While it’s important not to overemphasize the role eating can play in your training, making sure that you eat the right food before your first 5k could make all the difference in how strongly you finish.
Experts consider eating right as the last 10% of your training. It’s not going to turn you into an amazing runner if you haven’t been putting in the miles, but it will give a solid foundation of energy on race day to make the most of your training.
What to eat the week before the race?
Importance of staying hydrated
One of the best things you can do the week leading up to your race is to stay hydrated. Wait a second, you might be thinking. That’s not food! Obviously not, but making sure that you are consistently drinking water the days before your race will ensure that you’re hydrated the day of.
You do not want to down a ton of water right before the race. You’ll either need to use the bathroom, feel bloated, or both. Instead, sipping water the days before your 5k is the way to go.
If you aren’t one to drink water regularly, you can try what one of my friends recommended to me to make sure I was staying hydrated during the week. Figure out your body weight, divide by 2, and that’s the number of ounces of water you should drink in a day.
Then, figure out how you can get that into a manageable size. Let’s face it. By nature, human beings are lazy, so give yourself as few steps as possible. Maybe you need eight 8 ounce glasses to meet your quota. That’s too much to remember.
Instead, do what my friend recommended and condense that into 2 or 3 containers. I have two blender bottles that I fill up in the morning and drink by the end of the day. It’s manageable and easy, and I’ve stayed consistently hydrated since my friend’s recommendation.
What to eat the night before the race?
The night before is the time to focus on nutrition. You can’t train anymore in terms of running, but you can get your body ready with the food that you choose to eat. You might be especially tempted to opt for fast food or takeout, but don’t do it!
Your best option the night before will have dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, carbs, and a moderate amount of lean protein (chicken and fish are especially good choices).
Remember that the food you eat the night before your 5k is the food and energy stores that will be in your system during the race.
Do you need to carbo load?
The short answer is no. A 5k is not a long distance run like a half marathon or a full marathon. Endurance runners like those running these distances need a greater percentage of complex carbs stored up in order to finish the 5k strong.
With a shorter distance like a 5k, you don’t need those stores. Thus, experts like Jarrett Jarmar Moore, owner of APT Fitness in Wilmington, North Carolina, recommend a balanced meal that has a combination of protein, complex carbs, and fats.
If you’re not sure an example of a good fat, try avocados, nuts, or the omega-3 fats that you’ll find in fish, especially salmon. Runner’s World and Women’s Running have recipes already available to you so that you don’t have to figure out what to make!
What to eat the morning of the race?
Ideally, you’ll eat about 3-4 hours before the race to give your system more time to digest. However, even an hour or two before the race is plenty of time. Make sure that you’ve tried out what you plan to eat during your training to follow the old adage, “Nothing new on race day.”
Jarrett Jarmar Moore recommends eggs, a half-cup of oatmeal, half an apple, and a small handful of nuts. This is a balanced, nutrient-dense meal that is not too heavy.
If you’re more of a numbers person, aim for 200 to 300 calories with less than 10 grams of fiber and 5-10 grams of fat for your pre-race breakfast.
You’re trying to get the best of both worlds so that your breakfast is filling, giving you the fuel you need and avoiding cramping, but not too filling that you have stomach issues right before or during the race.
The closer you are to race time, the more you should opt for lower fiber and lower fat food options because you’ll be able to digest them faster.
If you still find yourself hungry closer to start time, try a small banana, a handful of animal crackers, or energy chews or bar. You’ll want something that is high in carbs and low in fat so it’s easy to digest.
It’s ok to drink coffee
If you always drink coffee every day, you may be wondering if you should have coffee the day of your race. In short, yes, you can if you need it, but try to drink it plenty in advance so that you’re not downing it right before the race.
But, on the other hand, if you haven’t been a coffee drinker, race day is not the day to start! You’ll want to give your body food and drinks that it has been used to. Nothing new. If it’s the caffeine you’re after, note that many energy gels contain caffeine, so a gel right before the race might do the trick. But if you haven’t been training with gels, I’ll say it one more time: nothing new on race day!
If you find yourself unable to sleep the night of race day, hopefully you ensured that you got plenty of sleep the week leading up to race day, and specifically two days before.
Allow time before the race to use the bathroom
This should go without saying, but make sure that you use the bathroom before starting your race. A 5k is certainly shorter than a marathon, but the last thing that you want is discovering mid-race that you really have to go.
Make sure that you have plenty of time to go however many times you need. You may get pre-race jitters and have to use the bathroom more than you normally would. Be prepared!
What to eat post-race?
It’s essential to refuel after your race because you’ve used up the energy stores. Don’t make the rookie mistake of not eating or eating really greasy and/or unhealthy food. Give your body the good food and hydration that it needs to recover immediately after the race.
Then, later in the day after your body is back to normal, go out and celebrate with your friends like you want to! Just make sure that you’ve replaced the energy stores and rehydrated as needed.
Hydrate with water
Even if you’ve used the hydration stops throughout the 5k, you still need to drink water. You’ll want to make sure that you’re hydrated to ensure that you don’t get lightheaded or pass out. You need to replace the fluids also to avoid muscle cramps.
It’s especially important to hydrate if you’ve been running in hot weather or in cold, dry air. You’ll want to do everything that you can to help your body recover after your race. And while you might really want to celebrate with booze, hold off until you’re rehydrated, and stick with a lower-alchohol option!
Celebrate with a small reward like bagel, fruit, or cookie/bar
Right after your 5k, don’t go crazy with the food! It’s okay to celebrate with a small reward to replace the calories that you lost. Options like oranges, bananas, or energy bars are all great choices.
You’ll want to choose foods that have a high glycemic index (which are all of what is listed above) so that they can quickly convert to energy and replace what you lost during the race. But don’t worry! Within a couple hours, your body will be back to normal, and you can eat foods that are high in protein like lean meats and eggs.
If you’re struggling with muscle soreness and inflammation (or want to prevent that!), choosing foods that are high in antioxidants like berries and cherries will help you feel more comfortable.