To Eat or Not To Eat – That Seems to Be An Important Question

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Photo Credit: after breakfast by Flickr user glasseyes view, used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo Credit: after breakfast by Flickr user glasseyes view, used under a Creative Commons license.

A few months ago, I participated in a chat hosted by Run Your BQ’s founders Jason Fitzgerald and Matt Frazier, with the topic being how to become a predawn runner.  While I be blunt in stating that the chat was nominally a waste of time (there were maybe six attendees, though I understand that it was archived on the site for future viewing), I did have one valuable takeaway from the session.  The biggest barrier to predawn running for most athletes (besides the whole “getting up early” thing) seems to be not knowing what to eat before running.

This amazed me.  My answer has always been pretty simple – “nothing.”  Perhaps because I’ve always done it that way, not having food before I run has never been an issue for me.  Not before the short recovery run, not before the tough tempo or repeat workout, and not before the 20-mile-plus long run.

But maybe this ability developed in parallel with the ability to run longer distances, since it was the only way I was running (after college, that is).  So maybe for the runner used to having breakfast or some other sustenance before running, there needs to be a process involved in transitioning to predawn running sans fuel.

There are a couple of major benefits in being able to run predawn without having to eat:

  • It enhances your efforts to boost glycogen efficiencywhile mostly of concern to marathoners who need to learn to better utilize their glycogen to avoid the bonk, teaching your body to burn fat boosts your metabolism in general and may (though this is debatable) help in weight loss.
  • It saves time –  it takes time to eat, and you may need to digest your food a bit before you run (unless you work on getting used to that).  This can cause you to have to get up even earlier, or run shorter.
  • Less risk of GI issues – while some report that running on an empty stomach creates GI distress, I believe that food is one variable that rather contributes to GI issues when you run, unless you stick to a known proven performer each time out.

The biggest risk in eating nothing, of course, is having enough energy for your workout.  This becomes more of a concern for tough workouts like tempo runs or long runs.  However, I’m convinced that with enough practice, even these workouts can go off without a hitch.

And therein lies the key.  Like anything running-related, it is amazing what you can train your body to do.  So how do you get by without eating?  Like any other new skill or capability you try to develop, you start “easy” or small and gradually build your strength.

For running without breakfast, that would look like:

  • Start with easy workouts, like anticipation runs.
  • If you are used to eating breakfast, first start by eating less before you go to nothing.
  • Take something with you as a fallback in case you need it (though eventually it may be helpful to remove this “crutch”).
  • Eat late the night before – whether a decent snack (I prefer popcorn) or even just a later than normal dinner.

Over time, as your body gets used to running without fuel (and more importantly, your mind gets used to it too), you can start extending the workouts to longer “easy runs” and then to shorter “workouts” (400m repeats, 20 minute tempo runs, etc.).  Ideally, you’ll want to get to the ability to go 90 minutes, or the long end of the “medium” range, to start getting the true glycogen efficiency benefits.

If you need to still rely on eating for longer runs than 90 minutes, that’s not a problem at all – in fact, you’ll certainly want to eat before your race, so you better get or continue to stay comfortable with what works for you.  It’s also helpful to continue to mix in running at different times of day under different fueling conditions, as you never know what kind of event you may find yourself in (or how your training may need to shift to deal with schedule conflicts).

Being able to run without eating can really enhance your predawn experience, giving you more time to train and more valuable training to boot.  It’s worth the investment in building this capability, if you’re serious about becoming a better runner.

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  • Mike Stewart

    Is there a reason the RSS entry for this article is filled with SEO spam?

  • Mariana Lasprilla

    Totally agree that it comes with practice, being able to run on an empty stomach. I need to re-learn this ability every spring (no early runs in winter), but it makes for more comfortable, reliable runs to not need food beforehand.

  • Greg Strosaker

    It appears I’ve been hacked, just noticed right before you mentioned it. Out of curiosity, are you using Google Reader?

  • Mike Stewart

    I am, but it also shows up in NetNewsWire (Mac RSS app). Haven’t glanced at the raw XML yet.

  • P.J. Murphy

    For the most part, I’ll skip any type of meal prior to a run under 5 miles. I don’t know why I work with that arbitrary number. Maybe it’s because I need to train my body to run w/o eating prior to runs – as you said.

    Do you eat anything prior to a big race like a half or full marathon?

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for the comment P.J., I do think that the 5 mile limit is probably more mental than physical.

    And yes, I do eat before races, so that is something I practice on occasion during training. Fortunately I seem to have a pretty tolerant stomach, though for safety I always stick with the same pre-race food (English muffin or bagel with peanut butter and jelly, coffee).