When it comes to preparing for a 5K… it’s only natural for most people to think about the physical training aspects.
The run schedule. The cross training. The rest days.
But what many novice runners often overlook is what to eat before running a 5K.
A proper run diet can be just as critical to effective training than the physical stuff. In fact, they go hand in hand.
If you don’t fuel your body properly for exercise, it won’t be effective. It will tire out and likely fail you.
Similarly, if you don’t give your body the nutrients it needs to repair itself after a run, you are doing yourself a disservice… not to mention risking muscle injury.
In this article, I will give examples of what to eat before running a 5K… broken down into categories:
- The Night Before the Race
- The Morning Of the Race
- One Hour Before the Race
On your mark, get set, go!
Training Diet: What to Eat Before Running a 5K
When you’re training, it’s important to fuel your body to avoid injury… as well as increase stamina and endurance.
However, the 5K training diet won’t differ all that much from a non-runner following a well-balanced diet. That is, one that includes a healthy balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat.
Too little or too much of any of these will likely slow you down.
While many runners think that “carb loading” is necessary prior to a race… that is simply not true when it comes to a 5K.
Unless you are running more than 20 miles per week in training, upping the carbs isn’t going to help you. In fact, it may hurt you.
As a general rule of thumb, 5K runners should keep the carbs at about 2.5 grams per pound of their body weight daily. This means if you weigh 140 pounds, you’ll aim for about 180 grams of carbs per day. Healthy choices include:
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Winter squash
- Feasting on lean proteins is essential to tissue health. It’s especially valuable in helping you build and repair muscle, which you’re doing a lot of while training. The average person training for a 5K does fine with about 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight, so that 140-pound person benefits from 70 grams per day. Proteins such as:
- White-meat poultry (chicken, pork)
- Trimmed steak (filet, sirloin)
Fat is an ugly word in most of our minds, but consuming a healthy amount of unsaturated fats can assist with vitamin absorption. And, fats like Omega 3, reduce inflammation to help you recover from your runs properly. Between 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from healthy fat, according to the Institute of Medicine. Things like:
- Olive Oil
Typically speaking, if you eat a variety of unprocessed and healthy foods daily, your body will get a good variety of vitamins and minerals it craves to support an effective 5K training plan.
Still, there may be times when supplements are necessary, especially for women.
- Vitamin B
If you are uncertain of what your body needs, it’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor… possibly even get a blood test if you’re feeling less than your best.
‘Twas the Night Before Race Day: What to Eat Before Running a 5K
Throughout my research for this article, I found one thing most experts agreed upon… that what you choose to eat for dinner the night before a race matters as much as, if not more so than, what you have for breakfast the next day.
Think about it.
Complete digestion of food typically takes 6-8 hours.
So storing up on healthy carbs the night before is ideal for proper digestion and fueling the next morning.
That being said, serious “carb loading” is less necessary when the race distance is shorter (as in a 10k or less).
But some carbs are a good idea.
In fact, if you eat a relatively balanced runner’s diet – with about 50 to 60 percent of your calories coming from carbs – you’ll likely have enough energy remaining to fuel these distances.
Races taking longer than 3 hours are the ones that typically require the extra bowl of pasta and bread.
For our purposes, a 5K dinner should consist of filling up half your plate with grains, one-quarter with veggies, and the rest with lean protein.
Your plate may look like this, for instance:
- Green Beans
- Boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Many of us have a tendency to forget that most veggies are still a source of carbohydrates… so for the 5K, you may want to replace these for extra rice or potatoes.
Other more creative “night before” food choices include:
- A turkey or salmon burger on a bun with green beans and a white potato
- A palm-sized portion of grilled fish or chicken—which tend to digest easier than steak or pork—with rice, zucchini, and a sweet potato
- A turkey sandwich or sub on a white roll with veggies like cucumbers, tomatoes, and avocado
- Sushi rolls with white rice, lean fish, avocado, and plain veggies like cucumbers (steer clear of higher-fat fillings like cream cheese and tempura)
- Homemade stir-fry with lean chicken, fish, or tofu and veggies, over white rice. Go light on the oil and avoid cabbage-based veggies like broccoli and bok choy
- Pizza can work, if you go light on the cheese and skip greasy sausage or pepperoni. A Margherita pie with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil is best
- Pancakes with a side of egg whites
Oh, and whatever you choose… choose to eat it early!
