Nutrition and proper diet are some of the most important factors that influence how successful your half marathon will be. Good and healthy food choices will prepare your body for race day in the best possible way, so make sure to pay attention to your nutrition not only during the race but the whole time you’re preparing for the half marathon as well.
You’ll be amazed when you see the difference in your performance by following several pieces of advice regarding food choices before the half marathon.
So, if you’re not sure what to eat before the race, during, or even after it, check out this guide, and you’ll be ready for any challenge the race throws at you.
Why It Matters What You Eat
Choosing what you put into your body can decide if you perform well or not in the actual race, so making sure you fuel your body correctly is crucial. However, many runners make a mistake by overeating and going for lots of heavy meals, resulting in many difficulties during the race.
For example, you might feel bloated or even nauseous during the half marathon, resulting in your inability to continue or finish the race. You can also overwhelm your digestive system by stuffing too much food at once and cause great discomfort even after the race has finished.
However, doing some research about what to eat before the half marathon can help you in numerous ways. From easier digestion to feeling lighter, smart nutrition choices will help you get through the entire race easier and, who knows, maybe you’ll be the one to win it.
Why Are Carbs the Norm
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably preparing for a half marathon or you’re just naturally curious. But, have you noticed that everyone talking about marathon nutrition only talks about carbs and carb intake? Why is that, and why no one talks about other food types?
Carbohydrates are the norm for half marathon and marathon runners because they are the main substance related to their performance. How do carbs do that? By influencing the level of energy we have. If you ever experienced a sudden burst of energy after finishing a meal, it probably contained a lot of carbs.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy in foods. Our bodies use molecules found in carbs to produce glucose stored in our muscles and liver. However, when glucose reaches these organs, it’s transformed into glycogen, and this is the part where we get the main use of carbs and the one that makes a difference for runners.
Our bodies store Glycogen, so each body part can take as much glycogen as needed when they need it. That’s why carbs make for the best half marathon and marathon food choice – the body doesn’t have to take all glycogen at once, but take a little bit at a time. With this method, our bodies have the most energy to consume, and the energy can be stored, making carbs perfect for long-distance runs.
Carbs are sugars, fibres, and starches that we can find in many foods, including grains, milk products, fruits, and vegetables. So, make sure to adapt your diet before the half marathon focusing your meals around these products.
What Is a Carb Load and Who Needs It?
Carb load, also known as carb loading, carbo-loading, and similar, is a widely common approach among athletes. It’s a special diet where the main goal is to increase glycogen levels in the muscles. Filling your body with glycogen to the brim is what carb load aims to do. Athletes use it to ensure maximum fuel storage for the demanding and lengthy physical activity like the half marathon.
However, this doesn’t mean you should simply overeat carbs – carb loads are more than that.
You still need to pay attention not to overwhelm your body with carbs to the point of feeling nauseous. Besides this, carb load is not only about the carb intake. It also means taking a step back on your physical activity, and you should consider this time as the moment when marathon runners rest.
Pausing physical activity during carb load also assures we don’t spend the glycogen stored in the muscles but save it as much as possible for the race day. Carb loading is most effective a couple of days before the half marathon, as that’s the most optimal time it takes to load the muscles on carbs and provide our bodies with much-needed rest without losing the built physical form. Yup, it’s a fine line to traverse.
Some athletes make the mistake of having intense running sessions one or two days before the half marathon. This often results in the lack of energy during race day. To prevent this from happening, give your body a proper rest before the big event. At this point, it’s not a bad idea to treat yourself to a good day at the spa – not only are you relaxing your body but your mind as well.
Half marathon, marathon runners, or athletes who run great distances are people who primarily use carb loads in their prep time. If you’re looking at running below 90 minutes, there is no need for you to do an extreme carb load nutrition strategy, as you’ll have more than enough glycogen already stored for that kind of activity.
However, if you’re looking at longer run times, it’s a good idea to do a proper carb load and ensure your body’s peak performance during the race.
What Food Choices Do I Have?
Going on a specific diet or nutrition regime doesn’t mean it has to be torture. A carb load strategy can be quite interesting and delicious as well. We can find carbs in many food types, so the load isn’t restrictive at all, and you’ll have a variety of meals at your disposal.
For instance, rice is the first choice for the majority of runners and, for some, the only choice. Although you don’t need to restrict yourself only to eating rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it’s one of the best food choices you can make while on a carb load. Rice is very rich in fibre and contains a lot of high-quality carbs.
Other high-carb grains are quinoa seeds and oats, both great ingredients for the most delicious oatmeal!
However, there are many more good foods out there. Bread, tortillas, and bagels are all very rich in carbs and easy to digest. You can also combine them with other high-carb foods to make a perfect meal for a carb load.
If you’re more of a sweet tooth, pancakes and waffles are always an excellent choice. Fruits are also rich in carbs because of the natural sugars they contain. Besides, they can be easier to digest, especially when you peel them. This is because we reduce the fibre content by removing the thickest layer around the fruit. Bananas, pears, mangos, apples, and peaches are all great options for a sweet but healthy carb load.
Don’t forget about dried fruits, because they’re also a good source. Raisins, goji berries, and dates are some of the favourite dried fruits among most athletes.
Now we move on to vegetables, of course.
Many vegetables have very high carb content, such as sweet potatoes, beetroots, and corn. Most of the time, athletes will combine them with other ingredients, making them a perfect side dish or addition to a recipe.
When it comes to fruits and vegetables with skins, for example, potatoes, apples, pears, and peaches, it’s always a better idea to peel them. The skin can be hard to digest, and if you eat them right before the race, they can cause nausea and discomfort. Make sure to peel your fruits and vegetables when on a carb load.
