A comprehensive guide to fueling before, during and after a half marathon. Plant-based foods that will help you PR in your next race and foods to avoid!
Preparing for a half-marathon is no easy task. Not only is training important for performance, but so is nutrition. Since you’re reading this article, you’ve likely made the decision to transition to a plant-based diet and you’re in good company as plant-based has become increasingly popular among pro athletes, like boxer Mike Tyson, tennis star Serena Williams, and ultrarunner Scott Jurek.
Whether you’re new to plant-based eating or a seasoned pro, you may have questions about how to eat the night before and the morning of your race to make sure your body is properly fueled throughout the race.
Regardless of the type of diet you choose, it’s important to understand the basics of half marathon nutrition. Here are my top tips to help you ace your ½ marathon and perform at your best.
1. Fuel properly for training runs
Whether you’re an experienced marathoner or a first-timer, it’s important to go into every training run properly fueled. Although the amount of fuel you need varies based on mileage, a good rule of thumb is to eat some simple carbs (fruit, dried fruit, low-fiber grains, 100% juice), at least 90 minutes before a run.
For more specifics on pre-run fueling and examples, check out these helpful resources:
2. Recover from training runs
Half marathon training runs differ from non-training “fun runs” because they often include speed and hill workouts. With that, recovery nutrition becomes essential for repairing and refueling tired muscles to make tomorrow’s workout easier.
Have a mixture of carbs and protein after every training run, such as a glass of chocolate milk or a piece of fruit with nut butter. For longer runs, a post-run Sunshine Smoothie or Turmeric Egg Sandwich are always good options.
3. Pay attention to macros
There are three macronutrients and each serve a different purpose. Carbohydrates provide energy for exercise, protein helps with muscle building, organ function and appetite control and fat is for storage and regulating hunger.
All three macros are essential during half marathon training. Carbs often come before and after a run, while protein and fat are necessary post-run for muscle repair and satisfying your runner’s hunger. [Read more about macros and macro tracking here.]
4. Don’t forget micronutrients
It’s normal to focus solely on marcos and forget about micros, aka the micronutrients. Vitamins and minerals are vital for staying healthy during marathon training, especially these three:
- Vitamin C– a deficienct can put a strain on your immune system, so make sure you eat plenty of vitamin C rich fruits and veggies, like citrus, mango, berries and leafy greens.
- Vitamin D– most people are deficient in Vitamin D, especially in the winter. This nutrient is important for bone health, and the last thing you want is weak bones! Vitamin D is only found in a few foods, like eggs, mushrooms, Brazil nuts and fatty fish, so you may want to ask your doctor about a supplement.
- Calcium– this bone-building mineral is the best buddy of Vitamin D. Luckily, it’s found in plenty of foods, like dairy, soy products, nuts and leafy greens.
“Hydration is the most important tool you’re not using” is the name of the hydration chapter in The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide For Runners.
Hydrating properly takes some trial and error, but it’s guaranteed to increase your performance when done correctly. Remember this– you can tell if you’re properly hydrated by your urine color. If it’s pale yellow, you’re hydrated. If it’s dark yellow, you need to take in more water. Easy peasy!
To assess your hydration status, calculate your sweat rate.
6. Add fuel during long runs
Your body naturally stores fuel for exercise in the form of glycogen, but it has limited storage space. The combination of glycogen and dietary carbs provides energy for about an hour. For runs lasting longer than an hour, it’s necessary to replenish carbs to have enough energy to finish the run.
If you’re new to this, start with a few swigs of a sports drink or half a sports gel or gummie packet right as you’re approaching with 1-hour mark. These products definitely help, but they may upset your stomach at first, so start slow until you learn what you can tolerate.
Scroll to the bottom of this post to get more suggestions for mid-run fueling. [Read more about handling stomach issues while running here.]
7. Try out fuel on training runs
Because fueling while running can cause digestive issues, it’s important to try it out during training runs. In other words, don’t try to fuel during a run for the first time on race day.
A good way to practice is to simulate race day conditions on long run days. Figure out when it’s best for you to take in fuel during that practice run.
8. Research the course
Races vary drastically, based on the location and time of year. Some races, like those in NYC, have a hydration station at practically every mile marker and a fueling station at least once during a half marathon.
Others, in more remote locations, have less hydration and fueling stations, and you may want to carry your own fuel of choice during the race. Research this well ahead of time so you know when you’ll be able to drink and fuel during the race, and practice this during your training.
