Trail Running Nutrition: A Pro Runner’s Food and Diet Plan
We sat down with professional trail runner Yassine Diboun to get some in-depth advice on exactly what you should be eating for your trail running adventures. The Columbia Sportswear athlete, who trains runners via his coaching business Wy’east Wolfpack, says trail running nutrition can sometimes feel daunting, especially when you’re first getting into the sport.
“When you first become a runner, there's such a learning curve with trying to figure out what can I eat, how much can I eat,” he explains. However, there are some guiding principles that will make your journey easier.
Below, we’ve broken down Diboun’s interview into three chronological sections (before your run, during your run, and after your run), and also included his thoughts about running nutrition basics and what to eat before running a 5K, 10K, half marathon, or full marathon).
Running nutrition basics
Yassine Diboun: The ideal diet for a trail runner can vary a lot from person to person, but the bottom line is that you want to be eating whole foods that are nutrient dense. Foods that are not overly processed. When you start processing foods, you start stripping away the nutrients. I've followed a plant-based diet since 2008, but that’s just me—everybody is so different. I coach a lot of runners and I try not to get too into prescribing what people should eat. I know elite runners who are fully keto and eat lots of meat. The human body is a highly adaptable system.
Yassine Diboun: Carbs get a bad rap, but from an energy standpoint they have a high yield, as long as you’re eating complex carbs. Vegetables like sweet potatoes are a favorite of mine. I'm also a huge rice and beans guy. Before a long run, I like to wrap sliced banana and nut butter into a whole grain tortilla and eat it like a little burrito. It's a cheap pre-run snack that’s nutrient-dense and packs good energy.
Warming up: before your run
Yassine Diboun: Yes, absolutely. You need to go into your run with fuel in the tank. People worry about GI distress, so they sometimes skip pre-run meals, but that’s a mistake. You need food—it just has to be the right thing. Aim for foods that are soft and smooth so you can digest them easily. A lot of times, I like to drink my calories before a run. I'll make a nice protein shake or smoothie with lots of healthy ingredients that provide sustenance and energy without making my digestive system work too hard while I’m out there. But you can’t run properly on fumes.
Yassine Diboun: Focus on carbs. A general rule of thumb is to eat carbs before your run and protein afterwards. That’s not to say it should be all protein—you want some balance. But the scales should be tipped in that direction. Protein doesn't give you as much energy before a run. It’s typically used more for recovery and repairing your muscles afterwards. It can be satiating, but fat and carbs are going to yield the most energy. Things like sweet potatoes, quinoa, rice, oatmeal, beans, whole grain pasta. Ultimately, each person needs to find out what works best for them. Some people like granola, others like waffles. There’s a lot of personal preference, just make sure you’re getting enough carbs.
For morning runs, I also like to drink coffee because it gets things moving in your GI tract. And water too—one of the best things you can do for yourself is to drink a glass of water as soon as you wake up. That will get all of your metabolic systems going and you can proceed to drink a cup of coffee, have some food, and let nature take its course.
Yassine Diboun: I recommend waiting about 30 minutes before you start your run. You want to let your body start to digest things a bit. Thirty minutes gives your body a chance to absorb the food, but it's not so long that you've already started burning the calories.
Yassine Diboun: It’s different for everyone, but the main principle is to stay away from anything that’s too hard to digest. Fatty foods, greasy foods, anything that’s overly processed, heavy on artificial sweeteners, too acidic. If you're having a big sausage muffin before you hit the trail, that's going to make your GI tract work hard, and it will be jostling around in your stomach while you're out there.
You also want to avoid quick-burning fuels. Croissants or pastries, for example, will give you quick energy, but it’s not really sustainable. Runners need complex carbohydrates. These are going to break down a little bit slower and yield more energy over the long run. Stay away from refined carbs like white breads, white rice, cookies, cakes, and other baked goods.
One of the greatest things about being a runner is that you get really in tune with your body. You get to know how different foods make you feel. The more you run, the more you’ll get a sense of what makes you feel good and which foods to avoid.
Go time: during your run
Yassine Diboun: It depends on how long the run is. For runs that are less than an hour, you're probably good—although l always like to bring something with me just in case. But if you’ll be out for more than an hour, you definitely need to bring some food. You need fuel for long runs. That is vital. I like runner’s gels, especially ones made from real food like pureed bananas, rice, or dates instead of chemical compounds.
