A 5K race (3.1 miles) is a great distance for beginning racers, as well as for more experienced runners looking to warm-up for the season. To give yourself every pre-race advantage, it’s important to consider what you put into your body.
As you’ve heard countless times before, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. What you eat before your race, and when you eat it, could have a big impact on your energy level and overall performance. Here are a few common practices used by endurance athletes and how they could affect your race–for better or worse.
Myths to Avoid
Traditional endurance wisdom encourages carbohydrate loading or “carbo-loading,” by eating large amounts of carbohydrates the day before and the day of your race. The logic behind this is that carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel, especially during exercise, when they account for 40 to 50 percent of energy production.
The problem with this theory becomes clear when you understand that the fuel used during exercise is stored in your muscles and liver. If you think of these stored carbohydrates as fuel in a car, then your muscles and liver can be compared to the gas tank. Like a car’s gas tank, there is a limit to how much fuel can be stored. Numerous studies have shown that not only does the carbo-loading myth offer no benefit to runners – it could actually slow you down.
Another common practice is to eat simple carbohydrates, like honey or sugar, shortly before the race for a quick boost of energy. This, however, can lead to dehydration: your cells need excess water to absorb the sugar. The sugar spike will also lead to an insulin reaction, which will cause your blood sugar to drop sharply later on, leaving you tired and sluggish.
Planning a Proper Breakfast
Experts at the Colorado State University Extension recommend eating a light meal three to four hours before your race so your body has ample time to properly break down the necessary nutrients. This will also give your stomach time to settle. The meal should feature starches from complex carbohydrates, which break down more quickly and easily than proteins and fats. Avoid foods that are high in fat and simple sugars. Good examples of appropriate foods are whole wheat or multigrain bread, cold cereal, pasta, fruits and vegetables. Unlike the carbo-loading approach, these should be eaten in moderation, with the entire meal totaling only around 500 calories.
Small amounts of caffeine may help improve your athletic performance, according to several studies. Be careful, however, since coffee is a diuretic and can increase the risk of stomach cramps and dehydration during the race.
It’s also important to select foods that you enjoy, and that you know your digestive system tolerates well, because your mood and comfort will affect your performance. Don’t use the morning of the race as an opportunity to try something new for breakfast since it could backfire and cause discomfort or digestive troubles. Try a variety of foods throughout your training plan to find what works for you.
In addition to your meal, you should drink at least 64 ounces of water leading up to the event, but stop drinking at least 30 minutes before the race begins. Having excess water in your system will make you feel bloated, slow you down and possibly give you stomach cramps.
Because a 5K is a relatively short race, it’s not necessary to follow a particular diet in the days leading up to the event. Maintaining a generally healthy, balanced diet and eating an appropriate light breakfast will give you the nutrient stores you need to perform your best on race day.