9. Practice race day morning
Waking up at the crack of dawn and trying to fill your belly with carbs is not exactly easy to do. You may not be hungry when you first wake up. That’s why you should practice race day morning a few weeks prior, preferably on a long run day. Wake up at the time you would for a race, eat the pre-race breakfast and start your run at race time.
See how your stomach reacts to the food and observe if your muscles have enough fuel to get you through the long run. And don’t forget to drink water before the race!
What to eat the night before a half marathon
Since carbs are the primary source of fuel for athletes, many runners may try carb-loading leading up to the event. [Learn more about carb loading and how to do it correctly.] If you’re carb-loading, you will increase your carb intake to 80% of total calories for the 2-3 days leading up to the event.
The goal is to build up your glycogen stores, otherwise known as the stored version of carbohydrates in your body, so that your energy levels last longer throughout the race.
That said, if you don’t carb-load before a race, that’s perfectly okay! In that case, eat a pre-race dinner meal that consists of carbs, protein, and fat. Aim for 50% carbohydrates, 25% fat, and 25% protein.
Based on those macro recommendations, choose a dinner that is well-balanced with carbs, protein, and fat. Most plant-based meals are a good place to start, but here are some specific suggestions:
- Rice bowl with sweet potato, sautéed spinach, and tofu
- Pasta primavera– whole wheat pasta with veggies and olive oil
- Coconut Fried Rice
- Spiced Chickpea Veggie Burger on Whole Wheat Bun
Foods to avoid the night before
There are certain foods you definitely want to avoid the night before a race. Never try anything new or unfamiliar because you do not know if that food will cause indigestion, GI issues, and even sleep disturbances. Choose foods that are familiar to you.
Some foods you want to avoid the night before the race are:
- Fried Foods, like french fries, can lead to indigestion
- Caffeine-containing foods or drinks, such as coffee, tea, or chocolate, can alter sleep patterns
- Spicy foods, like salsa or sriracha, can cause stomach issues
- High fiber foods, such as beans and cruciferous vegetables, can cause gas and bloating
The night before the race you want to feel fueled, relaxed, and get a good night’s rest, so stick to those foods you know and love.
What to eat the morning of the race
On the morning of the race, it’s necessary to eat enough to fuel your body for the race.
The best type of pre-race meal/snack is one that contains a good amount of carbohydrates to raise blood glucose and add some additional carbs to your glycogen stores. You also want to make sure your pre-race meal fuels your hunger, provides fluids to prevent dehydration, and avoids you from having GI distress.
For the pre-event meal, a runner should consume 1-4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (or per 2.2 pounds body weight) about 1-4 hours before the event.
Here’s a quick reference tool for you to build a healthy pre-race meal:
|Time before race||Grams of carbs/kg||Example: 150 pound (68 kg) runner|
|4 hours before||4g/ kg||272 grams|
|3 hours before||3g/ kg||204 grams|
|2 hours before||2g/ kg||136 grams|
|1 hour before||1g/ kg||68 grams|
If you plan on eating 4 hours before the race, choose a meal that is higher in carbs and contains some protein. Since it is 4 hours before the race, you can have a larger meal because you have more time to digest. Here’s an example:
- 1-2 cups of granola + 1 large banana +1 cup of non-dairy milk + 1 tablespoon of nut butter + 1 teaspoon honey or maple syrup
If you’re eating 2-3 hours before the race, have a slightly smaller meal that has some carbs and protein to keep you full and provide sustained energy. Here’s an example:
- 1 cup oatmeal made with ½ cup milk +1 cup berries + 1 tablespoon nut butter
If you’re eating within 1 hour before the race, opt for simple carbs that can be digested quickly. Here is an example:
- banana and a swig of sports drink.
- a few handfuls of low fiber cereal and coconut water
Foods to avoid the morning of
Similar to the night before the race, you should avoid unfamiliar foods the morning of your race. You’ll also want to stay away from fried foods, high fiber foods, and spicy foods.
Also, if you’re not normally a caffeine drinker, do NOT include it the morning of your race without experimenting first. Read more about the benefits of caffeine for runners here.
Specifically, it is best to stay away from foods such as:
- Croissants, due to high butter (fat) content
- Vegan Sausage
- Sugary muffins, such as a crumb cake muffin
When should you eat during a long run?
Now that you know exactly what to eat (and what to avoid) the night before and the morning of your half marathon or marathon, it’s time to think about how you’ll fuel for the race.
All in all, the amount of carbs already in your system will provide energy for about 60 minutes. During any run lasting longer than 60-minutes, consume 30-60 grams of carbohydrate every hour.