Yassine Diboun: A good rule of thumb is to eat something about 45 minutes in. For a 90-minute run, that means having one trail snack about halfway through. You can eat a little nibble of a granola bar or half an energy bar. For longer runs, you’ll need to continue to eat at intervals. A 15-mile run, for instance, will involve two to three hours on the trail, so it’s essential to stay nourished.
The biggest mistake people make during multi-hour runs is waiting too long to eat. You need to eat preemptively. Even if you're not hungry at the 45-minute mark, you need to get 100 to 150 calories into your system to stay in front of the inevitable energy depletion that takes place. Don’t wait until you’re hungry and then eat all at once. You’ll get bloated. Your body can only process so much when you're exerting yourself like that. Think of trail nutrition like an IV bag. You want that slow drip of calories and fluids coming in.
Yassine Diboun: I stash gels or energy bars in a compression belt or the pockets of my shorts. I have a pair of Endless Trail shorts with compression pockets on the side, along with a horizontal back pocket and one inside the lining of the thigh. This lets me store snacks and gels close to my body without them flapping around.
And don’t forget to bring a little extra. When I first started doing trail runs up in the mountains, it would take me a lot longer than I anticipated. You need to account for that. There might be downed trees or rocky sections that take a long time, and then you're ripping through calories. You don’t want to find yourself completely out of food when your energy is running out and you still have a long way to go back to the car. I've bonked big-time in the Columbia Gorge to the point where I've had to ask hikers for food. It can be serious.
Yassine Diboun: Bonking is a term in the running world where your body runs out of glycogen, which is your body's energy store. You've probably heard of marathon runners “hitting the wall.” That’s when they don't have anything left—their legs are all wobbly and they're almost falling to the ground. I've definitely bonked many times. Your body just stops being able to move. Because of that, I always carry a gel or two on me, even if it’s just as a security blanket.
Cooling down: after your run
Yassine Diboun: After you finish a run, you want to eat protein. That’s what carries amino acids, the building blocks that rebuild and repair your muscles. You should be shooting for a 3-to-1 ratio [of carbs to protein] to maximize your recovery. Some people say 4 to 1. Sometimes your system is in shock and doesn't want to eat right away, especially after a big run. That's when a smoothie can be a great choice. But after any after activity, even shorter runs, you need to nourish your body a little bit.
Yassine Diboun: A lot of people will say that it doesn’t matter, especially after long runs, races, or marathons, because you’ve expended so much energy that whatever you eat is going to get converted into glycogen. But I would disagree because it can still make you feel like crap. Sure, eating birthday cake will get converted into glycogen, but that doesn’t mean it will make you feel good. Ideally, you should be eating the same types of foods after your run that you did before: whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense food.
Race day: what to eat before running a 5K, 10K, half marathon, or full marathon
Yassine Diboun: It’s more about what not to eat. Avoid spicy foods—chiles, jalapeños, spicy dishes, they can all really mess up your GI tract the day before a race or a big run. I’d also avoid greasy fried foods, just like before any run.
Yassine Diboun: For shorter races, yes. But before full-length marathons, you want to carb load. That way you’re not only replenishing all of your glycogen, but you're storing it in your muscles and liver as a backup. I like the analogy of an iPhone—you go into your race fully charged and then once you run out, you’ve got a backup charger. You don’t necessarily need to do this for 10Ks or half marathons, but if you’re going to be out for three or four hours, you need that backup fuel.
Then afterwards, let your body tell you what it wants. If you're craving something fatty, eat that. A lot of time I'm craving french fries or chips and guacamole after a race. Not only are they fatty but salty too. That’s because when you sweat, your metabolic systems are losing a lot of electrolytes, so you need to replace all of that sodium and magnesium.
Yassine Diboun: Your body is like a Ferrari. It needs to be taken care of if you want it to purr. You can’t skip oil changes or put cheap fuel in it. Eating a healthy diet, getting good sleep, drinking water, doing things like moving, strength training, cold plunging—all of these things add up to increased levels of strength, fitness, and health. Ultimately, that’s what aids your recovery in between runs so you can get out there and do it again tomorrow.