What to eat before running a 5k race
If your race is tomorrow, and you are just now reading this post, then it’s already too late.
You are better off skipping this article entirely and going with something you know. It is never a good idea to try a new pre-race food for the first time on the day of a race. This research should start early on in your training, so that you have time to do test runs on which foods make you feel the best. There are literally a million articles out there that tell runners to eat this or eat that, but the truth is, everybody is different and it takes a little trial and error to get the formula right.
BEST FOODS TO EAT BEFORE RUNNING
A small iced coffee with a splash of low fat milk, raw bell pepper, and a handful of grapes. When I eat this about an hour before a long run or a race, it always seems to do the trick. Something about that magical combo gives me the perfect amount of energy and focus, though I’m positive other runner’s wouldn’t agree.
Generally speaking, the things you eat before a race should be light, hydrating, low fiber, high vitamin, easily digestible snacks. Avoid high fiber items, complex carbohydrates, anything that makes you feel gassy or bloated, and heavy starches (like, for example, oatmeal). Here are a few suggestions:
- Raw Bell Pepper or Carrots. Like I stated above, I swear by raw bell peppers as a pre-race snack. They are light and hydrating, easy to digest, and provide a powerful punch of B6 that help convert the carbs from last night’s pasta feast into energy. Raw carrots are closely related to bell peppers, since they are also beta-carotene and caratenoid rich, and are a good alternative if you prefer them to bell peppers. Snack on these veggies anywhere between 45-90 minutes before race time.
- Beets. I loved the blog post:from Fuel My Run on beets, and I’m tempted to try them out as a pre-race meal. They are also a beta-carotene rich, nutrient powerhouse, and I was surprised to read that they proved in a 2012 study to make 5K participants 3% faster than their non-beet-eating competitors (what!?). Try them an hour to two hours before a race with a little goat cheese and some chopped walnuts.
- Caffeine. Hundreds of studies (including this one by RICE University) have proven that caffeine can help improve your performance when consumed about an hour before physical activity. Some runners stay away from caffeinated beverages since they’ve gotten a reputation for dehydrating you. This is a myth, there are no studies that prove coffee or other caffeinated beverages dehydrate you (see “Ten Effective Hydrating Strategies for Runners”). What studies do show, is coffee and tea have several health benefits and have been proven to help runners improve their performance. If you typically drink coffee/tea in the morning, or afternoon, or both, definitely don’t skip it on race day. If your body is used to consuming caffeine, it will most likely perform better with it than without it.
- Apples and Bananas (or any type of whole fruit, really). Raw fruit is often a good fit for pre race snack, since they are thirst-quenching, low calorie, easy to digest snacks that are vitamin rich. Try a banana or an orange if you cramp easy. If you need a hydration boost, try a peach, a handful of grapes, or a few wedges of watermelon. For an energy boost, go with an apple or a few handfuls of blueberries. It’s best to eat raw fruit 45-60 minutes before race time, as they do contain a decent amount of fiber and need a little time to settle before you start running.
- Rice Crisps, or Rice Krispy Cereal. If you are craving something crunchy or salty before a race, go with some flavored rice crisp snacks. Unlike other chips, crisps and crackers, they are low fiber and quickly digestible, and you can eat them around 30-45 minutes before the race. You could also do a small bowl of Rice Krispy cereal with almond or low-fat milk and a few berries thrown on top (preferably 45-60 minutes prior to race time).
- Energy Bars. Most energy bars are designed to be a pre-activity meal and contain easily digestible carbohydrates and a kick of protein. I prefer an energy bar before running to “heavier” snacks like whole wheat toast or bagels when I need to fill my tummy before a long run. Experiment with some different types of energy bars, and see which makes you feel satisfied and energized simultaneously. Avoid energy bars with high fiber, or sugary toppings. I like Clif Bars best, they are easy on the stomach and actually taste good. Eat 60+ minutes before race time. (The chocolate chip is my favorite!)
- Applesauce or Jell-O. Both options are easy to digest, have a high H2O content, and provide a hit of simple carbohydrates with little or no fiber. Plus, they taste a lot better than energy gels, if you ask me. They have just enough calories to quiet a rumbling stomach, but are light enough to eat with only 15 minutes to go until race time. If you are closing in on the race, but need to eat something, these are a better option than something whole like fruit or an energy bar.
- Energy Gels. Not my favorite, but I know a lot of runners who love them. They are made for runners as a pre (and during) race energy boost, so they are pretty safe bet if you can stand the texture. Runners I know who use energy gels feel comfortable slurping them down in as little as five minutes before race time. The CLIF brand is the one I am most comfortable with. I've tried the GU brand and it tasted a little too salty for my liking.
We love this infographic by blog.freepeople.com, it gives you a visual idea of foods that are perfect before your run.
Quick Story: mY BAD FINISH
Here is a perfect example of what I mean. I once read that eating oatmeal is a good pre-race food. I never eat oatmeal, but on the morning of a 5K race I was about to participate in, I found that the continental breakfast at the hotel I was staying at offered a beautiful selection of oatmeal and toppings. My race wasn’t for another two hours, and I wanted to stay full until I got to the start line, so I decided to go for it. After all, the article said it was a good pre race food and I had plenty of time to digest. I made myself a heaping bowl topped with blueberries, bananas, and almonds.
After racing terribly and managing to get one of my worst times ever, I crossed the finish line and promptly threw up, something that I never do after running. Of course, the one time that I do throw up after finishing a race, is the one time I am participating in a 5K with a group of coworkers I had just become acquainted with at a new job. Needless to say, oatmeal doesn’t work for me. Neither does toast, bagels, cereal, or any other type of whole grain, and yet I see these items on “what runners should eat” lists all the time. I swear by raw green pepper before a race, but I have never seen that make it on a list anywhere. When it comes down to it, you should experiment with foods that you like, until you find the right combination for you.
There are lists out there that will tell you this and tell you that, but none of the people who wrote those articles know what’s right for your body. Below are some suggestions to start your research, based on my own experience and also what I’ve heard/read from other real runners. Don’t take this list, or any list of “runner foods” to literally, because there are a million combinations out there, and nobody will be able to figure out which combo is the right one for you, except you. The most important question you can ask yourself when trying to figure out what your “magic” pre race food is, is to ask yourself plain and simple: what food makes me feel good?
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