Half Marathon Nutrition 101

These half marathon nutrition tips will help you adequately prepare for, race and recover from your half marathon.

group of runners running a race

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One of the biggest factors that will determine how you finish a half marathon is how you fuel your body before, during, and after the race, as well as during training.

Nutrition and hydration when running can be the difference between barely finishing a race and finishing the race strong.

And while fueling for a half marathon is not as intricate as fueling for a marathon, you still want to go in with a plan!

Nutrition for half marathon training requires practice, trying different fueling options and alternatives, and timing nutrition around your runs and long runs.

Key Half Marathon Nutrition Tips

For endurance athletes, it is important that the general diet for half marathon training is high enough in carbohydrates (45-65% of total calories) to provide the body with adequate energy.

High amounts of carbohydrates are needed because carbs fill the muscles with glycogen, the storage form that fuels endurance exercise.

As your training mileage increases, so do your calorie needs, especially calories from carbohydrates.

This should also include a plethora of colorful fruits and vegetables, as those provide runners with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to help with muscle soreness and recovery.

Here are some of the best carbs for runners in terms of bang for your buck.

It is also important to consume sufficient amounts of protein in order to maintain or build muscle. Protein provides the tools (aka amino acids) to build and repair damaged muscles from the miles of training done each week.

This post explains more about needs and protein for runners.

If you’re unsure about your regular eating day to day for a half marathon diet, take a look at a sample long distance runners diet plan.

Hydration is also a key component since dehydration has been shown to be the single largest contributor to fatigue when an athlete is training or racing.

Make sure to use this half marathon hydration plan guide when planning your 13.1 miles.

This also refers to your daily hydration, outside of running.

Our ultimate guide to hydration for runners can help you determine how much you should be drinking.

Lastly, it is important to never try any new fueling strategies on race day. Practice fueling during training to ensure you are comfortable with consuming certain foods and drinks while running.

What to Eat Before a Half Marathon

When thinking about what to eat the week before a half marathon, think a balanced diet with an emphasis on carbohydrates. You may be following a taper plan, so incorporate some of these taper nutrition tips. 

The goal for fueling in the days leading up to a half marathon is high carbohydrate, moderate protein, and low fat and fiber.

These performance plates for runners can help you visualize your plate with larger servings of carbohydrates.

performance plate hard training day

The aim is to fill up your muscle fuel stores with carbohydrates and to not consume anything that sits too heavy in the stomach or takes a long time to digest, such as fats and fiber.

Several days prior to the race or long run, you may want to eat less fat, such as nuts, seeds, avocados, butter, cheese, etc. If you have a sensitive stomach, avoid high fiber foods as well, such as certain fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, etc.

Focus more on simple carbs, such as lower fiber fruits and veggies, applesauce, fruit juice, non-whole grain foods such as white pasta, etc.

If you plan on running over 90 minutes, there is some positive merit and research to carb loading for a half marathon improving performance by 2-3%.

twirled pasta on fork over white plate of pasta

While including some of the best foods for carb-loading that make intake easier, you’ll still want to include some lean protein such as chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, and/or dairy products to keep you full and satiated, and prevent muscle protein breakdown.

Here are some other options for what to eat the night before a half marathon

What to eat the night before a half marathon

The night before the race or long run, you may want to eat a blander meal that you’re comfortable with and you’ve eaten before during training.

Some examples are:

  • grilled chicken breast, some light veggies, pasta with marinara sauce, and bread.
  • choice of protein with sweet potatoes or potatoes and bread
  • sandwich with fruit and juice
  • pizza (be careful about the toppings and grease)

You’ll want to test out your night before meal during training, ideally before long runs, and find what works best for you.

Breakfast Before Half Marathon

These pre-half marathon breakfast ideas will help you load up your glycogen stores going into the race.

The morning of a half marathon, you’ll want to consume something easy to digest and high in carbohydrates, such as toast, a bagel, oatmeal, low-fiber fruits or fruit juice, dairy products (if that sits well with you), cereal, etc.

Check out these ideas for the best breakfasts for runners.

You may want to include a little bit of lean protein or a little bit of fat to keep you full and satisfied longer, but nothing that sits too heavy or causes you any GI issues.

bowl of oatmeal with sliced bananas

Examples of pre-race breakfast ideas:

  • Wheat or white bagel or bread + peanut butter + banana + low-fat milk
  • Oatmeal with some nuts or nut butter + banana + cinnamon
  • Fruit smoothie such as strawberry, banana, pineapple + Greek yogurt + almond milk
  • Sweet potato + almond butter + low-fat milk
  • Yogurt parfait with fruit & granola

Again, you’ll want to experiment with this pre-workout meal or snack during training to find what works best for you and doesn’t cause any GI issues.

