How to Fuel For Half Marathon Training to Race Day

Eating for Athletic Performance

Running a half marathon for the first time or as a seasoned athlete takes proper training and excellent nutrition. In fact, without the right nutrient intake, athletic performance can be adversely affected. Low energy levels and dehydration can occur when not properly fueled. In order to ensure a successful training experience and event, the following nutrition tips will be your most helpful tool. 

Good Nutrition is the Foundation for Success

Baby boomers in half-marathon
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Deciding to run a half marathon is a significant step up from 5K training. What you eat on a daily basis is as important to prepare for your event as what you eat the day before. 

Consuming a wide variety of healthy foods containing good carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats provides essential nutrients. Drinking plenty of water is also important for optimum athletic performance. Understanding how to fuel your body with the right nutrition during the training process is vital to your success.

Half marathon training is demanding and requires several hours of running practice per week. This training also varies and challenges different energy systems of the body. Having a healthy nutrition plan in place fuels our body and enables us to meet the physical demands of training. 

If you were not eating healthy before, it’s time to incorporate healthy eating habits. This means stocking your pantry and refrigerator with real quality food providing nutrients and not empty calories. Basic nutrient dense foods that will help improve your health, fitness, and prepare you for half marathon training may include: 

  • Lean meats and fish (organic and grass-fed is best)
  • Oatmeal 
  • Brown or white rice
  • Quinoa
  • Beans and lentils
  • Variety vegetables
  • Leafy greens
  • Fresh fruits
  • Nuts and seeds

Proper Fuel Helps Meet Training Demands

Putting a foundation of healthy eating in place will help ensure proper fueling and meet the energy demands of half marathon training. A sensible training period for a 10 to 13.1-mile run should be a minimum of 12 weeks with a gradual increase of weekly mileage and long weekend runs. As you increase in mileage, it will require increased calories with the focus on healthy eating. Avoid the temptation to fill up on empty-calorie foods as a reward for hard work.

Training Runs and Fuel Intake: Learn What Works for You

Generally, for exercise or running practices lasting over an hour, it's good to consider taking fuel with you. Finding the best foods that work for your body during training will come from trial and error. This process of elimination will have you ready for race day and confident with what and when to eat.  

In addition, hydration is recommended every 20 minutes so packing a water bottle or wearing a hydration vest will be a necessary component of training and race time. Training runs will be a time of self-discovery not only to increase your endurance but to learn when you need to fuel and hydrate.

Hydration Tips

Hydration

  • Hydration is a crucial part of successful training.
  • Prior to training, hydrate with at least 16 ounces of water during the two hours prior to starting.
  • During training, hydrate with 6 to 8 ounces every 20 minutes.
  • Let your thirst be your guide.
  • However, more is not better - let the guidance be just that … guidance.

Sports drinks

  • Provide fluids, carbohydrates (approximately 15 gm/8 ounces) and electrolytes.
  • Dilute them to 50 percent strength or less with water until you know what you can tolerate.
  • Many options are available.

What to Eat Before Long Training Runs

Consume easily digested complex carbohydrates and protein two to four hours before starting your long training run. Great examples would include oatmeal, fruit, and milk or a bagel with peanut butter.

For those of you who hop out of bed and eat in the car on the way to training, try something more transportable like a banana, oat bar, or sports gel. There will be less chance of upset stomach or nausea with a lighter, quickly digested meal. 

What to Eat During Long Training Runs

Easily digestible, transportable, generally "bite-sized" healthy food products are recommended during your long training run. These may include commercial options or real food as shown below: 

Commercial gels, jellies, and sport beans

  • Usually contain 25-30 gm carbohydrate and may include caffeine, electrolytes or vitamins.

Commercial sports bars

"Real" food

  • Fig bars
  • Peanut butter and jelly on soft wheat bread smooshed into zip-lock sandwich bag.
  • Pretzels

Whatever you choose for fuel during your runs, plan to hydrate at the same time.

Additional Training Tips

Training runs provide an opportunity to figure out how you're going to carry fueling and hydration necessities. You will need plenty of practice running with them, whether hydration belt with gel holders, handheld bottle, or hydration vest. This is your chance to experiment with what works best for you and select that option prior to race day.

If you belong to a training group, they typically provide at least hydration support for your long weekend runs. Be aware this may not be the case at your event, or what is provided may be different. Always be prepared with what works best for you.

You may wish to find out ahead of time what will be provided at the event and where the water/fuel stations are on course.

What to Eat the Day Before: Stay on Track

This is not the time to stray from your healthy nutrition plan. You have spent months preparing your body with the right fuel and hydration that works best for you during the long run. Stick to what you know for a successful race. 

Often a half marathon is associated with a marathon and there will be a wonderful Runner's EXPO to attend with all sorts of interesting fuel and hydration possibilities to try.

Sampling is fine, but don't make a spur of the moment decision to try something new and different on race day. 

Carbo-loading or making a concerted effort to eat extra carbohydrates two or three days prior to the event may be beneficial. Continue to choose complex carbohydrates and  lean proteins you've been eating as part of your normal healthy eating pattern.

Avoid high fiber foods at the evening meal before the event to reduce the risk of stomach upset during the race.

Race Morning and During the Event

By now you should know exactly what to do before and during the event. You have put in lots of training practice and have learned this is not the time to try anything different.

Hydrate and fuel on race morning as you have been doing during training. Continue your hydration strategy during the event as you have practiced. 

Those in the back of the pack should always be prepared for water/fuel stations to run low towards the end of the race. This does not happen often, but it does happen.

After the Event: Time to Recover

Immediately after crossing the finish line, consuming healthy, easily digestible carbohydrates is essential.

Throughout the rest of the day, it's back to foundational healthy eating and should include the following:

Once again, resist the temptation to eat and drink whatever you want because you think you deserve it. Wait until you run that marathon!

A Word From Verywell

The 10 mile to half marathon distance will take all but the highly elite runners over 60 minutes. Most runners and walkers complete the race in over 90 minutes. Regardless of your pace, proper fuel and hydration are essential. Following proper nutrition guidelines through all stages of training, during the event, and for race recovery is an important part of the training process.

That being said, every athlete is different and will benefit from healthy eating during half marathon training. Drinking plenty of water is also an extremely important component. Beyond that, every athlete should determine what additional fuel and hydration needs will help them do their best on event day. Perhaps the sports drink provided by the event organizers, diluted with water, is enough. Maybe a sports gel or banana at mile 8 will be enough.

It's up to you to use this information and experiment throughout the training process to learn how best to use your resources on race day.

Special thanks to Jennifer Rousseve, MS, RD, for her contribution to this article. Jen holds a Master’s of Science in nutrition and Registered Dietitian for 41 years. Her running career began in 1983 completing 57 half marathons and 20 marathons. 

Sources:

eatright.org, Eat Right for Endurance Sports, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (reviewed by Jill Kohn, MS. RDN, LDN), 2015

eatright.org, Top Snacks for Runners, Monique Ryan, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, 2014

eatright.org, How to Fuel Your Workout, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (reviewed by Sharon Denny MS. RDN), 2014

eatright.org, Beginner's Guide to Running Your Personal Best, Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC, 2105

eatrightpro.org, Nutrition and Athletic Performance, Position Paper: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2009

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