Trail running can be a damn sight more stimulating than road running – but all those climbs, tree roots, and mud can lead to some pretty hefty runs. Ella’s put her Medical Science degree to good use to breakdown exactly what you should be eating before, during, and after your trail runs.


Trail running’s a pretty exhilarating sport full of unique challenges thanks to the varying terrain and weather conditions. To perform at your best, it’s important to fuel your body with the proper nutrients.

In this article I’ll cover the basics of nutrition in the context of trail running, what to eat before, during, and after your trail run, and some fads, trends and tips to finish.


Salomon S/LAB Ultra // Gear Review, photo by Jonathon Tan trail running month,

Get ready to up your running game! | @thetantrap

What is nutrition?

‘Nutrition’ has become a buzzword in the food industry, to the point where it’s almost lost its meaning. Very plainly and simply, nutrition is the taking in and use of nourishing material (foods) by the body.

It’s vital for every stage of life and when it gets imbalanced, diet-related non-communicable diseases (such as cardiovascular diseases) can pop up.

Within sports like trail running, nutrition plays a critical role in maintaining performance, ensuring adequate recovery, and preventing injuries. Nutrients can be generally thought of as micronutrients and macronutrients.

Micronutrients are essential for the human body in small quantities for proper metabolic, immune, and hormonal processes, and general overall physiological function. We need them to ensure all our specific systems keep running smoothly.

Examples include vitamins (e.g. Vitamin C), minerals (e.g. Zinc, Calcium and Magnesium), and trace elements (e.g. Copper, Iodine, and many more).

Macronutrients (or ‘macros’) consist of carbohydrates, protein, and fats. These macronutrients exist in large ‘chains’ in our food that are broken down into smaller bits to create energy.

Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for endurance exercise, while protein is essential for muscle repair and recovery. Fats also provide a slow-burning fuel that provides energy and helps maintain hormone balance.



You’ve probably heard trail runners raving about carbs. Carbohydrates are made of one or more sugar molecules, and these sugar molecules can be classified into three main types: monosaccharides (‘one sugar’), disaccharides (‘two sugars’), and polysaccharides (‘many sugars).

Monosaccharides are the simplest form of carbohydrates and cannot be broken down any smaller. They’re absorbed into cells in this form and create energy quicker than disaccharides or polysaccharides.

Energy gels are usually made up of these simple carbohydrates to ensure quick and easy carbohydrate digestion, which is why they’re used during running, cycling, or any endurance activity that requires sustained energy.

During our day-to-day life we consume these carbohydrates in fruits, some veggies and dairy.

The more ‘complex’ carbohydrates, polysaccharides, take longer to digest and provide a slower, more sustained release of energy, and are found in foods such as grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables. When we eat non-simple carbohydrates such as disaccharides and polysaccharides, enzymes in our digestive system break them down into their individual sugar molecules, monosaccharides.

It’s important to eat a range of these carbohydrates to ensure you’re being provided a sustained energy source, a source of fibre for gut health, and a range of other important nutrients that support optimal health and performance. I’ll explain when to eat them in the next section.



Protein plays a variety of important roles in endurance exercise including muscle building and maintenance, repair, and recovery, as well as energy production. Endurance exercise can cause muscle damage and muscle breakdown, and protein is needed to repair, rebuild, and maintain muscle tissue. Trail running can be particularly brutal with all of the climbing, descending, and a heavy backpack.

While carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for endurance exercise, protein can also be used for energy production during prolonged exercise, like an ultramarathon. This occurs when your carbohydrate stores become depleted and the body starts to break down protein for energy. This can lead to improper muscle recovery or repair though, so you don’t want to do it often!

Proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids and these amino acid chains fold in precise ways to form a functional protein. Proteins can be composed of tens of thousands of amino acids.

When we eat protein it breaks down into its individual amino acids. These amino acids are then absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to various tissues throughout the body where they can be used for a variety of functions such as muscle building and maintenance, repair and recovery, as well as energy production, as previously described.



Fat consumption is actually vital to provide the body with a slow-burning source of energy, which can be great for long days on the trails. It also regulates a variety of physiological processes in the body, such as hormone production.

Maintaining a diet that is high in healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds, and fatty fish, can be beneficial for endurance sports, as well as maintaining an overall healthy, balanced body.




More broadly fat also plays vital roles in maintaining cell structure and function, adequate hormone production and absorption of certain vitamins.

Basic Nutrition Tips for Before, During, and After a Trail Run

Before (Preparation)

Before you hit the trails, it’s important to fuel up with the right food. Complex carbohydrates should make up the bulk of your pre-run meal, as they provide the main source of energy you need for endurance exercise. Opt for meals like pastas, whole grain toast and oats, fruits, and vegetables.

Avoid high-fat and high-protein meals, as these can slow down digestion and make you feel sluggish. Eat your last meal at least 2-3 hours before a bigger trail run to allow for proper digestion.

It’s always better to run fuelled up. If you’re running early in the morning, you might want to try some simple, easy-to-digest carbs, like banana and honey on some toast.



During longer trail runs, you’ll need to replenish your energy stores with quick and easy-to-digest foods. Energy gels, chews, and sports drinks are popular choices for their convenience and quick absorption. If you prefer more natural options, fruits, trail mix, and granola bars can also provide a quick energy boost.

