What to Eat to Finish the Race

The beauty of running your first 5k race is that it’s short enough for the average person to prepare for, and long enough to give you a sense of accomplishment. No matter what your natural running ability, most people can train for-and finish-a 5k (3.1 mile) sprint-distance race or even a mini-triathlon (3.1 mile sprint, 12-mile cycle, and 0.5-mile swim). Whether you end up running or crawling across the finish line depends on your training. A major component of that training includes eating right for the race, which starts way before race day and doesn’t end at the finish line.

What if you’ve never really participated in sports, or your old running shoes have been busy gathering dust in the closet? Maybe you’re carrying a few extra pounds, but you’re healthy and exercising two or three times a week. Can you enter and complete a 5k race-say by next weekend? That’s the question someone recently asked David C. Nieman, PhD, researcher and professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University, in North Carolina .

Nutrition Exercise ImmunologyNieman has written nine books, including Nutrition & Exercise Immunology, and has run 58 marathons and ultramarathons (races longer than the standard 26-mile marathon). He also writes fitness columns, so he gets questions like this often. The person who most recently posed this question had a clean bill of health from his doctor, so Nieman encouraged him to enter the race, but told him to expect soreness for days afterward.

The biggest challenge Nieman sees for people who want to run a 5k in less than peak condition is to start easy. “If you take it easy and stay within yourself the whole way, with no dreams of glory, you should be able to finish,” says Nieman. Look for enjoyment in simply participating: perform at your own pace without letting the spirit of competition push you beyond your level of training. But what if you do have dreams of glory? “It’s all about training appropriately,” says Nieman, “and then you can go ahead and run the race and not suffer so much during or after.”

Nieman’s research shows taking the time to train properly has rewards beyond the possibility of winning: it can cut your sick days by 30 to 50 percent. “Training for a 5k race is actually good for the immune system, helping the body deal with pathogens like viruses and bacteria, unlike training for a marathon where the physiological stress to the body can exceed the immune system’s threshold,” says Nieman.

Sports Nutrition Endurance AthletesExperts agree the best way to finish the race is to support gradual increases in speed and endurance with good nutrition and hydration. Hydration is the racer’s first rule. Racers need to drink more than enough water to quench their thirst. “The more calories you burn, the more fluids you need,” says Monique Ryan, MS, RD, member of the Performance Enhancement Team for USA Triathlon and USA Cycling for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, and author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. Dehydration is linked to muscle cramping and can also lead to headaches, fatigue, nausea, and organ dysfunction.

After water, carbohydrates play the starring role in a racer’s diet. But you also need protein, especially after a hard run. Recent research from the Netherlands shows eating protein with a high-carbohydrate meal after running helps move the carbohydrates more quickly into your muscles to speed recovery-especially important during a mini-triathlon in which you have to complete two other events.

If you’re thinking of getting in shape on one of the popular high-protein, low-carb diets, though, experts advise against it, especially for sprint racers who need quick energy to run fast. Cutting carbs deprives your body of its ideal race fuel, glycogen (carbs stored in the body). On the days you train longer and harder, you burn more muscle glycogen, so you need to eat more carbohydrates to replace that. “The amount of carbohydrates you need to eat depends on how much muscle glycogen you make, says Ryan. “And how hard and how long you train is directly related to how much muscle glycogen you burn.” To eat for optimum performance, then, you need to match your nutrition to your workout.

Small Changes Big Results“Nutrition definitely matters,” says Ellie Krieger , MS , RD, television personality and author of Small Changes, Big Results, Revised and Updated: A Wellness Plan with 65 Recipes for a Healthy, Balanced Life Full of Flavor. When you’re training hard, Krieger explains, you need calories for fuel. So you can’t go on a starvation diet or any kind of extreme diet. You need protein, antioxidants, and all the nutrients that come with food including fat, but you especially need carbohydrates.

In general, try to get 60 percent to 70 percent of your calories from wholesome carbohydrate sources with a low-glycemic index such as whole grains, vegetables, and some fruits. Lower glycemic foods have a lot of fiber and may be harder to digest, so right before you train or race, switch to quick energy high-glycemic index foods, like bananas, carrots, potatoes, or nutrition bars.

“Without carbohydrates in your muscles, you’ll poop out in your training. You won’t train as well, so you won’t get as fit. When you eat to keep glycogen in your muscles, you perform better in training. When you perform better, you get more fit. When you’re more fit, you perform even better and get even more fit, and so on,” says Krieger.

Most racers take a multivitamin supplement just in case, although sprint racing isn’t strenuous enough to cause vitamin deficiencies. Make sure you’re getting adequate iron in your diet for stamina, and calcium for strong bones. But be careful not to overdo it with supplements on top of fortified breakfast cereals on top of nutrition bars. More of a good thing can be dangerous. Consult a nutritionist or health care provider to find the best levels of nutrients for you.

“When we studied the effects of 800 IU of vitamin E a day during the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, we found it wasn’t helpful and actually exacerbated the inflammatory cytokine and oxidative stress response in runners. So that’s one you definitely don’t want to overdo,” says Nieman. The current recommended dietary allowance for vitamin E is 22.5 IU or 15 mg per day.

Training for your first race involves increased time and distance each week. As you train harder, your body will crave calories and fluid. Start easy, give your body the nutrients it needs, and you’ll be off to a running start.

5k Count Down

  • Two weeks… Match your caloric intake to your training with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and potassium-rich juices for minerals lost through sweat. Drink water, and practice with the same pre-race drink you’ll use during the race to make sure it won’t upset your stomach.
  • One week… You might taper your training to rest up, so you’ll eat less, but don’t cut back on nutrition. With less activity, you might need more high-fiber foods to stay regular. Stay well hydrated. Suggestions: bran cereal, whole wheat breads and bagels, apples, raisins, prunes, dark leafy green salads.
  • Night before… Now is not the time to make drastic changes. Don’t bother with extra vitamins or special supplements. Your energy will come from the calories in your carbohydrates. Drink water. Eat moderately. Suggestions: sweet potatoes with salmon, pasta with vegetables, winter squash, brown rice, vegetable soup, pasta salad, baked potato, whole grain bread.
  • Three hours… Drink water and eat a low fiber, high-glycemic pre-race meal for easy digestion and to keep your glucose and glycogen levels up. Suggestions: instant oatmeal with raisins; dry cereal with bananas; bagel with all-fruit spread; toast with honey and apple or orange slices; fig bars; fruit salad with bananas, grapes, melons.
  • Ten minutes… Drink water and possibly a sports drink a few minutes before the race for a quick energy boost and to replace electrolytes (sodium, potassium, and other minerals used for normal bodily functions). You could grab an energy bar or a high-glycemic snack that won’t upset your stomach. Suggestions: watermelon, grapes, orange slices, energy bar.
  • After the race… “You have a window of time that begins the minute you stop exercising, when your muscles are ripe, to replenish glycogen,” says Krieger. “The faster you get some carbohydrates and a little protein into your blood stream and muscles, the better.” If you can’t eat, drink fruit juice or a sports drink designed for post-race replenishment. Suggestions: yogurt and bananas; orange juice and a hard-boiled egg; sweet potato with cottage cheese; fruit or carrot juice and an energy bar; trail mix with seeds or nuts, raisins, apricots, and other dried fruits; crackers and almond butter.

By Kathy Summers for Runner’s World magazine. Copyright ©


  1. Angela says

    Great tips! Doing my first 5k on March 3, and this information has really impacted my dietary preparation for it.

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