You’ve set your sights on running a 5K, and you’ve got your training plan in place. But how much attention have you given to your nutrition? When training for an athletic event, no matter your skill level, nutrition plays a major part in your success. After all, it’s the food you eat that will fuel you on race day and the weeks leading up to it.

Can you run a race on Cheetos or french fries? Probably. But you certainly won’t perform as well, and you definitely won’t feel as good as if you had followed a good training diet.

Short vs. Long Distances

The food you eat when training for a 5K is different than what a marathoner would eat, says Jarrett Jarmar Moore, owner of APT Fitness in Wilmington, North Carolina. But not necessarily in the way you think.

“The food itself doesn’t change much between short- and long-distance runners, the macro nutrient percentage does,” he says. “Long distance running is not very muscle-sparing, so a higher amount of protein is needed for the endurance athlete,” explains Moore. “Also, a marathoner would want a higher percentage of complex carbohydrates because they’ll need more stored energy to finish their race strong.” Without this stored energy, he says, the marathoner’s body would turn to its own stored body fat (and eventually muscle) for energy.

Throughout Training

Throughout your training, you should be conditioning your diet much in the way you condition your body with regular training runs. Get in the habit of reducing your consumption of highly processed foods including sugar, alcohol, and other empty calories. Opt for something more balanced, something your body will be grateful for.

“I recommend a lean source of protein, like chicken, turkey, or fish, which aids in muscle recovery and repair,” says Moore. Moore also recommends “slow-digesting, complex carbohydrates, like multi-grain pasta or brown rice,” along with plenty of green vegetables.

Fruit is a great snack during training, as it provides both energy in the form of carbohydrates and hydration to help prevent cramping.

After a Tough Workout

Replenishing your body after a hard training run can mean the difference between feeling exhausted and sore the next day, or ready to go another round.

Moore, who has trained runners and athletes of all varieties, suggests a post-workout smoothie plus protein. Here’s his recipe:

  • 1 scoop vanilla whey isolate protein powder
  • ¼ cup raw spinach
  • 1 tsp. flaxseed
  • blueberries

“Add water, ice and blend, and you have a great tasting post-workout snack,” he says. Before the Big Race

Unlike the night before a marathon — where endurance athletes “carb load” with a big helping of pasta — Moore recommends a more balanced approach for 5K runners.

“Make the last meal of the day a good balance of protein, complex carbohydrates, and fats,” he says. Good fats might include avocados, nuts, or omega-3 fats found in salmon and other fish.

The following morning, you may be nervous, but you’ll still want to fuel up. Keep your breakfast light, but balanced. Moore says a larger person might have:

  • 2 boiled eggs
  • half-cup of oatmeal
  • half an apple
  • small handful of nuts

A smaller person might have the same, but possibly one egg rather than two, so as not to get an upset stomach before race time. Lower fiber, lower fat food choices are best within an hour of the race, since high-fat and high-fiber foods can slow digestion and cause gastrointestinal distress.

“Keep your morning meal small but filling so you don’t risk exhaustion or a cramp mid-way through the race,” Moore suggests. After the race, don’t forget to refuel. You’ll definitely want to hydrate, but also have a post-workout snack or smoothie to help your muscles recover.

Finding Balance

Men and women, big and small, need similar fuel for 5K training, albeit in different amounts. As you train for any athletic event, you become more in tune with what your body demands and what makes it feel better versus worse.

You’ll want to eat enough to fuel your workouts and recovery, but not so much that it hinders your progress or causes weight gain. Finding this balance may be a matter of trial and error, of calculating your daily caloric needs, and balancing those needs with your fitness goals beyond race day.