose of training is to stress your body and then allow it to adapt. Without proper refuelling to repair the body this just wont happen.

In my strategy I have a goal to take on food within 30mins of finishing a run and if I can get a meal straight away, then I ensure I eat something substantial with the hour. The exact make-up of your meals depends on what your next training session will be. If its going to be higher intensity then a good mix of carb and protein is important, but if its a longer slower one then fill up with fats and protein.