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What To Eat Before Running A 5k

Greenletes / Sports Nutrition / Best Foods / What To Eat Before Running A 5k

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 the 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.

What to eat before a training run

Before talking about race day, it’s smart to have an understanding of nutrition. After all, you will spend more time training than racing. These general nutrition guidelines will help you fuel your everyday training runs.

You may have heard that you need carbs before a workout. But you think to yourself, “If I eat too many carbs before my workout, won’t I just be eating back the calories I want to burn?”

Rest assured, eating carbs before a run isn’t bad for you. As a matter of fact, carbohydrates provide energy for exercise. Your body converts the carbs you eat into glucose, which is stored as glycogen in your muscles. When you engage in exercise, your muscles use this glycogen as the primary fuel source.

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. 

Fat is also used as a source of fuel, especially at lower intensities, and protein is important for muscle growth and recovery.

That said, having the right sources of carbs at the right time is key to using this food as fuel, rather than storing it as fat. In simple terms, what you eat comes down to 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:

Download the 100 BEST Vegetarian & Vegan Foods For Runners.

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. Or an apple or banana with peanut butter on whole wheat toast.

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 Runners.

What to eat the night before a 5k

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.

One of my favorite pre-race dinner ingredients is sweet potatoes. They are a starchy carb that has plenty of nutrients, like Vitamin A and fiber. It’s easy to cook one up in the microwave and top it with some cinnamon or make it a loaded potato with a plant-based protein (like beans, tofu or tempeh), cheese and salsa. I also love roasted sweet potatoes in the oven.

For some sweet potato inspiration, check out these recipes:

If sweet potatoes aren’t your favorite, here are some other 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 a 5k

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. Oatmeal is one of my favorite pre-5k breakfasts.

Oatmeal is a carb-rich food that provides long-lasting energy. Just 1 cup of oats contains approximately 32 grams of carbs. Since it’s a whole grain, it takes a while to digest and will fuel you for at least an hour of exercise.

Pair oatmeal with fruit, like 1 medium-sized banana, which has 27 grams of carbs. Top it with any kind of milk and nuts butter–both have a mixture of protein and fat to help keep you full throughout a workout and repair muscles.

Hot oatmeal is a great pre-workout breakfast in the winter, while overnight oats are fantastic for warmer weather. If you’re looking for oatmeal inspiration, check out the recipes below.

If you’re not an oatmeal fan, here are a few other pre-5k breakfast choices. Choose carbs with less fiber but still some protein.  

Pre-race snack

If you only have an hour or even 30 minutes before a workout to put some “gas in the tank”, reach for an easy to digest carb-rich snack. Try to avoid anything that has too much fiber, since that takes a while to digest. Here are some quick pre-workout options:

Fruit is mostly carbs, which means it quickly delivers much needed sugar to the bloodstream. Basically, any piece of fruit will help give you energy before a workout, and many athletes opt for bananas, berries or apples.

Many people don’t realize this, but dried dates are full of natural sugar and provide quick-acting fuel for a workout. Eating just 2-3 dates will give you enough energy for a workout lasting less than 60 minutes.

If you like making your snacks or are looking for an easy grab-and-go option, I’ve got you covered. Here are some lists of healthy snacks you can buy and make to help you fuel in a hurry.

How to hydrate for a 5k

First, try to stay as hydrated as possible during the days leading up to the race. There are three simple ways to determine if you’re adequately hydrated:  

  1. 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. 
  2. “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.
  3. 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.

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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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