Fueling for Long Runs

Spring marathon and half marathon training season is upon us, which means lots of long runs!

There are an endless option of sports nutrition products on the market: GU in its many flavors (salted caramel, anyone?), Clif Shot Bloks, Honey Stinger Waffles, Hammer Gels, Gatorade, Generation UCan drinks, Nuun Hydration, and so on. All of these products promise to keep you fueled and feeling strong during endurance events, including long runs. Many also offer electrolytes to prevent cramping and dehydration.

 There’s also the natural alternative for fueling, especially for runners who are looking to clean up their diets and eat whole foods. Dried fruit, nuts, and honey packets offer natural carbohydrates in easily digestible form. Oftentimes, these are also cheaper than gels and chews, so they can be a great budget-friendly option (especially if you’re training for a marathon and using 1-3 gels per run over the course of a 16 to 20 week plan!).

There’s no way to avoid fueling for your long run. Long runs burn a lot of calories and require a lot of carbohydrates (glycogen) from your muscles. While some people are the exception, most runners will find that any run over 10 miles requires them to eat before, take in fuel during, and eat a nutrient-rich meal afterwards.

For runners counting their calories or trying to lose weight, this may seem like a lot of eating. You are taking in more calories than you would on a normal day, but you are also burning a lot more calories than you would on a normal day. Depending on your weight, the terrain, your speed and how far you run, long runs can burn anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 calories or even higher. Skimping on fuel can actually work against any weight loss goals, as it could lead you to bonk and finish your run early, or lead you to feel starving and exhausted on your run and then binge on sugary and heavy foods. It’s better to eat a small snack before, take some fuel during your run, and then have a balanced meal afterwards. This will keep your eating in check for the rest of the day and help prevent the marathon weight gain that some runners experience. 

The first question in fueling for long runs should be whether you want to eat whole foods or sport nutrition products. Both offer benefits: sports nutrition products offer electrolytes in addition to carbohydrates, while whole foods don’t contain lots of additives. Some runners find that the sugars in sports gels cause GI distress, while others can’t tolerate the fiber in whole foods like dried fruits or nuts. Usually this is a process of trial and error, as you just have to find what works for you based on how your body responds.

I’m going to use how I fuel as an example for fueling for long runs. Keep in mind that I have not run over 13.1 miles, nor am I in any way an expert on sports nutrition. This is simply what I have researched, tested, had success with and plan to use in future half and full marathon training.

Before a long run (10 miles or longer, since glycogen stores start depleting about 75 mintues into a run), I eat either a handful of raisins or a banana. I eat usually 45 minutes before heading out on my run. These fruits are easy for me to digest, offer lots of carbs and sugars, and have roughly 100 calories per serving. If it’s a hard long run (like 12 miles with some goal pace miles), I have half of a homemade plain bagel 45-60 minutes before (homemade means no preservatives or added sugars!). I eat a whole homemade plain bagel 2 hours before a race, so occasionally I have half a bagel to practice race-day fueling. I’m also sure to drink at least one glass of water about 30-45 minutes before I run. Sometimes I’ll also have a small cup of coffee, but sometimes I skip it if I think it’s going to cause some GI problems.

 Plain Bagels Recipe

When I run longer than 90 minutes, I take fuel every 45 minutes to ensure that my body has enough carbs. When I race a half marathon I take two gels (one at mile 5 and another at mile 10), so I try to model that in long runs by taking 1-2 gels (160-200 calories), depending on the distance and intensity. Currently, since I’m not training for a race, I’m going to experiment with eating raisins as mid-run fuel (with a banana before the run). Since it’s winter, I don’t have to worry about as much electrolyte loss as I do during other months of the year or during racing. I want to get to the point where I eat natural foods (dried fruit) for fueling on easy long runs and gels on tempo or fartlek long runs to practice for race day.

Fueling for Long Runs 

I personally choose raisins because they are less fibrous than other dried fruits, aren’t total sugar bombs, and are cheaper than dates. I’ve been eating raisins before runs for years now and know they work for me. For gels, I use Hammer nutrition gels. These are lower in sugar than other gels (21 grams of carbs and only 2 grams of sugar) and have some sodium and potassium in them. Plus they come in mild fruity flavors and are easy to eat while running at race pace! With any gels or mid-run fuel, you want to make sure that you take water right around when you eat; this will help you digest the fuel (rather than it just sit on your stomach and cause GI issues) and keeps you hydrated.

 Fueling for Long Runs

Finally, refueling after a long run is super important. Your muscles are depleted after a hard effort and thus primed to receive nutrients so they can start recovering. You want to eat within 30-60 minutes after your workout to optimize the rebuilding of your glycogen stores. This will benefit you both in training and on race day; by refueling your glycogen stores, you will recover more quickly for the next workout and keep your tank topped off so that you have optimal energy for race day. Without recovery fuel, your muscles will remain in a state of breakdown, which can lead you down the road to fatigue, physical burnout, and muscle soreness. For more information, check out this article and this post.


Ideally, you’ll want to have a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein after a run. I like to add a bit of healthy fat for optimal nutrient absorption and for satiety. Again, this is where you have to go with what works for your body. If you’re too nauseous to eat, consider a smoothie made with fruit and yogurt, or at least get down a banana.  My favorite meal after a long run is oatmeal with an egg whipped in, a banana, and a tablespoon of peanut butter. I also like to have pancakes made with whole wheat flour and oats and topped with bananas and an egg on the side.

Fueling For a long run Nuun

It’s also necessary to rehydrate after a long run! My favorite way to hydrate after a long run is with Nuun Hydration (it’s also great for before and during long runs!). Nuun offers the electrolytes I need without sugars, carbs, or calories. This means I can get my essential electrolytes from my drink and then get my carbs from whole foods, which helps me feel more full and consume less sugar, and it also prevents runger later on in the day.

(Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Hammer Nutrition. I am affiliated with Nuun Hydration as a Nuunbassador. All opinions expressed on any brands in this post are my own.)

Questions of the Day:
How do you fuel during a long run?
Do you have a favorite gel?
What’s your favorite meal after a long run? 

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2 Responses

  1. Great info in this post! Bananas are one of my favorite pre-run foods. I have started using Powerbar performance energy blends during my long runs. They kind of just taste like thick juice but don’t have added sugar. Usually after a long run I crave a burger! However its usually like before 10am when I am done running so I usually have some sort of eggs and save the burger for later in the day:)

    1. Thank you, Lisa! I’ll have to look into Powerbar energy blends, I’m all about no added sugar fuel. Eggs are soooo good after hard long runs or races! I think there’s something about eating lots of carbs around a long run or a race that makes us crave protein-rich foods like eggs or burgers 🙂

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