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Nutrition: Get ready for race day with the right food choices

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Training for a 5k or 10k doesn’t start at the gym or on the course. It starts in the kitchen, where the right nutrition choices can mean the difference between a euphoric race and not finishing at all.

Dr. Elizabeth Kirk

Dr. Elizabeth Kirk

We checked in with Dr. Elizabeth Kirk, a senior lecturer in the University of Washington’s Nutritional Sciences Program, to see how runners and walkers alike can make the right food choices to help prepare for a successful race.

Make sure you’re meeting minimum caloric needs.

It might sound counterintuitive, but Dr. Kirk stressed the need to eat plenty of calories and carbohydrates. Dr. Kirk likened our muscles to engines and compared carbohydrates to the fuel that keeps the engines humming; if we don’t eat enough carbs, our muscles look for other fuels – like fats – to keep us going. Our muscles burn fats well enough, but it’s not as efficient and might slow us down. “It’s a slower fuel,” Dr. Kirk said.

Not just any calories will do, though; Dr. Kirk recommends a mix of whole grains (like brown rice or quinoa), dairy products (like cheese and yogurt), and plenty of fruits and vegetables. “A balanced diet is key,” Dr. Kirk said. “Eating something from every food group will assure that your body gets the nutrients needed for energy production.”

Find the right eating schedule while training.

Some people don’t like to eat for up to two hours before training, while others can transition from the dinner table to the gym without skipping a beat. Dr. Kirk advises runners and walkers to experiment with their diet to see what works best for them. “Some people are really sensitive in terms of their makeup,” she said.

To that end, Dr. Kirk suggests eating an hour before training for a week and making adjustments from there. Hungry in the midst of training? Try eating a little closer to the workout. Feeling slow and bloated? Give yourself a little more time before going for a run.

With regards to what to snack on, Dr. Kirk suggested two balanced ideas: The first is a piece of fruit and container of yogurt or glass of milk, and the second includes graham crackers or pretzels with a sports drink like Gatorade.

Post-exercise, Dr. Kirk suggests refueling muscles with carbohydrates and protein by eating a banana with yogurt, or by drinking a milkshake.

Don’t skip on fluids

Our bodies are more than 50% water, so Dr. Kirk underscored the importance of fluids before, during, and after exercising. “We begin to underperform if we don’t have enough fluid on board to allow energy production to occur,” she said.

Not surprisingly, water is ideal. Beyond water, unsweetened tea and Gatorade, though, Dr. Kirk suggests shying away from fruit juices. “You get kind of tricked, because they’re delicious and fun to drink on a warm day,” she said. “But you definitely end up over-consuming calories.”

Not quite ready to give up juice entirely? Dr. Kirk suggests filling your cup with a half-juice, half-water mix.

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