Whether you’re a new runner or a seasoned runner trying to PR, choosing the right foods the night before and morning of a 5k can make or break your performance.
The 5k is an exciting experience for many new runners. It’s also a chance for seasoned runners to show off their speed and try to hit a new PR. Whatever your goal is for a 5k, it’s important to follow proper nutrition protocols the night before and morning of the race.
Fueling for a 5k starts the night before the race and continues up until you cross the finish line. Let’s dive into the nitty gritty of what to eat before a 5k.
How to fuel for the race
Before talking about race day, it’s smart to have an understanding of nutrition as it pertains to training. After all, you will spend more time training than racing. These general nutrition guidelines will help you fuel for your everyday training runs.
Running burns about 80- 100 calories per mile, and carbohydrates are the muscles’ main fuel source for all those miles. That being said, all runners need a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat in their overall diet to feel satisfied, build muscle, and fuel for both shorter and longer runs.
Carbs are the main fuel source for exercise. Foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes and dairy are rich in carbs.
Fat is also used as a source of fuel, especially at lower intensities, and protein is important for muscle growth and recovery.
Download the 100 BEST Vegetarian & Vegan Foods For Runners.
You’re probably thinking, “That’s great, but how much carbs, protein and fat do I need and when?”
Remember this–what you eat depends on when you eat. In other words, the foods that you choose for your training depend on how soon before a run you eat. Here are some guidelines:
2-4 hours before a run
Eat a balanced meal with complex carbohydrates, protein, and some healthy fats. This nutrient mix takes a long time to digest, so you will feel full but not weighed down.
Follow this rule when you run later in the day. For example, a well-balanced sandwich with whole grain bread, protein and veggies, like this Chickpea Salad Sandwich, will provide fuel for an evening run.
I’ll provide more meal examples in the next section.
1-2 hours before a run
Eat a smaller meal or snack, made up of carbs and a little bit of protein. A snack that has some carbs and protein will work best 1-2 hours before a run.
For example, crackers with nut butter or a carb-heavy bar, like CLIF or RX bar. I’ll provide more suggestions in the section on what to eat the morning of the race.
30-60 minutes before a run
Eat a snack that is mostly carbs. If you eat this close to a run, choose something light and easy to digest. For example, a piece of fruit provides quick acting energy and will not cause stomach discomfort during your activity.
To learn more about pre-run fueling and nutrition for runners, check out The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide For Every Runner.
What to eat the night before
You do NOT need to carb load for a 5k. [Learn more about carb loading and when it’s appropriate here: How To Carb Load For A Race]. The most important thing to remember the night before a race is to eat a well balanced dinner with carbs, protein and healthy fats.
Your plate should be about 50% carbs, 25% protein and 25% fats. Make sure you choose foods that are familiar to you, and avoid foods that you know will give you stomach distress. For plant-based eaters, that might mean avoiding beans, cruciferous veggies or certain sauces.
Here are some vegetarian and vegan dinner examples:
- Stir-fry with brown rice, veggies, tofu and sesame oil
- Whole wheat pasta with zucchini noodles– keep the sauce light and opt for olive oil, rather than marinara
- Sweet potato & kale quesadilla with a side of guacamole
- A grain bowl with veggies and sauce, such as this Greek Lentil Power Bowl
- Whole wheat pita bread stuffed with greens, hummus and chickpeas with a side of grapes
Any well-balanced dinner with healthy foods is usually a good choice. But there are a few things you definitely do NOT want to eat the night before a 5k, such as:
- heavy fried food
- anything with caffeine, such as chocolate, tea or coffee (it can interfere with your sleep)
- spicy foods (these can cause indigestion the next morning)
- foods that make you bloated
What to eat the morning of
The morning of your race, you will likely eat 1-2 hours before the start time. Choose a breakfast that is mostly carbs with a little bit of protein. Here are some examples:
Choose carbs with less fiber but still some protein.
- Toast with banana and nut butter
- Fruit smoothie with yogurt or protein powder
- Snack plate with apple, almonds and hard boiled eggs
- Yogurt with granola
- 1/2 bagel with peanut butter and jam [try this 3-Ingredient Blueberry Chia Jam]
- 2 Banana Chia Walnut Oat Cups
- Strawberries & Cream Chia Seed Pudding with a piece of toast
If, for whatever reason, you find yourself eating within 30-minutes before the race, opt for quick-acting carbs without much fiber, such as:
- Dry cereal
- Dried Fruit
How to hydrate
First, try to stay as hydrated as possible the days leading up to the race. There are three simple ways to determine if you’re adequately hydrated:
- Assess your urine. If you’re properly hydrated, your urine will be the the color of straw with normal output levels. If your urine is darkly colored and very low in volume, that means you need to drink more. Aim for somewhere between the straw-to-light straw color.
- “Skin Tenting”. Tenting is a term that refers to pinching your skin (usually the arm), raising it a bit, and observing whether or not it falls back into normal position. If so, you’re properly hydrated. If not, or if the skin “tents” (it stays risen when pinched), you’re likely dehydrated and need to drink up.
- Evaluate how you feel. Do you feel nauseated? Are you still sweating? Is your mind a bit foggy? Do you feel dizzy or lightheaded? If you’re able to check the “yes” box for each of these questions, then you’re probably dehydrated.
On the morning of the race, drink at least 1 full glass of water. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) both recommend drinking 2-3 milliliters (ml) per pound (lb) of body weight in the 2-4 hours before exercise. This means a 150-pound athlete should drink 300-450 ml, or roughly 10-16 ounces of fluid, each hour in the hours leading up to a run.