To run your best 5k, it's important to use the days and hours before the race to fuel and hydrate well. Knowing what to eat before running a 5k will allow you to arrive at the race with your body energized, hydrated, and ready to run fast.
In this article, you will learn:
- What to eat the night before a 5k race
- What to eat for breakfast before a 5k
- Some sample meals that are good to eat before a 5k
- What to eat before a 5k race in the afternoon
- What to eat immediately before a 5k running race
- What to drink before a 5k race
What to Eat the Day Before a 5k Race
The dinner you eat the night before a 5k race can greatly affect how you feel while running and how you perform. Generally, you will want to eat a pre-race dinner with these components:
- Carb Loading: Center your meal around carbohydrates (but don't overdo it!)
- Large: This dinner should be a bit larger than usual (but not huge)
- Familiar: It should contain foods that you know agree with your stomach so you don't experience problems due to poor digestion
Carbohydrates are the most important pre-race macronutrient because the body stores carbs in the muscles as glycogen, an easily accessible energy source. When you're running a 5k, a rather intense effort, your primary fuel sources are glycogen and the carbohydrates in your bloodstream (blood glucose).
Therefore, to maximize your speed, you want to arrive on the start line with your glycogen stores topped up and ready to provide energy to get you to the finish line. However, many movies, TV shows, and stories of athletes' habits decades ago might make you think you must "carbo-load" with mountain-sized spaghetti plates. This is not the case!
For most runners, a 5k run will take between 20 and 40 minutes. That's not enough time to significantly deplete your glycogen stores. A slightly larger-than-normal meal with a bit more focus on complex carbohydrates than usual is sufficient. Taking in huge amounts of food and carbs may leave you feeling bloated or cause gut discomfort, which is definitely not compatible with having your best performance.
Proteins & Fats
Of course, protein and healthy fats are also important macronutrients for day-to-day performance and general health. But as primary fuel sources in a shorter, more intense race like a 5k, they're not as important as carbohydrates. You can certainly include a little bit of protein and fats in your pre-race meal, but overall, carbs are king.
The night before a race is not the time to experiment with food; avoid anything new or that you already know gives you trouble. You'll likely have some nerves (especially if it's your first 5k), which can make the effect of foods may react badly to, even worse.
Generally, it's best to keep your pre-race meal simple and familiar. For example, Thai noodles may have plenty of carbs, but if Thai food is not something you frequently eat, you may find that the spices and sauces don't agree with you and have you rushing for the portable toilets during your race.
Similarly, if dairy products occasionally cause bloating or upset stomach, avoid cheese and cheese-based sauces. Same with FODMAPs, or certain forms of carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that cause gut issues for some athletes.
With all that in mind, here are a few sample balanced meals that would be good for the night before a 5k:
- Pasta and meatballs with a basic marinara sauce
- Grilled chicken and rice
- Pizza, if it's something you eat regularly
- Steak or salmon and a big baked potato
- A lean burger with a large side of sweet potato fries
The goal is not to go to bed stuffed but rather satisfied, with a stomach that is not churning but instead feeling a light case of excited butterflies.
What to Eat for Breakfast Before a 5k Race
Fast forward several hours, and it's now race morning and time for another meal. By the time you wake up the morning of the race, your dinner will be mostly digested, and your muscle cells will still be storing plenty of glycogen. The pre-race breakfast's goal is to top up those glycogen stores and blood glucose so that you have readily-available energy in the race.
Compared to your pre-race dinner, your breakfast should be even more focused on carbohydrates and a bit smaller. Some good examples of easy to digest pre-race breakfasts are:
- A bagel
- A banana with a bit of nut butter
- A bowl of oatmeal or cereal
- A couple of pieces of toast with honey
When to Eat Breakfast Before a 5k
When you eat is as important as what you eat. We suggest consuming your breakfast three to four hours before your race. This time will give the food time to clear your digestive system before the race begins.
Yes, this may make for an early morning wake-up (for example if your start time is 8am, that means you'll have to get up at 4 or 5am to eat and hydrate), but you can always wake up, eat breakfast, and then go back to bed for a bit. Just remember to set an alarm so you don't sleep through your race!
What to Eat Immediately Before a 5k
In addition to the carbohydrate-heavy meals described so far, you should have one last bit of carbohydrate shortly before your 5k race starts. The purpose of this snack is to ensure that there is plenty of glucose in your bloodstream, which will fuel your body for your running effort.
