Nutrition for Trail Runners

Fueling on the trail should feel like a reward, not a curse.


Trail running adventures are far less streamlined than running on the road, and as a result, it's easy to expand your food horizons. When your trail run involves rugged terrain, steep inclines & declines, and stunning views, you're bound to move a little slower. This slower pace coupled with more intermittent breaks gives you a chance to eat foods that would be difficult to chew and digest while running on the road.

With an extended "food leash" on the trail, you can dig into sports nutrition products and whole food snacks that are sustaining and tasty. In addition to sports nutrition products, elite trail runners tackling the most revered endurance races will eat simple whole food like pretzels, dried garbanzo beans, almonds, boiled potatoes, and the like. So, have some fun selecting fuel for your trail run and experiment to figure out what mix of products tastes good and keeps you energized.

While trail running, you can eat foods that would be difficult to chew and digest if you were running on the road.

Gelvio Sports Nutrition

Trail snacks that provide enough calories and the right mix of macronutrients can help you avoid bonking mid-run. Fueling while on the trail, not just before and after, is one of the best ways to keep some pep in your step. That said, if you do find yourself driving to a trailhead, try to consume some pre-run calories. And on the return trip, replenish during the golden hour – the first 60 minutes post-activity when your muscles absorb the most nutrients and glycogen.

When you run, your body consumes stored carbohydrates along with some fat. The ratio of burned carbohydrates to fat depends primarily on the intensity of your activity. Regardless, your body only stores a limited amount of carbohydrates and it typically runs out after 90 minutes of intense activity. So, replenishing your carbohydrates by the 90 minute mark is vital. If you don’t replenish your carbohydrates, your physical output (and mood) will greatly suffer.

Your stomach is a muscle that can be trained to digest food while running, just like you can train your body to run 26.2 miles.

When running, you burn calories faster than your body can consume them. On average, runners can digest 200-300 calories per hour. However, all the fun and sweat on the trail results in 600-1000 calories burned per hour. The exact amount will depend on pace, body mass, terrain, and much more. This discrepancy between calories burned and calories consumed is what makes you ravenously hungry after a day on the trail!

The goal is to give your body enough food so that it’s not starved of carbohydrates, while also not over consuming. If you try to eat the same amount of calories as you're burning, it'll be a bad day on the trail and you'll likely experience gastrointestinal issues. Some professional athletes have trained their bodies to ingest a high level of calories (400-500 calories/hour) during competition, and this additional fuel helps increase their effort level.

What to Eat During a Run

Less than one hour: for most runners, drinking water and not eating will be sufficient. If you have a balanced and healthy everyday diet, your body should have enough glycogen stored up. 

Longer than one hour: bring nutrition & hydration products to keep you energized. Snacks rich in carbohydrates, such as energy gels, energy chews, and waffles fit the bill.

  • Most runners target a carbohydrate intake of 30-60 grams per hour. Consuming more than 60 grams per hour will likely cause an upset stomach
  • Target consuming 200-300 calories per hour. And it's worth noting that 1 gram of carbohydrates equals 4 calories. Many sports nutrition products include 200-300 calories per packet, so planning and consuming is easy

Several hours: plan and fuel similar to a "longer than one hour" run, but try adding some variety. Mixing in protein and fats will help you feel satiated and will taste great – you earned some tasty fuel! Energy bars, nuts & seeds, nut butter, and beef jerky all provide a balance of protein and fat. Even a small amount of protein, say 15g per hour, will help aid in muscle recovery.

What to Eat the Night Before a Long Run

The night before a long run (1 hour plus), try eating a healthy meal that’s high in carbohydrates and low in fiber, fat, and protein. There's no need to deviate from your normal portion size – waking up full the next morning is not beneficial.

What to Eat Before a Long Run

The 2-3 hour window prior to your run is an opportune time to fuel up with a carbohydrate rich meal. You can include a small amount of protein on your plate, but tread lightly with protein, fat, and fiber during this meal. These macronutrients tend to leave you feeling full and in need of a bathroom come run time. Try to give yourself the full 3 hour window for digestion before running and target a meal that’s in the range of 400 to 600 calories. This would equate to a bagel + peanut butter, bowl of oatmeal, or bowl of granola and fruit.

Nutrition Tips

  • Drink your calories: if solid foods irritate your stomach while running, try consuming more calories from hydration mixes. Many hydration mixes will give you the electrolytes and carbohydrates you need. However, make sure that you're not over consuming by both eating and drinking calories, as this can cause serious stomach issues.
  • Set a timer: who hasn't zoned out on a long run and forgot to fuel up. As a reminder, try setting an alarm on your watch for every 20-30 minutes. This will be a friendly nudge to consume 80-100 calories.
  • Hydrate: drink water or an electrolyte drink mix to rehydrate. Your body is losing water + electrolytes from sweating and breathing.