Nutrition Strategies for Running a Half Marathon
Running a half marathon is no easy feat! It requires strength, determination and a whole lot of high-quality fuel.
With the Royal Parks Half Marathon just around the corner and having done it myself, we thought it would be the perfect time to share our top nutritional strategies you should implement around running a half marathon.
In the lead-up:
There are numerous considerations for designing a nutritional protocol. However, first and foremost you need to ensure you are consuming enough calories to support your energy output. If this is insufficient, your training and recovery will likely start to suffer. This is definitely not what you want if you’re trying to be consistent with your exercise routine. Not fuelling your body appropriately will quickly catch up with you. It can take the form of adverse effects such as low energy levels and increased frequency of injury or illness.
If you are unsure as to how much you should be consuming, we’re on hand to take out the guesswork for you!
The optimal macronutrient distribution will vary based on the volume of training and you as an individual. This is why there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. However, as a rule of thumb, I would typically avoid opting for a low carbohydrate diet during this period of time.
Avoid junk and highly processed foods – make sure you’re getting plenty of variety from whole food sources and cut down on your alcohol consumption.
Proper hydration is also essential during half-marathon training. Ensure you’re drinking enough water and/or sports drinks to replace fluids lost through sweat.
Try to ensure you have a meal a good three hours before an event to give your body time to digest it. Slow-release (low GI) carbs are the best nourishment for your body a few hours before a race, foods such as oats, wholegrain rice and pasta are good options. Avoid fatty foods that will lie in your stomach and anything that you’re not used to, this is important to avoid gastrointestinal stress and discomfort.
My usual go-to for breakfast is overnight oats/porridge or a bagel with peanut butter and a banana. I try to have this a minimum of two hours before the race.
As with most things when it comes to running, do not try anything new on race day. Ensure you have a tried a tested plan in place.
Need a snack right before go-time? Try to focus on smaller carbohydrate snacks that have a reasonably high glycemic index score (GI). For example, a bagel with jam or some dried fruit.
A food’s GI measure is relative to how quickly it is digested and broken down into glucose. Therefore, high-GI foods are absorbed faster and less strain is placed on the gut during digestion.
Depending on factors such as the intensity of the run, level of training and pre-race nutrition, glycogen (stored form of glucose) stores can last for around 1 – 1.5 hours before depleting to a level which may impact performance. Therefore, if your race will be longer than this, it is worth considering an intra-race strategy. The average time in the UK is around 2 hours, but anywhere under 3 hours is considered a solid effort for your first half marathon.
As a general rule, you will need between 30-60g of carbs per hour. The easiest way to get this is through an energy gel or bar. Although there will be food at aid stations on race day, come prepared with your own. You don’t want to try anything new on the day.
From a personal perspective, this took a large amount of trial and error, so I rarely deviate from this method. For the first 10km, I don’t tend to eat anything. After this, I have a jelly baby per km for around 10km, which is equivalent to around 40g of carbs in under an hour. Not only is this helpful from a fuelling perspective, but also helps set mini-milestones to work towards. Following these steps during a half marathon, there is only around 1km left, so I often don’t need anything else to get myself over the line.
Post-race is all about recovery – carbohydrates to refuel your muscle glycogen stores and high-quality protein to initiate the repair of muscle tissue. You may be on a high after you cross the finish line but don’t forget about your post-race nutrition. This can have a direct impact on your body’s ability to recover and the speed at which it does so. The same applies to the days following your half marathon too.
You may not feel particularly hungry as soon as you have finished. Having something quick, easy and nutritious, such as a shake/smoothie, is a simple way to pack in the nutrients you need. We’ve put together a few recipes here.
There may be points during your half marathon where you want to throw in the towel. However, aim to go into it knowing you have given your all to training and the race is the day to showcase your hard work.
Breaking up the race into smaller sections is a tactic I find helpful on race day. 5km chunks seem far more manageable to get through, rather than thinking about the race as a whole. Once you get passed the halfway mark, the countdown to the finish line is on!
The crowds and atmosphere on race day are usually extremely motivating. Use their energy to help you power through!