Beginner Running Tips: Nutrition and Hydration for the 5K and Beyond

Two weeks ago I met for the first time with my Spring beginner 5K group – I’m co-coaching 23 new runners who share the goal of completing a 3.1 mile race in early June. Things have been going great so far (aside from the normal new runner aches and pains), and tonight we have our first “Running Seminar” after our workout – the topic is nutrition and hydration.

I’m far from a nutritional expert, so my co-coach Erin Girzone will be doing the bulk of the presentation. I’m going to talk a bit on fueling and hydrating for workouts and races. To accompany this, I put together an outline containing thoughts on these topics gleaned from my own experience as a runner. It’s not intended to be a scientific examination of fueling and hydration strategies, but rather a list of practical tips that I have learned mostly through personal experience. I thought I’d share the outline here for the benefit of any who might be interested.

You can also download this outline as a Word document (right click and save here).

Nutrition and Hydration Tips for Beginning Runners


1. Pre- and Post-Workout Fueling

  • Fueling prior to workouts
    • Go by personal preference, consider workout intensity/duration.
      • With experience, you will come to learn when fueling is necessary, and when you don’t have to worry about it.
      • We’re all a bit different, get to know your own body and let it guide you.
    • For shorter workouts, fueling is not as critical.
      • Some people like to have some food prior to a workout, others find that eating prior to a workout can upset the stomach.
    • For longer, harder workouts it makes sense to have some fuel in the body.
      • Again, you will learn with time when fueling helps and when you don’t need to worry about it.
        • I typically only make a conscious effort to fuel before races and for long runs over about 15 miles.
    • There is some evidence that training in a fasted state improves the ability of the body to burn fat while exercising, but improving fat burning capability probably has more impact in longer races than a 5K
  • Fueling after workouts
    • It’s generally good to eat and drink something after a workout.
    • A mix of carbs and protein is best after a hard workout, but don’t overdo it.
    • You can wipe out the calorie burn from a shorter workout with a single bottle of Gatorade or Power Bar – think before you drink!
        • Calorie burn for running depends on body weight, below is a table with some estimates for running and walking:
          Calories/Mile
          Weight (lbs) Running Walking
          125 90 71
          150 108 86
          175 126 100
          200 144 114
          225 162 128
          250 180 143
          275 198 157
          300 216 171

2. Race Day Fueling and Hydration

  • Avoid eating anything unusual the day before or the morning of a race.
    • Foods that don’t agree with you can cause bowel issues, especially since running tends to stir up/jostle the intestines.
    • Practice makes perfect – practice what you plan to eat/drink on race day beforehand to be certain that it agrees with you.
  • Avoid eating within an hour before a race.
    • I usually aim for a meal or snack about 2 hours prior to a race.
    • Again, this helps avoid digestive issues which can ruin a race.
  • Hydrate, but don’t overdo it.
    • I usually stop drinking about an hour before race.
      • Maybe have a few sips just before the race starts to top off.
    • Drinking too much pre-race might require a bathroom break during the race.
      • All races will have bathroom access or porta-potties, but lines can get long.

3. Nutritional Approaches for the 5K vs. Longer Distance Races

  • Fueling is not necessary during a 5K.
    • Your body has more than enough fuel stored to get you through 3.1 miles of running.
  • Drinking during a 5K is also typically unnecessary, but not a problem if you feel you need it.
    • Not really necessary unless it’s a hot day and you did not pre-hydrate; also likely depends on how long it takes you to finish a 5K.
  • Fueling becomes more important as you go beyond 13.1 miles.
    • Body starts to run low on glycogen (stored carbs) around ~18-20 miles, which is why marathons are so challenging and you need a fueling plan for that distance.
    • Managing pace is also critical in longer races so you don’t burn through your glycogen stores too quickly.
      • You burn through your carb stores faster at faster paces.

4. General Hydration Advice

  • Drink to Thirst
    • Overdoing hydration can be just as bad (or worse) than underhydration.
      • Drinking too much can lead to hyponatremia, a dangerous condition in which sodium concentration in blood drops too low.
        • I learned this the hard way in the 2011 Boston Marathon – a case of mild hyponatremia landed me in the medical tent at the end of the race.
    • Let your body tell you when to drink, it’s smarter than any general rule of thumb.
      • If you’re thirsty, drink.
      • Water works.
        • I typically only use sugar sports drinks at water stops in a marathon, rarely ever in training.
  • Summer vs. Winter – hydration approaches vary.
    • In winter, you can get away with hydrating less.
      • I rarely carry water with me in winter unless I’m planning to run for longer than about an hour and a half.
    • In summer, be more careful about water intake.
      • Having water on hand on a hot day also can help to cool you down if you pour it over your head.
      • Cramps – popular notion is that cramps result from dehydration or electrolyte imbalance, reality is that fatigue plays a bigger role here.

If you have any tips you’d like to add, please leave a comment!

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. That’s the most sensible outline of fueling and hydration I have ever read! I’m a big fan of Noake’s “Waterlogged”. You’ve got it summarized in a few lines.

    Excellent work!

  2. Iain Denby says:

    Excellent. I think it’s actually been proven that there is no connection with cramps and dehydration and electrolite deficiancy.

  3. I really enjoyed your input about Summer vs. Winter – hydration approaches vary. I used to do the same procedure in winter and summer and always wondered why the results are different.

    • I presume more sweating in the summer, and higher chance of overheating. Also, more blood flow to the skin to keep you cool diverts it away from the muscles, which is partly why running in summer heat can feel significantly more difficult until you are well adapted.

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