We suggest consuming about 20 to 25 grams of carbohydrates in an easily digestible form, like liquids or semi-liquids, about 20 to 30 minutes before the race starts. The best approach is to take in a serving of the sports nutrition that you've practiced with. Good choices include:
- One energy gel
- Half a bottle of a higher-carbohydrate sports drink
- A serving of chews, like Clif Shot Bloks
What to Drink the Day Before a 5k
Almost equally important as the food you eat before a 5k is the fluid you drink. Your body needs energy sources (from food) and hydration (from drinks) to perform at its best.
The importance of proper hydration can't be understated. Studies have shown that athletic performance suffers from dehydration, and performance begins to decline as you lose more than 2% of your body weight through sweating. A few things start to happen with dehydration, none of which are good for your 5k time:
- Your blood volume decreases, making it harder for your heart to pump blood efficiently to the working muscles, like your legs
- Your core temperature starts to rise
- Your heart rate increases
- It gets harder and harder for the body to thermoregulate
- You may experience cramping and muscle weakness
Sounds a little scary, doesn't it? Thankfully, you can avoid these physiological changes during your 5k by ensuring you arrive at the start line well-hydrated and paying attention to your hydration needs during the race.
Pre-race hydration starts the day before the race. On that day, make sure you are drinking a slightly larger amount of fluids than usual. Be careful of drinking exclusively plain water - excessive water drinking can sometimes flush the body of its essential electrolytes. Instead, add some electrolytes you know you can tolerate to your water, or include a sports drink in your rotation.
Also, be careful of generally drinking too much. If you need to use the bathroom more than once an hour, that means you need to drink less, so slow your hydration down. We can't give you a specific number of ounces of water or fluids to take, because that will be different for everyone, and it will vary depending on the weather conditions where you are.
What to Drink the Morning of a 5k Race
On the morning of your race, the trickiest aspect of hydration is finding the right balance between too much fluid and not enough. You definitely want to continue taking in fluids as the start time approaches, but not so much that you end up with a sloshy stomach or need to make emergency bathroom stops during the race.
The best approach to race morning hydration is to have a glass of water with electrolytes or a bottle of sports drink with breakfast three to four hours before your race. (And yes, if your race has an early start, that means you'll need to get up in the middle of the night to take in your breakfast and fluids. You can absolutely go back to sleep after that for a while.) Then, between breakfast and the beginning of the race, continue to sip a bottle of fluids with electrolytes.
For extra hot or humid races, there are products available known as hyper-hydrators. These products, usually powders you add to water, have more concentrated electrolytes. They are designed to help the body maintain its hydration status. They are particularly helpful for runners with higher sweat rates. Before a race in extreme temperatures, a hyper-hydrator product can be helpful. Still, we suggest always testing these before a training run before having them on race day.
What to Eat Before an Afternoon or Evening 5k Race
While the majority of 5k races take place in the morning hours, there are occasional events that start in the afternoon or evening. Timing-wise, these races can be trickier to prepare for in terms of meals. However, the same basic rules apply:
- Have your last meal three to four hours before the start of your 5k on the day of the race
- In the time before that last meal, focus on light, carbohydrate-focused meals
- Avoid foods that have the potential to cause digestive issues
Your main goal in day-of-race eating is to keep your blood sugar levels even, your glycogen stores topped up, and to avoid going hungry. More frequent, lighter meals or snacks achieve this best.
Here's an example of a good day of eating before a race that starts at 5:30 p.m.:
- Night Before: Slightly larger, higher carb meal such as pasta and meatballs
- 7:30 a.m.: Regular carbohydrate-based breakfast, like oatmeal with berries, in a sufficient quantity to avoid feeling hungry through the morning
- 11:00 a.m.: Small high-carb snack, like a serving or two of pretzels
- 2:00 p.m./three and a half hours before race: Small carb-based lunch, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich
- 5:00 p.m.: Pre-race carb fuel
- 5:30 p.m.: Race!
By the time your 5k is about to start, you've already put in many weeks and miles of focused training and gotten your mind ready for a strong effort. To maximize all the training you've done, it's important to eat and drink well in the hours and days leading up to the race. In this article, you've learned:
- To eat a slightly larger, carb-focused meal the night before your race
- Which foods to include and exclude from your pre-race dinner
- To have a small breakfast comprised of carbohydrates three to four hours before a run in the morning
- How to adjust your fueling plan whether you're running in the afternoon or evening
- What, and how much, to drink in the hours before your race
If you follow the instructions in this article to plan out your meals and drinks before a 5k race, you can be confident that you're setting yourself up for your best performance when you cross the finish line.