I like to go for something with nuts and sugar, like these muesli, or oat bars. They’ve mostly got carbohydrates in them, but also have a bit of protein and fat to sustain you.


Ticking boxes


Make sure you drink enough water and other fluids throughout the day to ensure you are well-hydrated. You may also want to bring sports drinks or other electrolyte-rich fluids to help replenish any lost electrolytes during training.

Electrolytes are not considered ‘nutrients’ but they are essential in endurance sports, such as trail running, as they help to regulate many bodily functions such as fluid balance, nerve and muscle function, and pH balance. Look for options focused on replacing lost salts, many of the big name brands are very sugary and not that great for running.

You can also opt to make your own electrolyte drink. I make mine with lime/lemon, honey/maple syrup, salt, and coconut water. I recommend you base it off a recipe and try your DIY electrolyte drink on more chill runs and see if it works fine for you.


After (Recovery)

After a challenging trail run, your body needs time to recover and repair. Eating a meal high in complex carbohydrates and good proteins will let your body replenish carbohydrate stores and help with muscle maintenance, growth, and repair. Ensuring you’re fuelling your body appropriately after a run means you can hit the trails again sooner!

Whether these nutrition requirements differ depends on the distance you’re running, the general rule of thumb is that the longer the distance, the more fuel you’ll need to consume. You might have to break this into a few smaller meals if you’ve done a really big trail run or race!

Trail Running Nutrition Fads, Trends and Tips To Be Aware Of

There are plenty of nutrition fads floating around in the running and trail running scene. It’s important to focus on eating whole, nutrient-dense foods, and enough of them, rather than getting caught up in trendy diets or supplements. Here are some common fads, trends and tips.


Fasted Cardio

Fasted cardio is a form of exercise that involves performing cardiovascular activity (definitely trail running) in a fasted state, usually in the morning before eating breakfast. The idea behind fasted cardio is that when you exercise in a fasted state, your body is forced to use stored fat for energy instead of glucose from food, which can help promote weight loss for certain situations.

While fasted cardio may help with weight loss, it may not be suitable for everyone and may have potential risks. Here are some things to consider:

  • Muscle loss: your body may break down muscle tissue for energy, which can lead to muscle loss over time
  • Performance: fasted cardio may not be suitable for high-intensity workouts or endurance activities that require a lot of energy. Your performance may suffer if you don’t have enough fuel in your system, leading to shorter or harder runs
  • Low blood sugar: if you have diabetes or other health conditions that affect blood sugar regulation, fasted cardio may not be safe for you as it can cause low blood sugar levels
  • Stress on the body: Fasted cardio can place stress on the body and may not be suitable for individuals who are already under stress or have other health conditions


The Beauty Of An Early Morning Run, Michelle Linnane, trail running month, victoria, vibe, sunrise

Sunrise steps anyone? | Photo by Michelle Linnane



Carb-loading is a technique that involves increasing your carbohydrate intake in the days leading up to an endurance event to maximise your glycogen stores, which can be used as a source of energy during the running event.

While carb-loading can be beneficial for some athletes, it’s not necessary or appropriate for everyone and many people overdo it. For longer events, such as ultramarathons, carb-loading may be helpful to ensure that you have adequate energy stores to complete the event, as glycogen stores will support the other food you eat.

If you do decide to carb-load before a trail running event, it’s important to do it correctly. Carb-loading should be done gradually over several days leading up to the event, rather than in one large meal the night before. It’s also best to choose options with less fibre if you’re having more carbs than usual.

Ultimately, whether or not you should carb-load before a trail running event depends on the length and intensity of the event, as well as your individual needs and preferences. It’s always a good idea to consult with a sports nutritionist or a healthcare professional to determine the best nutrition plan for your specific needs.



While protein is important for muscle recovery and repair, consuming excessive amounts before an endurance event can lead to digestive issues and may not actually improve performance. Instead, it’s important to consume a well-balanced meal that includes complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats a few hours before the event to ensure you have adequate energy stores.


Pro Tip: Adding, Not Subtracting

Rather than thinking about what to subtract from your diet, focus on what to add. This can include adding more sources of protein and healthy fats to your meals to ensure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs. It’s all about consistency, fuelling and recovering from your trail runs properly will allow you to keep going, week after week.


Patagonia Women’s Trail Running Range // Gear Review, Amy Beggs-French, runner, bush

There are worse places to pound the pavement! |

Hungry yet?

Proper nutrition is so important for both endurance athletes and everyday trail runners. By focusing on a well-balanced, nutrient-dense wholefood diet that includes carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats, you can optimise their energy levels and support your overall health and well-being (read: run trails more often).

If you still have questions, or things don’t feel right, chatting with a sports nutritionist can help you develop a nutrition plan that’s appropriate for you.

My big tip? It’s important not to overthink your nutrition strategy. Focus on doing the simple things well, rather than getting sucked in by fads, supplements and hacks. Remember, trail running is meant to be fun, it’s about connecting with nature and your surroundings. So have a snack and get out there!


Sore Knees & Snickers Bars: Trail Running the Via Valais, Milly young, snickers bar, runners snack

Snickers ticks all the boxes, right? | @mil_young


Feature photo by @mattwisemanmedia