Half Marathon Training Nutrition Guide

Eating for the Long Run - 10 miles to Half Marathon

Have you decided to run a half marathon? Before diving into the great information within this article on the subject, I want to take the opportunity to thank my co-writer and friend Jennifer Rousseve. 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. I personally don't run half marathons and enlisting Jen’s expert feedback was a necessary and fun joint venture. Jen takes you from start to finish with how to eat during half marathon training and what to eat on race day. 

Good Nutrition: A Foundation for Success

Runners racing in half marathon
Fuel and Hydration are Vital for Success. Cultura/Frank and Helena / Getty Images

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 preparing 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 provide essential nutrients. Drinking plenty of water is also important for optimum fitness. Take a moment to read “Training for My First 5K: What Do I Eat?” which is excellent guidance for your half marathon preparation. Understanding how to fuel your body with the right nutrition along the training process is vital to your success.

Proper Fuel: Helps Meet Training Demands

Half Marathon Training
Proper Fuel is Essential. WireImage / Getty Images

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. Increased miles will require increased calories with the focus on healthy eating as outlined in the 5K training article. 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

Group of runners on paved road
Learn What Works Best for You. millsrymer / Getty Images

Generally, for exercise over an hour, it's good to consider taking fuel "on the run" and finding the best foods that work for you will come from trial and error. Also, hydration should occur every 20 minutes so packing that water bottle 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

sports and drinking
Stay Hydrated During the Race. SilviaJansen / Getty Images

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% strength or less with water until you know what you can tolerate
  • Many options available

Fuel Tip: What to Eat Before Long Training Runs

Oatmeal
Oatmeal Makes a Great Meal Prior to a Long Run. Jowena Chua Moment/Getty Images

It's recommended easily digested complex carbohydrates and protein be consumed two to four hours before starting. Great examples would include oatmeal, fruit, and milk or a bagel with peanut butter.

For those of you who hop out of bed a scant hour or so before feet hit the pavement and eat in the car on the way, try something more transportable like a banana, oat bar, or sports gel.

Fuel Tip: What to Eat During Long Training Runs

Runner Gel Pack
Gel Packs Can Be an Option to Fuel Your Body. Joshua Hodge Photograp/Getty Images

Easily digestible, easily transportable, generally "bite-sized" healthy food products are recommended.

Many commercial options are available and while not the only options, have been developed to meet the above criteria.

Commercial gels, jellies, and sport beans

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

Commercial sports bars

  • Contain larger portions of carbohydrate and usually are a source of protein

"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

Hydration Packs
Running Hydration Packs are a Personal Choice. John P Kelly Stockbyte/Getty Images

Training runs also 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 - DO WHAT YOU KNOW!

Protein and Energy Bars
Food Samples Can be Fun but Go With What You Know. Alex Cao Photodisc/Getty Images

THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO TRY ANYTHING DIFFERENT!

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 the next day!

Carbo-loading or making a concerted effort to eat extra carbohydrates two or three days prior to the event couldn't hurt.

  • Continue to choose the complex carbohydrates and lean proteins you've been eating as part of your normal healthy eating pattern.
  • Avoid high fiber foods at the meal the night before the event.

Race Morning and During the Event - USE THE TRIED AND TRUE

Runners having bananas in half marathon
Fuel and Hydrate for Your Body During the Race. Cultura/Frank and Helena / Getty Images

By now you should know exactly what to do before and during the event, having practiced during training.

This is not the time to try anything different!

Hydrate and fuel on race morning as you have been doing during training.

Hydrate and fuel during the event as you have been doing during training.

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!

Half Marathon
The Race is Over: Time to Recover!. Hero Images / Getty Images

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

Throughout the rest of the day, it's back to foundational healthy eating.

  • Complex carbohydrates to restore liver glycogen
  • Healthy protein sources for muscle recovery
  • Consistent fluid intake

Once again, resist the temptation to eat and drink whatever you want because YOU DESERVE IT! Wait until you run that marathon!

Closing Thoughts: every athlete is unique

Sports women drinking water
Every Athlete is Unique. andresr / Getty Images

The 10 M/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 vital during training, during the event, and after the event. It's important to follow the guidelines above as part of the training process.

That being said, every athlete is different. All will benefit from healthy eating on a daily basis as described above. Water is an extremely important component of training. 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.

sources:

eatright.org, Eat Right for Endurance Sports, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (reviewed by Jill Kohn, MS. RDN, LDN), 4/13/2015

eatright.org, Top Snacks for Runners, Monique Ryan, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, 2/6/2014

eatright.org, How to Fuel Your Workout, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (reviewed by Sharon Denny MS. RDN), 11/24/2014

eatright.org, Beginner's Guide to Running Your Personal Best, Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC, 2/17/2105

eatrightpro.org, Nutrition and Athletic Performance, Position Paper: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 3/2009

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