Many people think snacks mean junk — and they probably do if they come from a cookie jar or candy bowl. But for runners, snacking is a valid nutrition strategy. It helps us fuel up for workouts, get a variety of nutrients, and spread calories evenly through the day. Snacks also sustain blood-sugar levels (which reduces cravings) and keep your metabolism high, warding off weight gain. "Without a snack to take the edge off, people eat faster, eat more, and choose higher-calorie foods because they're overly hungry," says Suzanne Farrell, R. D., a runner and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
The key is to keep portions small — around 200 to 300 calories — and choose healthy, nutrient-dense foods, says Kelli Montgomery, a coach and nutrition consultant in Connecticut. By going for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, runners can get nutrients they may have missed at meals. But it's important to know what to choose — and when, since some foods offer runners the most benefit at particular times. Here's how to snack smart to get the fuel your body needs.
Pre-Run Snack Attack
If you're like many runners, your workout often takes place hours after your last meal. Morning runners haven't eaten since last night's dinner, and late-afternoon runs take place long after lunch. To curb pre-run hunger, 30 to 60 minutes before running eat high-carb, low-fiber foods that are easy to digest and provide fast energy. You can eat some protein and fat to steady your blood sugar during a long run, but include them sparingly, says Montgomery: Fats and protein break down slowly and, like fiber, can lead to an upset stomach midrun.
Have a piece of fruit and pair it with cottage cheese. Other options: fig cookies; half a bagel with nut butter and jam; an energy bar; sports drink.
Post-Run Snack Attack
Even if you eat a meal before running, you may be hungry afterward — especially if you ran long and hard and your muscles need fuel. Choose a more substantial snack combining a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein. The mix speeds muscle recovery, especially if eaten right away since foods consumed within 30 minutes of your workout provide the maximum recovery benefit. Not hungry? "It's okay to skip a snack after shorter, easier runs," says Montgomery. If a tough workout leaves you feeling queasy, try chocolate milk — it provides that 4:1 ratio and helps you rehydrate but won't strain your stomach.
Save half of your turkey sandwich at lunch for later as a snack with juice. Try a fruit-and-yogurt smoothie.
Pre-Dinner Snack Attack
Lunch at 1 p. m. and dinner at 7 p. m. means six hours without food. "That's longer than people should go," says Farrell, who suggests eating every four hours. To stave off hunger without tons of calories, go for fiber and protein — both are slowly digested and feel satisfying. Work in an extra serving of veggies, which are less appealing before or after a run because of their fiber content. Crave pretzels or carb-rich snacks? Measure out a portion: A 2008 study found that people who eat 100-calorie snack packages consume about 120 fewer calories a day than those who snack from a regular-size bag.
A cup of vegetable soup; salad with egg whites; hummus with carrots and celery; yogurt with berries and almonds