If that seems like more than you can handle at one time, break it down into 15 to 20-minute intervals. Think about refueling in terms of small pit stops on your way to the finish line, just enough to keep you going without taking you out of the race.
Easy to carry fuel sources
Now that you know you need to be fueling during a long run, what should you eat? First, think of things that fit in your pack and are easy to eat.
No one fueling strategy is perfect for everyone, so it’s best to try out a few different foods and fluids during training to see what works for you. Here are some suggestions:
- Sports drinks can do double duty, providing fluids and carbohydrates in one easy to carry product.
- Other supplements, like gels and gummies, are portable, pre-portioned and easy to eat and digest.
- Some runners can tolerate fruit juice or small pieces of fruit, like bananas, while others may find that fructose (fruit sugar) causes gastrointestinal distress.
- On longer runs, it can be helpful to carry both sweet and savory foods, like candy and pretzels, to keep your tastebuds interested and not overload them with sweet.
- Avoid high-fiber foods, like whole wheat bread, since fiber remains undigested in the intestine and can cause stomach issues while running. This is the time when you want to eat white starches!
Let’s dive into each of these options.
Sports drinks can help replace carbs and electrolytes during a long run. But depending on the length of your run, they may provide too much liquid to rely on sports drinks alone. I recommend pairing a sports drink with some of the options below. And read more about sports drinks and electrolytes here:
Gus and Sports Gels
Sports gus and gels are some of the most portable and runner-friendly sports products. Most brands yield about 100 calories and 22 g of carbohydrate per package, which will supply about 30-45 minutes of energy. Like anything in the world of sports nutrition, there are some potential pitfalls with taking in too much of this stuff; namely GI distress. PLEASE please please drink at least 6-8 ounces of water with each gu or gel.
Here are some sports gus and gels recommendations:
GU Energy Gels come in a variety of tasty flavors, such as Salted Watermelon or S’mores. For those who don’t love sucking down a jelly liquid, the wide variety of flavors can definitely help!
Honey Stinger Organic Gel is one of the only organic and gluten-free options. Made with just seven ingredients, including honey, this 100 calorie gel is great for those who are picky about ingredients lists.
Huma PLUS gel has double the electrolytes (240 mg sodium, 50 to 75 mg potassium, 15 mg magnesium) compared to the brand’s regular version, which is great for heavy sweaters. Huma uses all-natural ingredients so your electrolytes are coming from coconut water and sea salt.
Gummies and chews
These colorful bears, worms, blocks and other familiar shapes are MY favorite sports nutrition product. They’re small, lightweight and provide excellent and immediate carbohydrate and electrolyte replenishment. Most supply about 20-30 grams of carbohydrate, which will give you energy for 30-45 minutes. As with the gels, it’s imperative that you eat gummies with some sort of fluid.
Here are some recommendations:
CLIF BLOKS– These gummies are so easy to carry and come in tasty flavors, like Salted Watermelon, Gingerale and Margarita. Each one is 100 calories, has 24 grams of carbs and some even have extra sodium or caffeine.
GU Energy Chews are also easy to carry in your pack and have a similar nutrient and flavor profile.
Haribo gummie bears (yes, the candy), use two types of carbohydrates: sugar (aka sucrose) and dextrose (aka glucose). This candy is a cheaper alternative to the formulated sports products. The only problem is that they don’t contain any electrolytes, so you may still need a sports drink or a salt shaker.
What are some natural foods to eat during a run?
By now you know that all carbs are sugar and all runners need sugar for energy. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that sugar has a really bad reputation as being the cause of weight gain, inflammation and other more serious ailments.
That said, foods with added sugar can be beneficial to runners. Why? Well, all the good-for-you nutrients that are in foods with natural sugar, like fiber and protein, are difficult for your stomach to digest while running.
That’s why many runners opt for foods that are primarily made up of sugar, like jelly beans, so they can easily digest them during a run. I’m not saying that you should sit in your office and eat jelly beans and hope it will help tomorrow morning’s run. Everything in moderation!
These natural foods are rich in sugar and low in fiber. That means they are easy to digest while running, so they will quickly deliver sugar to working muscles. The only caveat is that they are missing electrolytes, so add a dash of salt to these options:
- Dates and other dried fruits, like raisins
- A small glass of 100% fruit juice
- Maple syrup or honey packet
- Mashed sweet potatoes
- Fruit, like a banana
- Crunchy Chickpeas
- White crackers, like saltine
- Unsweetened cereal, like Corn Flakes or Cheerios
- Homemade sports drink
- White bread with jam
- Gummie bears of jelly beans