Training for a half marathon is no easy feat! For weeks, you’ll be hitting the pavement and telling yourself to push through the physical and mental roadblocks that might get in your way. One of the most vital aspects to consider throughout the training process, whether this is your first or sixth half marathon, is the food you eat that fuels you through the finish line.
It’s important to properly fuel up before you head out for a run, especially if you’re prepping to run longer distances. Whether you’re following an 8-week or 12-week training program, you’ll be faced with plenty of longer distance runs that will call for more carbohydrates in your diet.
“The general consensus is foods that are rich in carbohydrates make the best pre-run fuel, however nutrition is one of those things where there are no ‘absolutes’ and is dependent on the goal of the runner,” says Ariana Fotinakis, personal trainer, nutrition & weight loss specialist.
For moderate to high intensity activities, the body utilizes carbohydrates for energy, hence “carb-loading” the night before the big race! Foods such as oatmeal, bananas and sweet potatoes are great sources that are high in carbohydrates. That being said, it is important to eat the right carbohydrates. Runners will want to avoid refined carbohydrates such as breads, pastries and fast food. Fotinakis follows a basic rule of avoiding anything that is heavily- processed. While a diet can vary from person to person depending on special dietary needs or current health conditions, avoiding heavily processed foods is a great rule to follow to increase your performance.
After about 90 minutes of exercise our bodies run out of glycogen, which is where we store our carbohydrates. So runners will increase their carbohydrate consumption for about two to three days before a big race in an effort to increase those stores. Proper carb-loading requires about 60 percent to 80 percent of your total calories to come from carbohydrates,” says Fotinakis.
Karen Poole, a certified personal trainer and running coach suggests that when your training program calls for a shorter distance run, it is best to eat a small snack 30 minutes to an hour before you head out.
“I like PocketFuel because it is a natural nut butter blend that contains carbs, fat and protein for slow release energy,” says Poole. For most everyday runners, fuel needs to be taken about every four miles during distance running to maintain energy levels. It doesn’t need to be a lot, but 100 to 200 calories is adequate,” says Poole.
Poole states that morning runners might make a habit of skipping breakfast, although that’s not a wise idea. A healthy breakfast that is about 300 to 400 calories one to two hours before a run is ideal when you are aiming to run longer distances. For runs less than 60 minutes, you don’t need to worry too much about fueling up while you’re hitting the pavement.
Eating properly before you head out will really set the tone throughout your run. If you eat too much and too soon before you start your run, you could end up feeling very sluggish – or worse – end up vomiting.
Replenishing your body after a run is just as important as pre-fueling. It’s vital to keep enough carbohydrates in your overall diet so you don’t feel depleted throughout the day.
“Often runners need to eat small meals throughout the day to keep their energy from crashing. They also may want to up their protein or carbohydrate intake,” says Poole.
It’s important to focus on foods that will provide you with a lot of energy. Just because you’re training for a half marathon and burning a lot of calories doesn’t mean you get a free pass to eat whatever you want. Beware of the all of the protein and “energy” bars out there and make sure you read the labels, as some can be very high in fat. Avoid eating foods that promote inflammation. As previously mentioned, this includes things like refined sugar, plant oils like corn and canola oil, heavily-processed and refined carbohydrates like breads and store-bought pastries and fast food.
“After long runs, it’s important to take in a meal or snack that contains both carbohydrates and protein. Ideally this should be eaten within 30 minutes of finishing your long run. Ideas include a tall glass of chocolate milk, Greek yogurt with berries and honey, or a bowl of rice with chicken and veggies,” says Registered Dietitian and author of Eat to Peak: Sports Nutrition for Runners and Triathletes.
Knowing what to eat to help fuel your body is a very personal process and can vary from runner to runner depending on your fitness level and your goals. It will take a lot of trial and error to find your perfect balance.