What to eat before a 5K race, according to dietician and runner

Yyou have trained You have charged your AirPods. You have chosen your outfit for race day. Now, you’re counting down the minutes until you jog to the starting line. Unless you already have a dresser drawer full of running t-shirts, chances are you’re feeling a little nervous in the days leading up to a 5K. For many, questions about how to eat properly and avoid gastric upset linger, especially if your goal is to hit a specific race time goal.

Here to give you expert advice on what to eat before a 5K, what to avoid, and how to best prepare is a registered dietitian and cook, eat, run author Charlie Watson, R.D. Watson helps runners (of all levels) properly fuel their bodies during training and on race day. He reads on for his perspective.

What to eat before a 5K race (breakfast before the race and the night before)

While determining what to eat before a race is an individual process, there are a few rules of thumb for fueling properly.

1. Stick to foods you know your body digests well

Before getting into the details of what to eat, Watson wants to make something clear: Race day is not the time to experiment or drastically change your eating habits. “Make sure you practice to establish what works for you,” says Watson. “When it comes to refueling before the race, what works for one person may not work for another.” Think about his training: What did he eat before some of his best long runs? If a meal consistently made you feel good during your workout, chances are it will on race day, too.

2. Eat your pre-race meal at least one hour before it starts

According to Watson, when you eat matters, too. “The ideal is to eat an hour before [the race] begins, although some people [feel best] eat two to three hours before running,” he says. Most importantly, don’t eat immediately before running. “When we run, blood flow to the digestive system is reduced by up to 80 percent, which means if you eat much of what you eat won’t be digested while running and you may feel uncomfortable sitting on your stomach,” he says. It also means that the nutrients from the pre-race meal won’t be used for energy until much later due to digestion.

3. Make sure your pre-race meal has carbohydrates

When it comes to the important nutrients to include in your pre-5k meal, Watson says carbs are king. “You want to mix slow- and fast-release carbs for that pre-race energy boost that will sustain you through the three-plus miles,” she says. Slow-release carbs include lower glycemic index foods that are less processed and have more fiber (e.g., oatmeal, whole grains, sweet potatoes, that sort of thing), while quick-release carbs tend to have a higher glycemic index, such as fruits and juices, to give you immediate energy.

4. Keep it simple

While it’s important to consider the nutrient balance of your pre-race meal, the actual prep work shouldn’t be complicated. After all, most races are in the morning, so you won’t have much time to prepare an elaborate breakfast. Some of Watson’s favorite pre-race breakfasts to eat before a 5K include:

5. Get your carbs at dinner too

The night before a race is also a good time to give your body some carbohydrates that can be used for energy the next day. Sweet potatoes, brown rice, and chickpeas are examples of healthy carbohydrates that can be used to fuel your run. A couple of meal ideas from the Watson cookbook include sweet potato gnocchi, salmon and sweet potato fish cakes, and Balinese beet curry.

Watch the video below for more tips on what to eat for optimal energy:

Foods to avoid and other tips to consider before a 5K race

It’s important to know what not to eat or do before a 5K to keep up.

1. Avoid high-fat foods before a race

As for what No to eat before a race, fats are going to be less beneficial. “Fats stay in the stomach longer than any other macronutrient due to their complicated digestive process,” clinical nutritionist Nicole Lund, RDN, of the NYU Langone Sports Performance Center previously told Well+Good. That means you’ll want to stay away from foods like hamburgers or anything fried the night before. Lund also recommended avoiding foods with sorbitol (an artificial sweetener derived from fruit), which could irritate the digestive system.

2. Don’t forget to hydrate

When you prepare for a 5K, it’s not just about what you have on the plate; hydration matters too. “It’s important not to start the race dehydrated, as it’s very difficult to ‘catch up,'” says Watson. “Ideally, you want to meet your fluid requirements, usually between two and three liters, each day in the week leading up to the race so you don’t run out of water at the first aid station.” Watson adds that if you tend to sweat a lot, you may want to consider using electrolyte tablets the day before, the morning and the evening after a run as well.

3. Keep your coffee habits the same

If you’re wondering if your morning cup of coffee will help or hurt your run, Watson reiterates his advice to do what has worked for you in the past while training. “If coffee is part of your morning ritual, if you like the caffeine boost or if coffee helps get things moving before the race, then stick with it. But don’t start drinking it before the race if you don’t It’s something I’ve done before…trust me on that.”

4. Also plan your post-5K meal.

In addition to figuring out what to eat before a 5K, Watson says to also consider what you’ll eat when you’re done. (A good mental image for making those miles go by faster…) “After a run, you want a mix of carbs and protein, ideally in a 3:1 ratio,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be complicated. I tend to have an iced nonfat latte after a 5K. Otherwise, an egg scramble on toast or a smoothie can work too.”

With these tips in place, you’re sure to go into your 5K energized and ready to slay. Now that your mind is clear on what to eat, you can focus on other pressing matters: like what exactly it should be on your race day playlist.

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