If you feel unable to eat breakfast prior to early morning exercise, consuming ~30 grams of easily digested carbohydrate (e.g., banana, carbohydrate gel, or sport drink) 30 minutes before exercise may improve performance and energy and is certainly better than eating nothing.

What to Eat During a Half Marathon

Fueling during a half marathon is a delicate balance of fluids, electrolytes and carbohydrate consumption. Each of these components is going to be individualized but there are some general recommendations to get you started.

Firstly, practice makes perfect. Especially if you have signs and symptoms of runners gut, you need to practice long before race day.

A proper fueling plan can help you avoid hitting the wall in a marathon or half marathon.

  • Fluids – It’s important to begin exercise in an adequately hydrated state. Increasing your fluid intake in the days leading up to the race, the night before, and the morning of is going to be good practice to reach adequate fluid status. During the half marathon, you should aim to drink before you are thirsty. Drink a couple sips or gulps (approx. 4-8 oz. water or sports drink) every 15-20 minutes. You can train yourself to drink during exercise if this is new to you. Also, decide if you are going to carry your own fluids during the race and/or use the fluids provided during the race.
  • Electrolytes – Electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, and chloride, play a key role in maintaining proper hydration. Electrolytes are especially important if the weather is hot and/or humid and/or if you are a heavy sweater or a salty sweater. If you see or feel salt on your body or clothes after exercise, this can be an indication you are a salty sweater. Electrolyte needs are very individualized but a good starting point is to consume 300 to 700mg of sodium per hour during exercise. This can be through your fueling products, such as sports drinks or energy gels, or through an electrolyte supplement such as Nuun Sport.
  • Carbohydrates –  Carbohydrates are necessary to keep blood glucose levels adequate while running a half marathon. You will likely want to fuel before your half marathon by eating a meal or snack high in carbohydrates. During the race, you’ll want to continue fueling with easily digested carbohydrates, like gels, pretzels or gummies. The general recommendations are to consume 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour after the first 45-60 minutes of exercise. Fuel early and often! You may not feel you need the fuel that early on, but it is better to start fueling early rather than waiting until it’s too late and hitting the wall. 

You have several options for taking in carbohydrates during a half marathon, including gels, chews, liquids and more. Here’s a run down of the best chews for running

man taking energy gel while running

Example of How to Fuel During a Half Marathon

Let’s look at some examples of how this may look for a runner during a half marathon fueling with Spring energy gels. (1 gel = 90 calories, 20g carbohydrates, 160mg sodium, 180mg potassium).

  • 1:30 half marathon: (6:50 pace): Drink 4-8 oz. fluids every 15-20 minutes; consume first Spring energy gel around mile 6-8; consume second Spring energy gel around mile 9-11; consume a third Spring energy gel, if needed, before the end of the race.
  • 2:00 half marathon: (9:10 pace): Drink 4-8 oz. fluids every 15-20 minutes; consume first Spring energy gel around mile 4-6; consume second Spring energy gel around mile 7-9; consume a third Spring energy gel around mile 10-11.
  • 2:30 half marathon: (11:26 pace): Drink 4-8 oz. fluids every 15-20 minutes; consume first Spring energy gel around mile 4-5; consume second Spring energy gel around mile 6-8; consume a third Spring energy gel around mile 8-10; consume a fourth Spring energy gel around mile 10-12.

You’ll see from above, the longer it takes you to complete the half marathon, in general, the more fuel you will need, since you will be exercising and moving your body for a longer amount of time, hence demanding more from your muscles. 

What to Eat After a Half Marathon 

Congrats! You’ve just run a half marathon. Now it’s time to celebrate, rest, and promote recovery.

Your half marathon nutrition doesn’t stop here. In fact, this begins your post half marathon recovery

Many runners finish half marathons dehydrated and don’t even realize it. As soon as you finish the race, grab a water, sports drink, or chocolate milk to sip on while celebrating. Nutrition for recovery after a half marathon is ideally going to include carbohydrates, protein, and fluids.

woman runner hunched over on knees while running

The goal is to refuel, rebuild, and rehydrate post-workout. The sooner you have a post-workout snack or meal, the quicker your body will recover. This means less soreness, less fatigue, and a quicker recovery time so you’re ready to go for the next training session.

Carbohydrates are, again, our body’s main fuel source. So post-workout we need to refuel the muscles with carbohydrates. The longer or harder the workout is, the more carbohydrates you will need to refuel and recover.

Protein is necessary for muscle recovery and rebuilding. Protein requirements post-workout are determined by your body weight.

Fluids are necessary to rehydrate the body. This is going to be individualized based on body weight, muscle mass, gender, age, sweat rate, environmental factors, location of workout, etc. A general guideline is to drink 16-24 ounces of fluid for each pound lost during training.

For a more comprehensive breakdown of post-workout recovery, check out What to do for Recovery after a Half Marathon.

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Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals, 5th ed. (2012)

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