Pre-Race Eating Routine
A Week Before Half Marathon
The best time to start your carb load strategy is around a week before the half marathon. So, five to seven days ahead, slowly begin easing up on the running intensity and duration so your body can store as much glycogen as possible without using it. With lower intensity running sessions, your body will gradually build up the glycogen levels in your muscles and liver preparing you for the big day.
But, what to eat before the half marathon is a question that bothers most people inexperienced with marathon running.
A week before the race is the perfect time to consume at least 3 grams of carbohydrates per pound of your total body weight. It’s essential to spread this amount of carbs throughout your day and incorporate it in every meal, rather than taking the whole amount at once.
Your daily meal plan a week or so before the race should look something like the following. For breakfast, have oatmeal with regular or soy milk, combined with fresh or dried fruit on the top. You can use strawberries, mangoes, goji berries, dates, or any other fruit that is high in carbs. You can also add a couple of your favourite nuts – walnuts, almonds, cashews, or chestnuts.
Fruits and nuts can also be combined with pancakes or waffles, making them another excellent breakfast option.
For lunch, you can go for a Mexican style and have tacos or tortillas. Both have grains with high crab levels making them a great choice. By combining them with chicken, rice, beans, potatoes, and other vegetables, you’ll have a perfect meal in front of you.
For dinner, try your favourite pasta – Pasta Primavera, Spaghetti Carbonara, or Spaghetti Bolognese are some of the favorite pasta recipes everyone deeply enjoys. Pasta is a neutral food; you can easily combine it with almost anything. So, even if you don’t have all of the necessary ingredients, mix up something you already have in the fridge and make your pasta.
A Couple of Days Before Half Marathon
Once you get to three or four days before the race, it’s time to make some slight changes in your workout and eating routine. Slowly reduce the running sessions even further while upping the carb intake. In this period, aim for 3.5 to 4 grams of carbs per each pound of your total body weight. This change will ensure you’re storing even more glycogen in your body than before.
This doesn’t mean you have to completely change your diet, only make sure to increase carb levels and maintain the same size of the meal. Also, cut back a bit on protein and fat intake to focus your glycogen intake mainly on carbs.
So, what does this mean? You can still enjoy the same meals, but with small changes. For your oatmeal, add more oats, but reduce the number of nuts as they are high in fat. For lunch, put aside the chicken as the main protein source, and fill in your tacos or tortillas with more rice or beans instead. Similarly, for dinner, avoid putting meat in your pasta but increase the amount of pasta and veggies.
Essentially, what you’re getting with this is the same amount of calorie intake, but you’re changing where the calories are coming from. Instead of fat and protein, you’re getting most of your calories from high carb foods to increase glycogen levels.
One or Two Days Before Half Marathon
The race is now very close, so it’s very important what you put in your body during this period. Wrong choices can cause stomach ache, digestive problems, and nausea which can all result in you quitting the half marathon.
Pay attention to cut back on fibre by peeling the skin off when eating vegetables and fruits, as well as limiting your whole grains intake. Fibre is the primary source of digestive problems, so this can be quite unforgiving on race day. For dinner the day before the race, a great option would be a stir-fry with rice or your favorite pasta. It’s lightweight and low on fibre.
The Day of Half Marathon
On the day of the race, the first rule is not to try anything new. Even though it might be tempting, it’s important not to upset your stomach with some ingredients it isn’t used to. So, stick to your well-known and verified routine just a bit longer. Some lightweight and easily digestible breakfast options are white toast with honey or English toasted muffin. You can always go with pancakes, waffles, or oatmeal too.
Eat two to four hours before the race and enjoy your high-carb power meal before the big event. You should still avoid fats and proteins as they take longer to digest.
During the Race
It’s important to keep your body fueled up during the half marathon. You can easily do this by bringing a couple of your favorite snacks with you on the race. While preparing for the race you can test different snacks and how each one affects your energy levels to find the one that suits you best.
You should keep in mind that small snacks spread out on temporal intervals are a better option than eating them all at once. This strategy will maintain your glycogen levels without disturbing your digestive system. Also, stay hydrated, but don’t drink too much fluid to avoid adding unnecessary weight gain and it being slushed around in your stomach.
You can also consume energy products mid-race to moderately boost your energy. They come in different forms as well, including edibles, drinks, and gels. Some of the favourite energy snacks for runners are bananas, energy bars, jelly beans, and chews. So, pick your favourite and take it when feeling energy levels starting to decrease.
After the Race
After all that hard work, it’s important to reward your body with a full meal. Within thirty minutes after finishing the half marathon you should have your first after-race meal and a considerable amount of water. It’s important to decrease the chances of dehydration, so drink lots of fluids.
Your main goal is to replenish the iron level in your body which gets used up during an exhausting workout session such as running a half marathon. By replenishing iron levels, you’re also contributing to muscle preservation and strengthening while also decreasing the chances of muscle inflammation and possible muscle tears.
You should immediately focus on making your recovery process as smooth and successful as possible. So, think about having a turkey sandwich, toast with veggies and hummus, chicken salad, or a steak with a side-dish.
To sum it up, a lot goes into training for the half marathon. It’s not only about who trains the hardest or the longest. Nutrition plays a big role in how successful you can be when racing, so make sure to research what to eat before the half marathon.
Carb load as the main nutrition strategy for marathon runners proves to be the most efficient method when preparing for long-distance runs. By sticking to the suggestions mentioned above, you’ll be marathon-ready in just one week. Finally, by following during and after race tips, you’ll achieve even greater results, while replenishing your body immediately upon finishing.