To the uninitiated, training for a 5K means doing plenty of running ahead of the big day, staying limber, and getting a lot of sleep.
(Might I also recommend wearing a nice pair of affordable running sunglasses?)
To experienced, accomplished runners like you and me (okay fine, just you), training also involves another very important element: your diet.
What you eat before a 5K will determine how well you’re able to perform, but it’s also smart to think about what to eat after, too, as this will help your body recharge and set you up for future runs.
Spoiler alert: unfortunately, the answer is not, “whatever you want; you deserve it.”
Anyway, before we get to that, let’s begin with the foods you need to eat to properly fuel your body before a 5K.
Okay, this is a clickbait image. You definitely shouldn’t actually eat this before a 5K. I’m sorry.
All the Foods You Should Eat Before a 5K
Alright, so you have a 5K coming up, which means you have to think about the nutrition your body will require on the big day.
However, what you eat before a 5K has just as much to do with the kind of fuel it needs for regular training, too. Everyone hears about the pasta dinners the night before a big race (we’ll talk about that in a moment), but you can’t leave nutrition until the last day.
So, let’s start with what you have to eat during training for a 5K.
What to Eat When Training for a 5K Run
If you think eating right for a 5K means starving yourself like a monk, you’re wrong. You don’t have to go hungry and won’t need to force your way through nothing but bland meals.
Yes, you do need to prioritize nutrition, but you wouldn’t be running a 5K if health wasn’t some kind of priority, right?
Ready to meet your new menu?
Steve and Mary had a perfect relationship save for one very significant problem: neither could stand to watch the other drink water
Drink Plenty of Liquids (It Doesn’t Have to Be Water)
Hopefully, this doesn’t come as a surprise, but you need to get plenty of fluids when training for a 5K.
However, a lot of runners may be surprised to learn just how much water they should drink. Despite what all of us have heard since childhood, the answer might not be 8 glasses of 8 ounces of water. As it turns out, there’s no science to back up that popular recommendation.
It also looks as though the same can be said for drinking roughly twice that a day, which is what many runners insist on doing, especially when preparing to run a race.
Tim Rogers wrote a great article, How Much Water Do Runners Need?, on the topic, but here are the highlights if you’re getting ready to run a 5K soon:
“…consume 250 to 500ml of fluid 15 to 30 minutes before your running workout, depending on your tolerance of fluids, and the temperature and humidity…During running exercises, aim to drink 100 to 200ml every 15 minutes…When your running session is over, regardless of its length or intensity, drink at least 500 ml (3.5 fl oz) of fluid. After a tough session, you may want to rehydrate with a sports drink, or a carbohydrate-rich fluid such as orange juice or fruit flavored concentrate. If you exercise for an hour or more, aim for a litre and keep drinking regularly for the next few hours until your urine is the color of pale straw or lighter.”
This great article points out that you don’t actually have to drink water, either. Even coffee, which many runners avoid for fear that it will cause dehydration, is just fine. Its caffeine may be a diuretic, but it provides enough fluid to make up for that effect.
Don’t Go Crazy on Carbs
Running a 5K might be tough, but at least it gives you an excuse to empty out an Olive Garden, right?
It turns out that this is another sacred cow we have to slay.
Carb loading is on the menu (thank God) if you plan on doing 90 minutes or more of strenuous exercise, which disqualifies 5Ks (@#%&!) as most people can run them in between 30-40 minutes.
Chances are, you have enough fuel in your body to handle that amount of exercise, especially if you’ve been practicing with regular 5K runs and eat right before your race (which I’ll cover in a moment).
So, tempting though it may be, do not carb load before your 5K. Doing so will most likely leave you bloated, weak, and even nauseous. See Exhibit A if you’re still thinking about that mountain of mostaccioli.
Balance Your Macronutrients
What you should be eating is a good mix of micronutrients to support your body’s regular nutritional demands plus the new ones you’ll be placing on it by training for a 5K.
Here’s the breakdown I recommend:
- Carbohydrates – Okay, so you can’t go pile plates of pasta on your table, but you still need carbs. You just don’t need to increase them too much as you probably won’t be running much more than 20 miles a week during your training regimen. Keep your carbs to around 2.5 grams for each pound you weigh. Give preference to whole grains like brown rice and sweet potatoes.
- Fats – By now, it seems like most people understand that, no, fats aren’t bad for you, so long as you know what you’re doing. Nonetheless, if you need a reminder, here it is: you need to include plenty of healthy fats in your 5K diet. Otherwise, you’ll lack Omega 3s, which are vital for heart health. As far as running goes, healthy fats are great for reducing inflammation so you’re able to recover faster. You can get healthy fats from eggs, avocados, nuts, and salmon. Allow yourself to consume 20-30% of your overall calories from healthy fats.
- Protein – Make sure you’re building plenty of muscle throughout training by getting sufficient amounts of protein. For most people, 0.5 grams per pound of body weight should be enough, but there’s no real penalty for going over a bit. White meat, fish, and poultry are your best options.
As you can see, eating for a 5K doesn’t mean you need to starve or even suffer through bland options. There are all kinds of tasty meals you can make that will meet your macro needs.
