The Best Foods to Eat Before and After a 5K

By Christa Sgobba |

Fuel right. Finish strong. Now that’s a winning strategy for race day.

what to eat before and after a 5K

Road races aren’t just for young’uns anymore. Nearly half a million adults over the age of 60 participate in a 5K or race of other length each year, according to a report from RunSignup.

If you’re one of them, you’re probably wondering what to eat as part of your training plan.

Assuming you currently have a healthy, balanced diet, most 5K competitors don’t have to make many changes, says Pamela Nisevich Bede, R.D., a sports dietitian and nutrition consultant at Swim, Bike, Run, Eat. The important thing is to make sure you’re fueling your body with the right mix of nutrients to stay energized and strong.

What’s exactly right for you will depend on your health, but Nisevich Bede generally recommends:

  • 50 percent carbs, such as oatmeal, brown rice, blueberries
  • 30 percent protein, such as chicken, fish, beans
  • 20 percent healthy fats, such as olive oil, avocados, nuts

As race day nears, however, the foods you eat become more important. Here’s precisely what to eat before, during, and after your 5K, so that you start strong, finish energized, and recover quickly.

Your Pre-Race Plan

On the day of a race, you want everything to feel familiar. You’ll want to make sure you can run or walk a 5K before race day. Ideally, you’ll even do a trial run of your commute to the race site and get to know the terrain.

But for the best 5K experience, you’ll want to run through your entire routine a couple of times in the weeks leading up to the event. That includes what time you’ll wake up, eat breakfast, and use the bathroom.

This is important because most 5Ks have early start times. If you’re used to working out later in the day, your body is going to need time to adapt to the difference.

“If you practice whatever meal you’re going to eat ahead of time, you won’t have any surprises on race day,” Nisevich Bede says.

Your pre-race meal should be light and include a mix of carbs and protein. Some good options: cereal with milk, a bagel with nut butter, or Greek yogurt and a serving of fruit.

Go easy on fiber and fat, since they take longer to digest and may irritate your stomach. Try to finish your meal one to two hours before race time.

If you have a chronic condition, check with your doctor for any health, fitness, or nutrition recommendations. For example, if you have diabetes, you want to know how to manage your blood sugar during exercise and on race day.

Your Race Plan

Tempted to cut back on fluids so you won’t have to use the porta-potty? That’s a mistake that can lead to dehydration.

Instead, arrive at your 5K about 30 minutes before it starts, and drink about 10 ounces of water, Nisevich Bede recommends. This will give your body time to process it, and it will give you a chance to hit the bathroom before the start.

If it’s hot or humid, be especially mindful of your hydration needs before and during the race. Stop at water stations if you need to.

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However, you won’t need to eat anything during the race, unless your doctor has given you instructions to do so. Those carb-heavy race gels and chews you might see are typically for intense exercise that lasts at least 60 minutes. They might upset your stomach if you’re not used to them.

Your Post-Race Plan

As soon as you cross the finish line, hydration should be your top priority. “In the hours following the race, you want your urine to return to a light lemonade color,” Nisevich Bede says.

You’ll also want to eat a little something. Most races provide complimentary bagels or fruit, but Nisevich Bede recommends reaching for something with more protein. Within an hour of finishing, you want between 15 and 25 grams of protein at a minimum.

“As we run and as we exercise, our muscles break down,” Nisevich Bede says. “Protein stops that breakdown and helps the muscle rebuild itself.”

Ask a friend to meet you at the finish line with a bottled protein shake or any of these high-protein smoothies, or have it as soon as you get home.

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