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. Using a training plan gives you the structure you need as you try new foods.
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 and high fat foods, complex carbohydrates, anything that makes you feel gassy or bloated, and heavy starches (like, for example, oatmeal).
We also recommend staying away from high gi foods as they can impact your blood glucose.
Here are a few suggestions:
Raw Bell Pepper or Carrots.
Nothing like starting the day off with some healthy foods.
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.
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.
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.
Just a heads up - sometimes caffeine in the morning can jumpstart your bowel movements similar to how fiber foods might.
Apples & Bananas or Toast with Peanut Butter
Apples and Bananas (or any type of whole fruit, really). This is my go-to. I always have peanut butter toast every morning before my runs.
Raw fruit or dried 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.
The other option is toast with peanut butter or almond butter on it. This has been my go-to for my first thing pre-run snack. Peanut Butter is good healthy fat which helps you for a 5k run.
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 5k 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). Rice Krispies are tasty and so are Rice krispie treats. There is a difference, as I explained to my five-year-old this morning. Those treats have a ton of sugar and fall into the "fat foods" category.
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!) I like these before some of my training runs as they provide just enough energy to get going but not too much sugar.
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.
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.
Lately, the energy chews have become my-go to over gels. These are the best that I have found listed by categories.
I do want to bring up carb loading the night before a race. Pasta is high in good carbohydrates which can give you fuel for a longer race.
Frequently Asked Questions:
-Can runners eat anything they want?
It is not recommended that runners eat whatever they want. Certain foods fuel your body better than other foods. Runners typically burn 280-520 calories per 30 minutes of running so fueling their body with empty calories found in high-sugar foods is not advised.
-Can runners eat chips, cookies, cake, candy or ice cream?
Runners can eat sweet treats such as cookies, cake and candy or salty foods like chips in moderation. Considering these foods are high in calories and low in nutrients, these foods take longer to burn and do no provide runners with nutrients needed to run their best.
-Can runners eat fried chicken?
Put simply, yes runners can definitely eat fried chicken. If you are in a pinch and need some quick calories then you should not feel bad about grabbing some fried chicken, as an exclusionary diet rarely works long-term.
However, if you are seeking to optimize your nutrition and general well-being, then it makes far more sense to eat more nutrient-dense foods with more vitamins and minerals. Of course, fried chicken is not an ideal choice to include in your diet steadily, as any fried food item has lost much of its nutrient profile. Like many foods, the key to fried chicken is probably to eat it in moderation, as there are many healthier ways to eat a piece of chicken that taste just as good.
-Can runners eat pizza?
The answer is definitely yes. Pizza is actually not inherently unhealthy, as there are many ways to make a nutrient-dense pizza that tastes incredible. Instead of looking to exclude “unhealthy” toppings, focus more on including “healthy” toppings like more vegetables. This can serve as great fueling with a mix of healthy proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
In one interview, the famous Ultra-Marathon runner, Jim Walmsley, stated that it is not uncommon for him to make and eat his own pizza every night. Us mortals should not usually seek to mimic the diets of these extremely talented athletes (who routinely run upwards of 130 miles a week), but the point can be well taken that if it is made with health in mind, then there should be little to no issue with runners eating pizza from time to time.
-Does junk food affect running?
Junk food and running can be an interesting topic because of course junk food leaves lots of nutrient gaps that could be easily filled by switching to more whole foods, nutrient-dense foods. However, that is not to say that many runners perform just fine with a predominantly junk food diet. You can see that all of the time. In most cases, it depends on your goals in the sport of running, do you want to set PR’s? Do you want to get fitter (and what does “fitter” even mean to you?),
Do you just like to have some social time with your friends? If you want to PR, get fitter, or live a generally well-rounded healthy lifestyle then junk food will probably affect those running goals in the long term. If your running journey is to just have a good time with friends and get a little exercise in the process, then you probably don’t need to worry about it all that much, excluding and pre-existing health problems
-Can runners eat too many carbs?
You hear a lot about runners needing to eat crazy amounts of carbs, and it is true that carbohydrates are the most efficient means of the body fueling athletic performance. However, it is quite common that runners will over-emphasize carb intake and neglect proteins and healthy fats, which are essential for recovery and proper muscle growth and hormone regulation.
Too much of anything can be bad, and carbohydrates are no exception. You should not be scared to eat them, as they are an excellent fuel source for your body, but always make sure to get enough protein and healthy fats as well. The easiest way to do this is by focusing on including a wide range of fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein sources within your diet.
-Can runners eat meat?
Eating meat has been a point of contention over the past couple of years as the movement towards vegetarianism and veganism is on the rise. However, the simple answer is yes, of course, runners can eat mean. Plenty of runners have very successful carriers at every level and enjoy excellent health while still eating meat. Meat is a great source of protein, and in the case of red meat like beef, it also provides an excellent source of iron and vitamin B-12, these vitamins are some of the most common micronutrients that runners are deficient in.
That being said, runners do not have to eat meat to be good at running, or healthy in general. Furthermore, the ethical argument for cutting out meat is gaining momentum, and it stands on a sound foundation of protesting against animal cruelty. Overall, eating meat as a runner is a personal choice that can be left up to your individual diet choices.
-Can Runners eat Quinoa?
Yes, Quinoa is an excellent food source for runners to include in their diet. On top of being an excellent complex carbohydrate with plenty of dietary fiber, it also serves as a source of protein and B-vitamins. There is little downside in having a base of quinoa on many of your meal plates. It tastes good with a variety of foods and provides many preparation options to suit your individual tastes. Quinoa is also simple and easy to make and can provide that long-sustaining energy and fullness that runners seek throughout the day.
The bottom line here is that quinoa is a great way to max out your nutrient profiles within a single food source, but make sure to have it alongside a wide variety of other nutrient-dense foods.
-Can Runners Eat Rice?
Yes, No matter what form you like to eat it in, rice probably serves as one of the most effective and accessible food sources for runners across the world. It is cheap, plentiful, easy to make and store, and provides an excellent source of carbohydrates for athletes of all types, including runners. Rice also goes with just about any lunch or dinner option you can think of and can be a great way of fueling your training if you are on a budget.
Furthermore, you should not worry too much about what kind of rice you eat, just make sure to wash it a couple of times before cooking. For the best result, make sure to rice with a fibrous vegetable source and a protein like legumes, beans, or meat.
-Can Runners Eat Tuna?
Tuna has jumped in and out of popularity over the years, but runners can definitely eat tuna. Tuna is a great source of lean protein, which aids in muscle recovery and growth. Endurance athletes like distance runners often discount the importance of protein, so tuna is a great option to include in your diet from time to time as a means to fill in your nutrient gaps. One of the biggest benefits of tuna is that it is cheap and easy to make. If you are a runner on a budget, then tuna might be a good option to try as a replacement for other more expensive protein sources. With all foods, try to pair tuna with a fibrous vegetable and a complex carbohydrate for a well-rounded, nutrient-dense meal to fuel your training.
-Can runners eat Christmas dinner?
Yes, runners can and should eat Christmas dinner, it does not matter what is on the table. Oftentimes the food can actually provide a pretty great mix of macro and micronutrients. Special occasions call for celebration, and you should not need to worry or feel guilty about any single meal, and it might just be a great meal to fuel your workout or long run the next morning! No one meal will make the difference in your running performance, instead, runners should seek to eat an inclusionary, well-rounded diet over the long term.
This is far healthier for your physical and psychological health. Holiday meals are a time of togetherness, thankfulness, and reflection, so dig in and enjoy!
We love this infographic by blog.freepeople.com, it gives you a visual idea of foods that are perfect before your run.