Knowing what to eat and drink during a 5k race can make a big difference in your performance as a beginner runner. Being properly fueled and hydrated will allow you to cross the finish line quickly and feel good on race day. While much of your preparation in terms of food and drink should be focused on your pre-race meals, knowing what to take in during the race is important.
Here’s a summary of what you’ll learn in this article:
- What to eat during a 5k race
- How many calories to consume during a 5k race
- How many calories your body burns during a 5k race
- What to drink during a 5k race
What to Eat During a 5k
A 5k is a relatively short race, usually between 20 and 40 minutes. Most runners will run a 5k at a high intensity and fast pace. For shorter, harder runs like this, your body mostly relies on two types of fuel: the glucose circulating in your bloodstream (blood sugar) and the glycogen stored in your muscles. The carbohydrates you eat are the source of both blood sugar and muscle glycogen.
Not everyone needs to eat during a 5k, but if you choose to do so, your food choices should meet the following criteria:
- Made entirely of simple sugars that can be absorbed quickly into the bloodstream to provide more energy
- A small amount, no more than 100 calories at a time
- Easy to consume while you are running fast and breathing hard
Fortunately for runners, an entire industry is devoted to making products that provide quick energy and can be easily consumed while on the run. Some excellent choices for fueling during a 5k include:
- Sports gels, like Maurten Energy gels
- Gummy chews designed for exercise, such as Clif Shot Bloks
- A sports drink with carbohydrates, like Skratch
When it comes to sports nutrition, like gels, chews, and drinks, many options are available with different flavors, textures, and combinations of ingredients. Before using sports nutrition in a race, it is best to practice using specific products in training runs to avoid any digestive surprises on race day.
Additionally, some 5k races will have an aid station that serves water, sports drinks, and possibly gels. To find out what, if any, products are available at your 5k, check the event website well in advance of the race. Practicing with the products served on the course will help you know if they work for you. If so, being able to pick up food at an aid station rather than carrying it yourself is very convenient.
How Many Calories Should You Take in During a 5k Run?
When taking food in during a 5k event, it is best to keep the quantities small, just enough to boost your blood sugar levels. Generally, you need at most 100 calories, which equals one energy gel, every half hour. If your 5k race takes 30 minutes or less, one gel (or the equivalent) should be enough.
While this may sound like a small amount, keep in mind that so long as you have plenty of carbs in the meals you eat before a 5k race, you’ll arrive at the start line with lots of glycogen already stored in your muscles, ready to be used as energy.
The body can store around 500 grams of glycogen in the muscles. That equates to about 2000 calories of energy used by the body for daily living and, in this case, to fuel you during your 5k race.
In other words, if you did a good job of fueling before your 5k race, you already have thousands of calories stored in your body, and the food you take in during the race is a bonus. Together, the glycogen stores and the sports nutrition you consume provide lots more calories for your body to use than you’ll ever burn in a 5k run.
This leads us to our next question:
How Many Calories Do You Burn in a 5k Race?
Although a 5k race is a hard, high-intensity effort, it’s completed fairly quickly, and the average runner will not burn as many calories as you may expect.
To find out how many calories you may use during a 5k, check out this calculator, which takes into account your weight and anticipated finish time to give an estimate of the energy used during a 5k race:
Using the above calculator and entering the stats for a few hypothetical runners, you’ll get the following results:
- An athlete weighing 135 pounds, or 61.2 kilograms, running the 5k in 21 minutes will burn approximately 284 calories.
- An athlete weighing 180 pounds, or 81.6 kilograms, running the 5k in 36 minutes will burn approximately 194 calories.
- An athlete weighing 200 pounds, or 90.7 kilograms, running the 5k in 30 minutes will burn approximately 360 calories.
From this, you can see that at a wide variety of sizes and paces, runners will need far fewer calories to complete a 5k race than are generally stored in the muscles. In other words, if you have your glycogen topped up from your carbohydrate-focused meals and snacks leading into a 5k, you’ll have plenty of energy on board to get through the race without eating much more, if anything.
What to Drink During a 5k
In addition to being well-fueled, your body needs hydration (from drinks) to perform at its best.
Studies have shown that athletic performance begins to decline as you lose more than 2% of your body weight through sweating. The best ways to avoid this decline in performance are to arrive at the race well-hydrated and, if necessary, drink water or a bit of sports drink during the race.
Many 5k races will have an aid station mid-way through the race with small paper cups of water available. Usually, a volunteer will hand the cups to runners to drink as they continue running. However, you may sometimes need to pick up the cup from a table. Drinking while running can be tricky, and it’s best to practice this once or twice in training leading up to the race. Many runners find it easier to take a short walk break or even carry a water bottle that is easier to drink from.
In addition to water, some 5k races will have sports drinks available. A sports drink can be a good option because it provides hydration and also contains carbs in a readily-usable form. In fact, studies show that simply swishing a sports drink in your mouth can create a performance boost!
How Much to Drink During a 5k
How much you should drink during a 5k race depends on a few factors, including:
- The weather conditions during the race
- Your sweat rate/how much you sweat
- The intensity or speed you're running
- How long the race will take you
- How hydrated you are at the start
While a runner’s sweat rate is individual to them and based in part on genetics, you will generally sweat more and need more hydration:
- The hotter/more humid the weather
- The harder you are running
- The longer you are out there.
That said, even in a very hot and humid 5k race, you shouldn’t need more than a few fluid ounces of water or sports drink. Most of the time, it is fine to skip drinking during a short race like a 5k altogether.
Remember, running performance only starts to decrease when a runner loses 2% or more of their body weight from dehydration. It’d be unusual for an athlete to sweat enough during a 5k, even in hot and humid conditions, to reach that 2% dehydration mark.
To show this, let’s look at an example athlete who:
- Weighs 175 pounds (or 79.4 kilograms)
- Sweats a lot, losing up to 2 liters (or 68 ounces) of sweat per hour in hot conditions when running at a 5k effort. That’s a high sweat rate.
- Runs a 5k in 30 minutes
- Starts the race well-hydrated
In a hot 5k race, our example athlete would lose 1 liter (or 34 ounces) of sweat during their 30-minute run, which equals 2.2 pounds, or 1 kilogram. Even with a high sweat rate, this athlete has lost only 1.3% of their body weight - not enough to see the negative effects of dehydration.
There are many things to consider when running a 5k, like pacing, running form, breathing, etc. But when it comes to creating a nutrition plan for the race, we are happy to let you know it’s fairly simple! As long as you reach the start line well-fueled and well-hydrated, you can rely on small amounts of sports nutrition products and sips of water or sports drink to help propel you to your best finish.
In this article, you learned:
- The types of fuel used by the body in a 5k race: blood sugar and muscle glycogen
- The products you can use during a 5k to give yourself a bit of quick energy
- The number of calories burned during a 5k race
- How much you should eat and drink during a 5k
- The benefits of taking small sips of sports drinks or food for a mental boost
As with anything in sports performance, practice makes perfect, so pick the products you may use during a 5k race and try them out during training. With a good plan for eating before and during the race, you can be confident that you’ll have plenty of energy to finish quickly!