-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

Training — What Should I Eat for Breakfast Before Long Runs?

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

One of the big mistakes that runners make is that they go into their long run workouts with empty fuel tanks. Just like a car needs gas, you need fuel to power your engine. When you’ve got nothing in the tank, you can feel tired, fatigued, and cranky from the first steps of your run.

To eat or not to eat, that is the question.

To eat or not to eat, that is the question.

Your pre-exercise meal plays an important function: it fuels primarily your brain. As you can imagine, when your brain doesn’t have the fuel it needs, it will tell you that it’s tired and needs to eat. And the brain can’t store fuel like other muscles. The brain gets its fuel from the liver, which starts out the day mostly depleted of energy from sleeping. So it’s critical that you eat in the morning before you run to help you feel sharper and more together during your run.

To underscore the importance of pre-workout (and race) eating, I’ll point out that there have been studies on runners in which they are told to run until they are completely exhausted. When the runners have stopped, researchers found that it was typically their brains that were out of energy, not their muscles. The brain is a powerful organ, and when it says stop, you usually will stop.

So what should you be eating before your workouts?
Exercise is fueled primarily by carbohydrates. A light meal of both simple and complex carbohydrates lays a foundation for your morning workout.

Picking the particular foods for your breakfast will be a process of experimentation for you. Depending on your stomach, you’ll need to find what works for you. And once you do find something that works, use that same formula on race day.

The size of your pre-workout breakfast will partially be determined by the intensity of your workout. If you’re running slowly for a long period of time, you’ll be able to eat more and digest the food more easily. If you’re doing very intense exercise (such as a sprint triathlon or speed work on the track), it will be harder for you to digest foods, so you’ll may want to try liquid meal options such as a fruit smoothie or a meal replacement drink.

A typical pre-workout meal for a long run (greater than an hour), should contain about 300-500 calories, depending on your weight.

Here are a couple of examples of pre-workout meals that would fall into that caloric range:
Meal 1 – Two packs of oatmeal with milk (400 cal) and a medium sized banana (100 cal)
Meal 2 – One bagel (300 cal) with peanut butter (200 cal)
Meal 3 – Two slices of toast (200 cal), 12 oz of orange juice (150 cal)

When should you eat breakfast?
Most runners should try to eat their breakfast at least an hour before running. This gives some of the food a chance to be digested prior to starting your run, which will give your brain some of the fuel that it needs to get going.

As a practical matter, get your breakfast assembled the night before a long run and eat as soon as you get up. Then, as you go about the rest of your morning routine (getting dressed, filling bottles, etc.), you’ll be digesting your breakfast during that time.

If you eat a larger meal more than an hour and a half before your workout, you may want to consider another light snack 15-20 minutes before you start running. This could be half of an energy bar, a piece of fruit or some juice – something to keep your blood sugar up and get you ready to go.

Bottom line: make sure that you eat a small meal of 300-500 calories of carbohydrates one hour or more before you start your long workouts. This will give the energy foundation that you need to perform better and feel better throughout your morning.

If you’d like more information on this topic, there are many great books available. Two of my favorites are available at These two books are by Nancy Clark, who is considered on the top sports nutritionists in the field. Her two books are Nancy Clark’s Food Guide for Marathon Runners and Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. The Food Guide for Marathoners is a short and concise book that sums up a great deal of good information. The Sports Nutrition Guidebook includes much more information and many great recipies.

Related articles:
The performance eating continuum (A theory on the types of foods to eat based on your speed)

Wow! You eat a lot when you run!

Dealing with stomach upset after long runs

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News


7 responses so far, want to say something?

  1. 1. Training: Will I lose weight when I start running? « Running Advice and News August 30th, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    […] choice: best songs for runningBroadcasts: 2008 Olympic Marathon Broadcast coverageTraining: what should I eat for breakfast before long runs?“How much should my legs hurt after a long run?” AKA: Painful legsTraining: How many miles per […]

  2. 2. Mark U. August 15th, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Thanks for the article. Agreed.

    Lately I have successfully enjoyed two servings of Greek yogurt for breakfast, at least one hour before my long runs or marathons. Greek yogurt is non-fat, and has a much higher ratio of protein to carbohydrate than conventional yogurt – which prevents an insulin spike triggered by a largely carbohydrate-based breakfast that adversely affects the liver’s ability to produce glucose.

  3. 3. Rick Tielemans September 17th, 2010 at 12:53 am

    I love how you mention the brain being an important organ in the running process as well. I don’t think a lot of people consider their brain being an important asset to a workout (physically). Mentally, of course your thoughts are what could make or break the attitude, efforts, and eventually results. Although physically feeding your brain is a great point to introduce.

    Through David Wolfe I have a powder called Camu Camu which is an Amazonian fruit I believe, and it’s super high in Vitamin Cand has been tested to support brain function and also increases Seratonin to the brain. Great in smoothies before a run.
    Spirulina is another great addition, and it helps rid the body of free radicals, build proteins, and increases energy by balancing immune system and helping absorb necessary nutrients.

    I’m a huge believer in Superfoods.

    Great article, thanks!

  4. 4. Pre-Run Routine « Family Fan Club: Triathlon T-shirts, Marathon T-shirts, Running T-shirts, Cycling T-shirts, Personalized T-shirts April 8th, 2011 at 1:27 pm

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  5. 5. Rick April 15th, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Thanks for the guidance and background info. Interesting to know about the role of the liver & brain in this. Now I have a handle on how to approach this!

  6. 6. Elain May 18th, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Very helpful article, thanks! I was wondering though, the hour after you eat, does it start from when you start eating or finish?

  7. 7. Training: Will I lose weight when I start running? | Running Advice and News July 10th, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    […] What should I eat for breakdast before a long run? […]

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