Your food focus in the weeks and months before your race should be high-quality, nutrient-rich options that will provide you with enough energy and adequate hydration. A nutritious diet will not only help you feel better during your runs, but it’ll also aid in muscle recovery and decrease inflammation in the body, helping you avoid injuries.
“Firstly, make sure you’re getting enough protein post-run—between 10 and 20 grams—in order to help heal your muscles and build them up stronger,” says Alissa Rumsey, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “And overall, aim for about one gram of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of bodyweight per day. Healthy options include lean meat, fish, tofu, beans, eggs and leafy greens.”
And before you start carbo-loading: “Carbohydrates are important as well, but you probably don’t need to eat any more than you normally do. People often gain weight when training for running races, because they go overboard on the carbs,” says Rumsey. “For the 10-K distance, you need about five grams of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight each day.” And timing is key, too: If you haven’t eaten for three to four hours before you run, then have a small snack made up primarily of easily digestible carbs, like a slice of toast with peanut butter and a drizzle of honey, or a cup of cereal with a half cup of milk, suggests Rumsey.
What you don’t want to eat before you hit the pavement: Highly processed or high-fat foods (think instant ramen, cookies, bacon, French fries, etc.). They’re hard for your body to break down, so they can slow you down and make you feel sluggish.
As for your post-run eats, you want to scarf roughly a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein—like a banana with 1/3 cup of Greek yogurt—within two hours to help your bod recover, even if you aren’t particularly hungry. Otherwise the “runger” may catch up with you later.
The Night Before
To ensure you get a healthy balance of nutrients that’ll allow you to run your heart out the next day, “about half of your plate should be made up entirely of vegetables, a quarter protein, and a quarter starch, such as rice or sweet potato,” says Haggerty. “Top everything off with a healthy fat such as an olive oil based dressing or avocado and feel free to reach for seconds—so long as you don’t get stuffed.” (Learn more about Women’s Health’s Run 10 Feed 10 10-K race and how you can participate.)
Resist the urge to go nuts on creamy pasta or greasy bar food. Heavy foods will drag you down and could upset your stomach during your run—not cute. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water—at least eight eight-ounce glasses—not only the day before, but in the days leading up to your race, as well. Dehydration will also zap your energy.
The Day Of
“The key here is to eat something familiar, and avoid trying something new the day of the race, since you don’t know how your body will feel or react,” says Haggerty. “Also, choose foods that are easy to break down so your body doesn’t have to do the work of digesting and running at the same time.” Since carbohydrates and protein typically digest faster than fat and high-fiber foods, having a balance of carbs and protein is best. Try a slice of toast with an egg, or instant oatmeal with low-fat milk. Haggerty recommends experimenting with a few different combos to find what works best in the weeks prior to your race, so when the big day comes, you only have to focus on the miles ahead of you.
After the Race
While it might be tempting—especially when the finish line is adorned with food vendors galore—resist gorging yourself immediately after your run to avoid an upset stomach. “Most races have a plethora of snacks and drinks at the end of the event, but be choosy with what you select, reaching for a little protein and carbohydrate, like a protein bar and a banana, to help your muscles recover,” says Rumsey.
As for liquids, “Pick water over sports drinks, unless you ran in very high heat or humid weather, in which case you may need some more electrolytes.” And avoid having any alcohol right away, as it can impede your recovery, contribute to dehydration, and impair muscle healing. (What you do at brunch later is your business.)