How To Fuel Your Runs With Real Food

Runners know how important fueling properly before, during and after a run is. Often it can be the difference between having a good or bad run. Even if you’re feeling strong on the roads, trails or track, it may be time to rethink your fueling strategy, however, to include more whole foods.

Whole foods are usually the healthier option and allow you to control exactly what is being put into your body. Additionally, choosing real foods versus prepackaged options before and after a run can help you get more of the pure nutrients you need for recovery.

“With the exception of longer marathon training runs, most people are taking in too much on the run,” notes Amanda Brooks, the runner behind Run To The Finish. “Focus on great, whole-food meals before and after for the best nutrition solutions.”


When it comes to choosing the right fuel for you, knowing the ingredients you are consuming is important. When you go with pre-packaged fuel, you often get a long ingredient list that can be vague, such as ‘natural flavors,’ and can’t guarantee the quality of everything that makes up what you are eating. By choosing real foods, whether grab-and-go or something you need to prepare yourself, you have control over what enters your body to get the maximum vitamins and minerals into your body after a run.

“Real foods provide vitamins and nutrients — in addition to serving as a source of energy — and involve less processing and less added sugars, offering more stable energy over the course of longer runs,” explains Kristen Chang, MS, RDN, CSSD, sports dietitian and ​owner of Real Food For Fuel. “Also, they are convenient and readily available while being less expensive than most sports nutrition products (a real budget saver).”

Of course, there may be a learning curve when it comes to understanding which nutrients many foods provide, such as bananas or a homemade energy bar. However, as you experiment with what works for you personally, it becomes easier to understand how certain foods make your body feel before, during and after a run.

“Fueling with something like dried pineapple can actually help the digestive process, which is a major issue for many runners,” Brooks says. “It has digestive enzymes and the sugars without a rush of syrups that leave many seeking port-a-potties.”


Another benefit to dried fruits? Brooks says they are just as easy to carry as any gel and don’t require any advance prep. This is often why athletes choose pre-packaged foods as fuel. Finding real, whole foods that are easy to grab will help make the switch easier.


When it comes to transitioning over to real foods from prepackaged nutrition, it is important to see it as just that: a transition. You don’t have to make a drastic switch and actually, doing so can cause you to have an upset stomach in the beginning.

“Don’t feel as if you have to take an all-or-nothing approach,” advises Chang. “Another benefit of incorporating real foods into the mix of mid-run fuel is that it can add variation and prevent flavor fatigue. Go with what you enjoy, think will sit well on your stomach and be creative!”

Chang reveals that her husband prefers to eat a corn tortilla with avocado, salt and lime, while others simply prefer to grab a banana. As previously stated, it may take some experimenting to see what works best for you as an athlete, but slowly adding homemade, real fuel to your usual go-to prepackaged favorites can make the transition seem less daunting. Just as you have to train your body for running, you actually have to train your gut for proper digestion, too.

“Incorporate real foods along with your previously used sports nutrition at first in order to train your gut and make adjustments from there,” reiterates Chang. “Start with compact and easy to carry real food sources such as raisins, and use dates for homemade energy bars. Convenience and easy to eat on the go is key.”


If you are constantly consuming gels or energy bars on the run, make your own homemade version that tastes just as good — if not better — than its prepackaged counterparts.

Nut Butter and Chocolate Date Bars
Recipe by Kristen Chang of Real Food For Fuel

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