Stock Up on Essential Nutrients
When choosing the meals you’ll eat prior to your 5K, try to make plenty of room for the following nutrients:
- Calcium – Getting plenty of calcium is important for supporting the health of your bones, of course, but this powerful mineral is also good for your muscles. It’s vital that you take care of both if you plan on doing a lot of running to train for your 5K. Milk is an obvious source, even if you prefer the almond variety. Otherwise, you can get it from yogurt and leafy greens.
- Iron – Assuming you’re training for your 5K by running on pavement, you’ll be placing a lot of demands on your joints. That repetitive impact may literally cause an iron deficiency, which is why I recommend you get plenty of this mineral in your diet. Meat is a great source for it but so are leafy greens, beans, and lentils.
- B Vitamins – Few things are better for your energy levels – and, thus, rigorous exercise – than B vitamins. At the same time, if you’re really pushing yourself, your body will quickly burn through its regular allotment of this essential nutrient, which is why runners should add extra B vitamins to their diet, especially in the form of riboflavin, thiamin, and vitamin B6. Meat and eggs are fantastic sources of B vitamins. Brown rice and other whole grains are, too. Legumes and dark, leafy vegetables also make the list.
While you should be able to get your nutritional needs met through diet, consider adding supplements just to be sure your body has everything it needs to run a 5K.
What to Eat the Day Before a 5K
Okay, you already know the bad news: no endless plates-of-pasta parties the night before your 5K.
But the good news is that you really don’t have to change up your diet too much. If your 5K diet has consisted of the macronutrient breakdown I listed above, then you can continue eating the same things the day before your race.
That being said, listen to your body.
If this is your first one, you should really decelerate your training the week of your 5K. This will ensure your body is well-rested when the big day arrives. At the same time, plenty of people feel comfortable keeping to their normal regimen as training for a 5K generally isn’t too strenuous even for newbies.
In any case, let your body guide you the day before your race. If you’re feeling a bit worn down, add a little extra brown rice or sweet potatoes to your meal. Make room for more vitamin B. It could just be that you simply need a little more water than usual.
Oh, and get plenty of sleep.
I know that’s not diet-related.
That’s not necessarily even 5K related.
Just a reminder.
What to Eat for Breakfast Before a 5K Run
Alright, it’s finally the big day of your 5K.
What’re you going to eat for breakfast?
Once again, I would say stick to what’s been working for you so far, but you’ll probably need to drop the portion size. I’d recommend between 200-300 calories for your pre-5K meal. This will still provide your body with sufficient fuel for the race, just without overdoing it to the point that it will become a problem during your race.
And look, if you just don’t feel like eating, either because you’re a bit nervous or your 5K is just that early in the morning, no worries. If you’ve been eating right leading up to the big day, your body is going to be just fine running a 5K on “empty.”
How Soon Before a 5K Can I Eat?
I wouldn’t recommend cutting it much closer than an hour or two beforehand. Some people are fine having a handful of nuts or some grapes 30 minutes before they start running, but I’d try that out first when you’re training. Don’t experiment on race day.
Of course, 5Ks aren’t exclusively scheduled for mornings. If yours is later in the day or even at night, eat your meals as you normally would, just stop within an hour or two and drop the calories of your final meal like I mentioned above.
What to Eat After a 5K
You did it!
You’ve officially completed a 5K!
You had a blast. It was actually a lot easier than you thought. Next month, you feel ready to take on a triathlon.
In the meantime, though, you need to restock your body with some powerful nutrients.
First and foremost, get some water to hydrate yourself. Drinking Gatorade and other sports drinks is a good idea, too, to replenish your electrolytes.
A lot of runners go through the rest of the day feeling tired after a 5K and chalk it up to the run, but the truth is often that they simply didn’t get enough fluids afterward. They may have gone out for a celebratory meal or adjourned to the nearby beer garden instead. While that may feel good, it didn’t actually restore their body with sufficient fluids (lite beer doesn’t count).
Before you indulge in anything else, drink enough water. If your urine is the color of apple juice, you’re dehydrated, so keep gulping down the good stuff until that changes to a lighter shade closer to pale straw.
If you do have an appetite after your run, consider some of these electrolyte-rich foods:
Once you’re feeling good and hydrated, go ahead and enjoy a meal using your normal macros. The foods that worked during your training for a 5K will work just as well after the real thing.
“Can I Have a Cheat Meal After My 5K?”
To put it simply, absolutely.
It’s your day. You can do whatever you want (well…there are still laws).
So, if you want to celebrate by indulging in that delicious meal you were avoiding during training or you’ve been dreaming of what it would feel like to crack a beer, go right ahead.
Of course, you might earn a nice runner's high, too.
If you plan on immediately training for another 5K or even a half-marathon, I’d counsel you to get right back to your diet, though. The longer you stray, the harder it will be to return to eating healthy foods.
Treat Your Diet as Part of Your Training
Realistically, running a 5K isn’t the hardest thing in the world.
It’s only a little over 3.1 miles.
Still, running a short distance can still be a huge accomplishment.
Training for it means treating your diet as a critical part of the process. As long as you follow the advice above and are disciplined with the rest of your training, you’ll have no problem making it across the finish line with a smile on your face.