At some point during your running career, you’ll come across traditional advice to avoid eating a large meal right before a run and instead fueling with a small snack of 200 to 300 calories. While it’s important to know how much you should eat before running, it’s just as important to know how long to wait to eat after running. Though it varies from person to person, here are some general guidelines to help you plan when to run after you eat—and what type of meal you’ll need.
First, let’s define a “large meal” as one that contains more than 600 calories, and includes several ounces of protein, carbohydrates, and some fat—a typical lunch or a large breakfast. If you have a meal like this, you won’t want to lace up too soon after. Instead, you should wait it out three to four hours to give your body time to digest this type of large meal.
That’s because digestion requires a large amount of the body’s energy. To facilitate the digestion process, the body directs more blood flow to the stomach and other internal organs to accomplish this work—which is also the reason we often feel sleepy following a large meal. The increased blood flow to internal organs means less blood flow is available to our large muscle groups, such as our legs and arms, which are utilized when running. When we exercise, the opposite occurs; blood flow is redirected from internal organs to the large working muscles to provide the necessary energy for muscle contraction.
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When we have a large amount of food in our stomach, running can be difficult or uncomfortable because our body is simply not designed for both digestion and exercise at the same time. Stomach cramps, stomach aches, or gastrointestinal (GI) distress are the most common complaints when trying to run on a full stomach. The mechanical mixing and jostling that naturally occurs while running can upset the digestive tract, too.
How Long to Wait to Run After Eating
If you’re planning to run early in the morning or after work, be sure to factor in your meals and snacks accordingly. If your prerun snack is made up of simple carbohydrates and little or no fat and protein like a banana and an english muffin with jam, as these simple carbs are easier to digest, you may only need to wait an hour or so before heading out the door to avoid any kind of stomach distress.
If you’re noshing on smaller meals or larger snacks (think: 200 to 300 calories, such as six ounces of plain greek yogurt and a medium peach), you may only need to give your body an hour or two to digest. If you opt for something with more fat and protein like a cup of yogurt and a slice of toast with peanut butter, it’s best to wait a bit longer.
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That said, certain runs (under 60 minutes at a moderate effort) don’t require much food if any at all, and some athletes are able to just and head out the door for a run. On the flip side, endurance athletes train their bodies to eat on the run. Even at the half marathon distance, runners must ingest some fuel during the race. Experimenting in your training with eating and running will let you know just how much you are able to eat (or not eat) before a run.
For the best training results though, allow three to four hours after eating a large meal before running, especially if the workout includes intensity, such as interval training. For small snacks and light bites, give yourself about an hour or two to digest before pounding the pavement.
How Long to Wait to Eat After Running
If you’ve wondered how long to wait to eat after a run, you’re not alone. The truth is that you should always eat something after a run to replenish lost glycogen stores and electrolytes and to kickstart muscle recovery. And you shouldn’t wait too long to eat after a run. Aim for a 3:1 carb-to-protein ratio 30 to 60 minutes after your workout.
Good choices for fueling after a run include a protein shake with fruit, a bagel topped with eggs or peanut butter, avocado toast, or cereal and milk. If you’re hungry enough to eat a full meal, try whole wheat pasta with veggies, or beef, chicken, salmon, or tofu (or another one of your favorite plant-based protein sources) with veggies.
Susan Paul has coached more than 2,000 runners and is an exercise physiologist and program director for the Orlando Track Shack Foundation. For more information, visit www.trackshack.com.