You’ve likely heard that you should carb-load before a long race, but what does that actually mean? And more importantly, what should you eat the night before? Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source, so it’s important to include them in your pre-run meal.
In this blog post, we will discuss what to eat the night before a long run, the benefits of carbohydrates and how to best fuel your body. We’ll also provide some examples of healthy, carb-heavy meals to try before a long run (plus, what not to eat).
Why It’s Important to Prep for Your Long Run the Night Before
You may think that it’s most important to focus on how you’re fueling your body when you’re on a run. However, what you eat the night before can have a huge impact on your performance. Eating a balanced meal rich in carbohydrates the night before will help to boost your energy levels and delay fatigue.
The exact ratio of carbs to protein to fat will be different for each individual runner. In general, when you’re around 24 hours away from your long run, it’s time to start choosing meals that are carb-heavy.
Why Runners Need Carbohydrates
Carbs are essential during a long run to ensure that your performance is optimized and you have the energy to get through your run or race. When eaten, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which your muscles (and liver) store as glycogen and use as fuel for the duration of your run. Without carbohydrates, it can feel impossible for your body to have enough energy to successfully complete your run (like hitting a wall or feeling like your legs are heavy).
Want to feel good during your run? Want to have the extra bit of energy to push hard at the end of your run? Want to build your running endurance? Then you need carbs!
Which Type of Carb is Best?
When it comes to carbs, there are two types: simple or complex. Simple carbs are broken down quickly by your body and provide almost instant energy. Complex carbs, on the other hand, take a bit longer for the body to break down and use as fuel. This makes it a steady source for burning when available.
When choosing carbs for your pre-run dinner, it’s typically best to opt for simple over complex. However, a mix of both might also be considered (as long as you can handle the “fiber” when running or eat it early enough), to give you both an immediate boost of energy and long-term fuel source as you run for longer distances.
Examples of Simple Carbs:
- White bread
- White Rice
- Granola Bars
- Fruits and fruit juice
Examples of Complex Carbs:
- Whole grains
- Sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
- Starchy vegetables
- Beans (if tolerated)
What NOT to Eat Before a Long Run?
As much as you may want to fuel yourself with a burger and fries the night before, it’s best to limit your intake of high-fat foods. Fat takes longer for your body to digest, so too much can leave you feeling bloated or sluggish during your run.
Also, try to avoid high-protein meals the night before a long run as protein takes even longer for your body to break down. Instead, focus on foods that are high in carbohydrates but relatively low in fat and protein.
Of course, there is no magic combination that works for everyone. You will need to experiment and tune into how you’re feeling to get the best results.
What to Eat The Night Before A Long Run
When you’re preparing your dinner the night before a long run, there are a few things to keep in mind.
- Make sure that you are giving yourself enough time to digest.
- Select foods that are light and easy on your stomach.
- Avoid foods that make you feel bloated or gassy.
- Drink your calories as you get within one to four hours of your training window- that way your body can actually have time to absorb and use it for energy.
- Consume foods that you are used to eating and digesting.
- Choose nutrient-dense whole foods. Just because you’re carb-loading doesn’t mean you can’t pack an extra punch of nutrients (for example- choosing fruit over a donut).
- Make sure you are getting enough carbs, but not too much! (This will be different for everyone.)
- When considering your pre-run meals, don’t forget about hydration and keeping your body at an optimal electrolyte balance too.
By being mindful of what you’re eating, you can ensure your body is properly fueled for your long run. This will help maximize performance potential, so you can feel great throughout your entire run or race.
10 Easy Meals to Try for Carb Loading the Night Before a Long Run
Need some inspiration for carb-heavy meals? Let’s review:
1. Spaghetti and meatballs
This classic dish provides a good balance of carbohydrates and protein. Plus, it’s easy to prepare- whether you want frozen to grab frozen meatballs or make some from scratch- and will help you feel satisfied.
2. Baked potato with chili
If you don’t want to go for the classic spaghetti, potatoes are also an excellent source of simple carbs and when topped with chili, can provide a healthy dose of protein too. If your stomach doesn’t like beans, you can make a beanless chili or top it with alternative toppings like green onion, cheese, sour cream, shredded chicken, ground meat, and/or bacon bits.
3. Burrito bowl
A burrito bowl is a great way to get a variety of simple carbs, as you can include various grains (particularly rice) and beans that are easy to digest. Add a variety of nutrient-dense veggies for a well-balanced meal, such as avocado, tomatoes, cilantro, onion, and tomatillo (as green salsa).
4. Grilled cheese and tomato soup
Another classic meal, this provides a good balance of carbs and protein. Serve with a side salad to get some extra veggies in your diet before the run.
5. Macaroni and cheese
Mac and cheese isn’t just for kids- it’s also an excellent source of simple carbohydrates! Add some diced veggies (like bell peppers, cauliflower, mushrooms, and broccoli) to up the nutrient content of this meal.
