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What to Eat Before a Cross Country Race

If you’re unsure of what to eat before a cross country race, this post will break down options for morning vs. afternoon races to help you optimize nutrition and performance!

group of male runners

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A cross-country race is a high-intensity distance race that will take you through varying terrain.

You’ve trained and are mentally prepared. But how about your nutrition? Is it adequate for a cross country diet?

oatmeal with fruit

What should you to eat before a cross-country race for optimal performance?

What about the difference between a pre-meet breakfast and lunch?

We’ll talk through your nutrition needs before a cross country race or meet and how that translates into what to eat.

Here’s how you can optimize your nutrition so you are ready for your race.

cross country race starting on grass

Cross Country Nutrition Needs

Cross-country is a challenging sport. Not only do you need endurance, stamina, and speed, but you’ll be pushed mentally. 

While some courses are shorter, a typical cross-country distance is normally 5K or 3.1 miles.

The course may be hilly, flat, muddy, or grassy—or all of those terrains in one, meaning your body has to have energy to expend and use to fuel those fast-twitch muscles.

loaf of white bread

Your main source of energy for a cross country runner diet is going to be carbohydrates.

You’ll want to make sure you’re eating carbohydrates at every meal and snack, especially right before your race.

You don’t want to go into a cross country race fasted, or on an empty stomach, as this will have a negative impact on the intensity and speed of your performance.

Finally Understand How to Fuel For Running!
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intuitive eating ebook

Nutrition for High School Cross Country Runners

Nutrition for cross country runners in high school can be tricky since often don’t get enough time to eat their entire lunch.

And according to the National School Lunch Program, schools should be serving lunch between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM.

If you’re eating lunch at 10:00, and have a cross-country meet after school, you need to eat something in between, perhaps a substantial snack.

twirled pasta on fork over white plate of pasta

In addition, your school lunch may not be ideal for athletic performance or enough for your nutrition as a cross country runner.

While many schools are trying to improve their school lunches, they still often consist of highly processed foods with high amounts of fat, which isn’t an ideal fuel before a cross country race or practice.

A school lunch of chicken nuggets and fries washed down with a vending machine soda may leave you lacking in the micronutrients necessary to train and recover.

What Should You Eat Before a Cross Country Race?

Similar to what to eat before a track meet, here are some ideas for what to eat before a cross country race, including breakfast ideas for a morning race and lunch ideas for an afternoon race.

You don’t want your stomach growling before you even get started so avoid going into the race with no fuel at all.

Don’t skip the carbs – we need them. Low carb running is never going to amount to better performance.

On the other hand, you can’t be gobbling down food as you’re lining up at the start, as that will lead to stomach discomfort.

male runner hunched over knees in hot sun

When you start running, your body will be sending blood to your muscles rather than your digestive system.

Hence, eating something right before you take off might cause stomach cramping and discomfort, or runners stomach symptoms.

What to eat for breakfast before a cross country race

If you are running or racing in the morning, you’ll want to make sure you eat something small-ish and mostly carbohydrate-based prior to your race.

Make sure you have a light breakfast about one to two hours prior to a morning race.

Focus primarily on carbs, as protein is harder for your body to digest and may cause GI issues.

Before a morning race, try these ideas:

  • piece of toast or a waffle and a banana
  • half of a bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter
  • a bowl of cereal with low fat milk
  • oatmeal

Here are some more ideas for the best carbs for runners.

frozen strawberries in blender

Just a reminder that race day is not the time to try something new. Practice your pre-race nutrition with breakfast before your training runs.

Question: What if I have no appetite before a race?


If nerves have you feeling too jittery to eat before your race, try a quick-digesting carb like an energy gel or a chew for running.

What to eat before an afternoon race

If you have a race later in the day and are wondering what to eat before a race in the afternoon, many of the same principles apply.

In an afternoon race, there’s a good chance you’ve already eaten breakfast and lunch.

Your breakfast should be substantial and touch on all macronutrient of the athlete’s performance plate—such oatmeal with nuts and berries, a protein shake for runners, a breakfast burrito, or waffles with nut butter.

turkey sandwich on white bread

Since lunch is the closest meal to your afternoon race, it should be something lower in fat and easy to digest—like a turkey sandwich on white bread, fruit, and pretzels.

You will be getting mostly carbohydrates through the bread, fruit and pretzels and a moderate amount of protein for sustenance and staying power.

Plus, Vitamin C for runners found in fruit can help with reducing inflammation that will incur after racing.

stack of graham crackers

Depending on when your afternoon race is, you may even need a snack between lunch and your race so that you’re adequately fueling your run.

About an hour before your race, try to eat something high in easy-to-digest carbs and low in fat and fiber—like a granola bar, a piece of fruit, or graham crackers.

Finally Understand How to Fuel For Running!
This is the resource you’ve been missing in your traininggrab it now!

intuitive eating ebook

Hydration

Make sure you’re staying adequately hydrated for a race throughout the day, as well.

Many schools have bottle filler water fountains. Bring your water bottle to school and stay on top of your water intake.

You may want to include electrolytes too – any of your favorite storebought ones or you can make your own electrolyte drink.

blue water bottle

Aim to drink around 20 oz. two to three hours leading up to the event.

Have another 10 oz. about 10-20 minutes right before.

If you’re a salty sweater, you will probably need more electrolytes and/or water to make up for your water loss. It’s a good idea to work with a dietitian to figure this out!

blue sports drink with pair of running shoes

What to Eat the Night Before A Cross Country Race

Carbohydrates will be your go-to for your primary fuel source the night before a cross country race.

Your body breaks down the carbohydrates you eat into glucose and stores that glucose as glycogen.

Glycogen is primarily stored in the liver and muscles. You use that stored fuel to power through your training runs and races.

Think of it as a gas tank—your body needs to be filled up with fuel to perform its best.

What you eat the night before your race will impact your glycogen stores.

Since your 5K will take you less than an hour, you won’t need to carb load, but your body will be tapping into those glycogen stores.

To optimize your glycogen levels, you’ll want to center your meal around carbohydrates balanced with lesser amounts of protein and fat.

Some options include:

plate of spaghetti with sauce and cheese

Pre Race Snack Ideas

What you eat and when you eat (also known as nutrient timing) it will strongly impact your race performance.

There are several pre game snacks for athletes that will work.

Before your race, you’ll want to focus on the foods that are:

  • High in carbohydrates
  • Low in fiber
  • Low in fat
  • Moderate in protein
peanut butter and jelly

You don’t want your body taking a long time to digest your food pre-race, or you may end up with cramping and GI upset.

Here are some easy and convenient snack options (or smaller meal options) for athletes preparing for a cross-country race.

Thrive Market has some great snack options, too!

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References:

  • Kerksick, C. M., Arent, S., Schoenfeld, B. J., Stout, J. R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C. D., Taylor, L., Kalman, D., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D., Arciero, P. J., VanDusseldorp, T. A., Ormsbee, M. J., Wildman, R., Greenwood, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Aragon, A. A., & Antonio, J. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 33. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4 
  • Murray, B., & Rosenbloom, C. (2018). Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutrition reviews, 76(4), 243–259. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuy001 
  • Rothschild, J. A., Kilding, A. E., & Plews, D. J. (2020). What Should I Eat before Exercise? Pre-Exercise Nutrition and the Response to Endurance Exercise: Current Prospective and Future Directions. Nutrients, 12(11), 3473. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12113473
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