Strategies for Fueling Your Next Half Marathon
As humans, we are born with the innate knowledge of when to feed ourselves. Instinctually, our bodies will tell us when our energy supplies are low and when it is time to give them food. Our stomachs start to growl, we might start to become lethargic or get a little bit of a short temper, and in more extreme instances, we might get a headache and start to feel dizzy or faint. We know when we need to eat, and our body also gives us cues when we are full and should stop eating. Putting food into our bodies is simple… right? But what about when we are exercising, training, and preparing for a big race? Suddenly, the amount of miles we are cranking out makes us think we are hungry ALL the time, and knowing which foods to consume when in order to achieve our best race time possible starts to seem more like a math equation than instinct! Fortunately, fueling for an endurance race like a half-marathon does not have to be as difficult as it may seem.
The first thing you should know before putting together a fueling plan for your half-marathon is that what works for every individual may be slightly different, so it might take some time and a few tweaks here and there to know what really works best for you – but that’s what the long runs during your training are for! Experiment with a few things, see what works for you, and go into race day feeling confident about your fueling strategy and game plan.
First Things First: Hydration!
In the week leading up to your half marathon, you are going to want to drink water, and a lot of it. Try to get in 8 to 12 ounces of fluid every 1-2 hours that you are awake, and replace any fluid lost in sweat during your run or workout (fortunately, at this point in your training plan, you will likely be tapering and not running quite as much as in prior weeks). If you typically struggle to get in all of your recommended fluids, try buying a large 64 ounce water bottle that has measurements on the side of how much water is left. Fill it up in the morning, and then drink it down throughout the day.
Race Day Hydration
Many new runners worry that drinking too much the morning of a race will just mean that they have to stop too often to use the bathroom. While this is true to an extent, you have to remember that your body will sweat out a lot of what you would excrete through urine anyways. A good recommendation the morning before a race (about 2 to 3 hours before the race begins) is to drink 16 to 24 ounces of water or a sports drink. (The electrolytes and carbohydrates in a sports drink will serve as another fuel source during your run.) This leaves enough time for your body to digest the water and for you to use the bathroom before the gun goes off. Then right before you begin the race, get half a cup or a cup more of water or sports drink into your system. And finally, don’t get too caught up in the numbers! You have a lot to worry about, and stressing that you are a few ounces short of your goal intake will just increase your anxiety more. Try, instead, to just focus on your body’s hydration cues, like the color of your urine. A light yellow color (similar to lemonade) means you are well hydrated, but a dark yellow or even brown color (like iced tea) means you are probably dehydrated and need to get more fluids in.
Getting water and fluids in DURING the race can sometimes be tricky – especially if you are focused on not spending too much time at each race station along the course. Luckily, if you focus on hydration for the entire week before the race, race day will be a breeze. And again – don’t focus so much on the numbers that it just adds stress! Keep it simple and listen to your body. If you are thirsty, then drink. Otherwise, it is not necessary to keep drinking. If you really want a schedule to stick to though, then try to get in 6 to 8 ounces every 20 to 30 minutes of your race, at least for the first hour of the half, then drink when you are thirsty. And an added tip for newbie runners: if you are relying on the hydration stations for water instead of carrying a bottle or a belt along, know that the cups they serve the water in can be hard to handle when you are mid-run. To get the majority of the fluid in your mouth and not down the front of your shirt, bend the cup’s top rim so it forms into a sort of lip so you can easily pour the water into your mouth.
Filling Up Your Tank Before the Race
Even if this is your first half-marathon, you probably are familiar with the term “carb loading.” Your body needs carbohydrates as a quick-digesting energy source. Carbs are stored in the body as glycogen, which is the body’s first choice for energy. But timing is everything! Some people focus on carb-heavy meals the day before, but some runners find that that leaves them too full, too bloated, and too lethargic. Eating a carb-heavy meal two nights before a race, and then for breakfast or lunch the day before a week might serve you best. The quality of the carbohydrate you choose makes a difference too. If you are trying to fill up your glycogen stores in the week before, you need to focus on whole grain and complex carbohydrates. Go for whole grain and whole wheat pastas, breads, and grains. These will break down slower in the body, and be a great stored source of energy for your muscles to help you avoid bonking come race day.
But don’t forget the protein! Lean sources of protein will amp up each meal, fuel your run, and really help you recover better. Lean meats like chicken, pork, and fish are good options. Then to avoid getting too full the night before and risk waking up on race morning with a “dinner hangover,” go for a lighter meal. Still aim for a balanced plate of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, but you don’t need to eat a heaping bowl of spaghetti. Many collegiate and professional runners go for light meals like baked salmon and quinoa. And stay away from fibrous vegetables unless you have a stomach of steel! This could really mess up your race day bathroom plans.
Fueling up on the morning of the race can vary drastically depending on the runner. So again, it is important that you try out your fueling strategy BEFORE race day. Race the way you train. Most runners don’t want to eat too much the morning of the race both because of nerves and an anxious stomach, and because they don’t want to be too full for the race. If the days leading up to the race are about complex carbs, the day of the race is all about quick-digesting carbs. Fruit are great and wholesome sources of quick digesting carbohydrates. Half a banana or half a bagel or piece of white toast will do the trick. As for protein, some sources make runners’ stomachs upset because protein is a tougher macro nutrient to break down. A tablespoon of peanut butter or a boiled egg will be enough to fill you up but not too much. Try to eat your first meal 2 to 3 hours before race time though. And because race days mean pretty early mornings, coffee or a caffeine source might be essential. Half a cup of coffee should be enough to wake you up and get you moving but not mess up your stomach too much. (Plus, you will likely be so excited for the race that you’ll find it’s not all THAT tough to get up, even if it is a 4 am wake up call.)
Fuel Strategies During the Race
Some runners, especially those distance and endurance athletes that are used to triathlons, marathons, and ultra marathons opt to forego fuel for the entirety of a half marathon. But for those of us who aren’t seasoned vets or professionals, we will probably need easily-digestible calories during the run to get us to the finish line. In fact, it is recommended that you do consume a fuel source if you are running for longer than 75 minutes so that your blood sugar levels remain stable. You will want to go for quick-digesting, simple carbohydrates. There are many great gels, chews, and snacks sold specifically for endurance activities, but some runners like to get more creative – popping sugary candies like Swedish Fish and Skittles along a run aren’t an uncommon thing to see during a half marathon! Sports drinks will also provide you with a good source of carbohydrates, so long as they have adequate calories as well.
You did it! You crossed the finish line, got your medal, and now it’s finally time to celebrate! While you can definitely be more lenient about the food and beverages you choose after a race (We hear that beer and pizza tastes even better when you’re sporting your race swag and bling!), it is also important to make sure you replenish what was lost through sweat during your run, and give your body some decent nutrients to repair your tired, aching muscles. Re-hydrate yourself with water or a sports drink, and get some quality protein and carbohydrates in. If you need specific ideas, try a peanut butter smothered bagel and chocolate milk, or a protein bar and a banana within an hour after crossing the finish line. Then make sure you go treat yourself!
- Running 101: Race Fueling Made Simple, Competitor Running Blog Article, Sep 06, 2013 ,
- What Should I Eat Before And During My First Half Marathon?, Runner's World Blog Post, Jul 20, 2010 ,