Other kid favorites that are carb-heavy include peanut butter and jelly (PBJ), quesadillas, cheese and crackers, and french fries.
These are just a few examples of carb-heavy meals you can try the night before a long run. Be
6. Stuffed bell peppers
This meal is packed with carbohydrates from the rice and protein from the cheese. Plus, it’s easy to make, as all you need to do is stuff a bell pepper with your favorite combination of ingredients (rice, beans, veggies, meat, etc.) and bake.
7. Stir-fry and rice
Stir fries are an excellent way to get a variety of simple carbs and nutrient-dense vegetables into your diet. Choose white or brown rice as the base, then add in whatever veggies and proteins you’d like (such as tofu, tempeh, or chicken).
8. Oatmeal with toppings and honey
Oatmeal is a great source of complex carbohydrates and can be made in just minutes. Top it with your favorite fruit (banana slices, berries, apples, raisins, etc.), walnuts, sunflower seeds, peanut butter, and/or honey for some extra fuel and flavor. If you plan ahead, you can also try making overnight oats with all of your favorite add-ins.
This is great news for pizza lovers everywhere. Pizza is a great option for the night before a long run! Load it up with veggies and consider choosing a whole-wheat crust to make it more nutrient-dense.
10. Have breakfast for dinner
Many popular breakfast staples are high in simple carbs. So why not eat some of your favorites at night for dinner? Options include:
- Cereal with milk
- Fruit smoothie or smoothie bowl
- Pancakes or waffles with toppings like peanut butter, syrup, fruit, whip cream, and/or jelly
- English muffin with cheese and veggies
Carb Loading and Running FAQ
Now, let’s answer some of the most common questions about carb loading and running:
Is it necessary to carb load before a run?
While carb loading is not necessary, it is recommended for athletes who are preparing for longer-distance runs or races. This will help ensure that you have adequate energy reserves and can perform at your best potential.
When should I carb load?
It’s best to start the process of carb loading at least 24-48 hours before your run or race. You can do this by increasing your intake of simple carbs (such as bread, pasta, and grains) in the days leading up to your event or scheduled routine. You can top off your glycogen stores within a few hours of your run too with smaller meals or snacks that are high in simple carbohydrates.
Which is better: simple or complex carbs?
Both! It all depends on the timing. For a sustainable energy source, complex carbs- like whole grains and starchy vegetables- are the best choice. However, complex carbs are harder to digest and can actually affect your ability to run. Thus, reserve complex carbs for the 24 to 48-hour window. Once you are within 24 hours or less of your run, focus on simple carbs like fruits and pasta to quickly boost your energy stores and get ready for pushing yourself hard.
What foods should I avoid when carb-loading?
Carb-loading does not mean eating whatever you want. You should still focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods and avoid processed or sugary items as much as possible. Additionally, it’s important to be aware of the amount of fat, protein, and fiber in your meals, as too much of either can slow down digestion and cause discomfort during a run. Lastly, it’s best to limit your intake of alcohol while carb-loading, as this can lead to dehydration during the race or run.
How many carbs should I actually eat?
It depends on your body and level of activity. According to the USADA, athletes should aim for about 3-12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight when long-distance training. Thus, on the night before a long run, you’ll probably want to consume closer to the 12-gram limit. If you’re unsure how much you should be eating, consult with a registered dietitian or nutritionist who can help tailor an individualized plan to meet your needs.
What is the best ratio of carbs to proteins and fats?
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an evidence-based answer to this question. For many top authorities in the running world, the recommendation is the ratio of carbs to proteins and fats for carb-loading should be around 3:1. This means that you should aim for three times more carbohydrates than protein or fat in each meal.
Aren’t protein and fat important for a pre-run meal too?
Absolutely! Protein and fat are essential for muscle repair and energy production, so you don’t want to avoid them completely. It’s best to include a balance of all three macronutrients in your pre-run meals. Some especially good sources of lean protein include fish, eggs, nuts, nut butter, and legumes. Healthy fats include avocado, olive oil, and nuts.
What should I keep in mind post-running?
After a long run, your body is likely depleted of energy and needs to be replenished. Eating within 30 minutes of finishing your run can help you recover faster. Focus on complex carbohydrates like whole grain bread or quinoa, lean proteins such as chicken or fish (likely in a higher ratio than before you run), and healthy fats like nuts or avocado. Additionally, make sure to drink plenty of water and electrolytes to replenish your fluids.
See our full guide on post-run recovery.
Fuel Your Body to Feel Your Best on a Long Run
If you’ve been wondering how to approach preparation the night before a long run, I hope this article helps you make the best decisions for your body and performance. With these strategies, you should be able to reach peak performance and push yourself as far as possible.
Ultimately, it’s important to listen to your body and find what works best for you when it comes to eating the night before a long run. With some experimentation and practice, you’ll be able to find the perfect combination of carbs, protein, and fat that will help you reach your full potential and have a successful long run- whether for training or a race.