You’d rather go to bed feeling content and waking up hungry, than feeling full and bloated the next day. Give your body the time it needs to properly digest the food you are consuming.
Which brings us to the “morning of” meal.
Race Day Morning: What to Eat Before Running a 5K
Consuming a light, 200-300 calorie, meal the morning of your race is the way to go.
Feeling too full will only slow you down… and feeling not full enough may do just the same. So finding the pre-race calorie balance is key.
This is when you want to indulge in whole, unprocessed carbs… while being careful to limit the fiber and fat content (less than 10 grams per serving each) – both of which can take a long time to digest.
Some yummy (and effective) suggestions include:
- Bagel and an apple, with an 8-oz sports drink
- English muffin, topped with two tablespoons of jam and a piece of fruit
- Bowl of oatmeal, topped with fruit and brown sugar
- Sports Bar
- Multigrain toast with peanut butter
- 1 cup low fiber cereal with skim milk
- 1 cup berries and low fat cottage cheese
- Graham crackers with honey
- Low fat yogurt with fresh fruit
A 5K shouldn’t take you more than 40 minutes, even if you’re a novice… so these foods are more than adequate to get the job done when it comes to seeing you through.
And be sure not to forget the fluids.
Drink at least 18 oz. of fluids 2-3 hours prior or race time, and another 10 oz. 20 minutes before the race starts.
If your race is a bit later in the day, then there are a few more suggestions to indulge upon as it draws closer to race time.
Tick Tock… Tick Tock… One Hour or Less to Go: What to Eat Before Running a 5K
Not all races start at 6 or 7am.
In fact, some races like to torture its runners at high noon.
And some like to throw in a little dusk effect, with races starting at 6 or 7pm.
Regardless of which fits your situation, the food you choose to consume one hour before the race can make a huge difference when it comes to performance.
The first rule is to avoid high-fat and high-protein items at this point, since they take the longest to digest. So, instead try these:
- 1 cup of pasta tossed with marinara sauce, plus a cup of skim milk.
- Turkey sandwich (hold the mayo) on whole wheat bread, with a side of pretzels and a bottle of water.
- Small banana and a handful of sweet crackers
- A handful of figs, raisins or dates
- Applesauce with cinnamon
- Rice cakes with nut butter
- Apple & Carrot “Superhero” Muffins
Nerves may play a role in your morning as well.
Should you find that to be the case, it’s perfectly ok to skip this meal and just hydrate yourself.
In fact, some runners find a cup of coffee to be helpful.
Hey, as long as it’s not a problematic diuretic for you… have at it!
Final Thoughts on What to Eat Before Running a 5K
You worked really hard to get to this moment.
Whether it’s your first 5K race, or your fifteenth, it means something to you.
You put in the time and effort.
You followed a training plan.
You watched what you consumed.
In fact, you are actually excited for race day!
So don’t blow it with bad food choices, especially the week before the race.
Here are a few key tips to remember:
- Don’t try anything new race week. Leave the experimenting for scientists!
- Avoid eating until you’re stuffed. You don’t want to arrive at the starting line still feeling full.
- Avoid gassy and high fiber foods the night before and on race day.
- Save the super duper carb loading for longer races (half marathon or more).
- Eat dinner at least 12 hours before the race.
- Don’t force yourself to snack just before lining up.
- Stay hydrated. Water works just fine!
If you follow these simple guidelines, you are sure to give your body the nutritional boost it needs to crush it on race day!
Nicole Krause has been writing both personally and professionally for over 25 years. Her work has appeared in some of the country’s top publications, major news outlets, online publications and blogs.
She is an avid runner and incorporates walking, hiking, golfing and kickboxing into her weekly workout routine to keep things fresh and maximize calorie burn. She lives in the beautiful Sourland Mountain area of New Jersey, which offers many challenging and scenic trails.