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The Start-to-Finish Guide to Fueling for a Half Marathon

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Photo: Getty Images / Mario Tama

The arrival of spring means we're welcoming tulips, rain showers, pastels—and running season! Sure, binge-watching Queer Eye while running on the treadmill all winter had its moments, but nothing makes me happier than getting outside with the rising temps and signing up for a spring race.

Whether you're running the SHAPE Women's Half Marathon or a race in your area, it's officially time to start thinking about the part of your training that happens while you're not actually hitting the pavement: fueling. Lacing up and logging miles may only be an hour or two out of your day, but fueling requires more thought, planning, and know-how. Although the topic of fueling for a long race may sound overwhelming, this handy guide will help you build a strategy that will soon become second nature. (And if you're the type of person who works better with guidance and supervision, you might also want to consider meeting with a sports dietitian in your area.)

Here, your guide to fueling for a long race—starting from the beginning of your training all the way through eating for recovery after you cross the finish line.

Fueling 101

If you're a first-time marathoner, the concept of "fueling" may be unchartered territory. Even if you know the basics of healthy eating, food for sport is a different animal. These simple tips—which can be applied as you increase your mileage throughout your training and up until race day—are a great place to start.

Carbs are the #1 fuel source.
You've probably heard about carb-loading (or became a runner solely because of it). While training for a half marathon, carbs are your friend because they are your primary fuel source for running. You need to eat enough of 'em so that your body can store them in something called glycogen, which resides in your liver and muscles. Those stores and the carbs you eat will provide energy during your long runs. (Related: Can We Please Stop Hating On Carbs Already?

What you eat depends on when you eat.
Fueling isn't quite as simple as binging on bagels. You need to consider the timing of your meals in relation to your run. As a simple rule of thumb, eat a complete meal with carbs, some protein, and a little fat two to three hours before a run—something like a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread with lettuce, tomato, and cheese will do the trick. Within an hour of your run, stick with simple carbs—a piece of fruit, white bread, or a glass of juice.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
This is where I see first-time marathoners stumble the most. Hydration is just as important as eating. Not only should you be drinking water while running, but it's important to drink enough water throughout the day. The simplest way to tell if you are hydrated is to check the color of your urine. A pale yellow means that you're hydrated, while a dark apple cider vinegar color indicates dehydration. (More on that here: How to Stay Hydrated When Training for an Endurance Race)

Indigestion is bound to happen.
As you increase your mileage, your stomach will probably rebel. "Just like you train your muscles to run long distances, you also need to train your stomach to digest fuel during exercise," says Chrissy Carroll, R.D., a USAT Level I Triathlon Coach. The indigestion will eventually subside with proper meal timing and if you keep fat and fiber to a minimum, adds Angie Asche, R.D., of Eleat Sports Nutrition.

Race Day Fueling

Once you know the basics of fueling, race day isn't all that different from training. What you should take into consideration for a 13.1 is how you're going to fuel your muscles once those glycogen stores are used up. That's where sports products come in. Just be sure to see how your stomach will react on your long runs—and never try anything new on race day. "One of the biggest mistakes I see athletes make is not testing out their fueling choices early in their training," says Carroll. 

Sports Drinks
As a country with an obesity crisis, sports drinks come in for a lot of criticism. But they're formulated to enhance athletic activity for endurance sports, and they're a crucial tool. For runs lasting longer than an hour, the body needs supplemental carbs, fluid, and electrolytes to maintain energy. "Sports drinks are great race day fuel because they check all the boxes—hydration, simple carbs, and electrolytes," says Asche. 

Gummies and Gels
These sports products usually offer a shot of sugar and caffeine, but they lack in fluid. "In the case of gels ... these are concentrated carbohydrate sources, so runners should consume water with these products to avoid getting an upset stomach," says Asche. She also suggests taking a glance at the race map beforehand to time your gel or gummy intake with the fluid station. (Related: 12 Tasty Alternatives to Energy Gels

Post-Race Recovery

You did it! You made it through the training and race day, but there's still a little more work to be done—if you can call eating brunch work. The recovery period after a half marathon is within one hour, a window of time that's critical for taking in the necessary nutrients to make you feel as good as possible tomorrow. Here's what you should focus on:

Carbs and Protein
Although everyone is obsessed with protein, carbs are just as important for running recovery. Glycogen stores only last for about an hour, and they need to be refilled for tomorrow's workout. Think of your muscles as the gas tank and carbs as the fuel. For the engine to start up again tomorrow, you need to refill it with carbs. Protein also helps to repair tired muscles. One of my favorite post-race meals is an egg sandwich on whole-wheat toast with a side of fruit. The eggs provide protein, while the toast and fruit restore glycogen.

Antioxidants
Your stomach may be a bit wonky immediately after your race, so eating fibrous fruit may be a no-go. But if you can tolerate it, add some fruit or veggies filled with antioxidants into the mix to reduce inflammation in your legs. If you can't tolerate these types of foods within an hour after the race, be sure to add some to your dinner. (Related: Exactly What to Do—and Not to Do—After Running a Half Marathon)

Fluids
Chances are you'll finish the race somewhat dehydrated, so it's important to keep drinking plenty of those sports drinks—the sodium is crucial to replace all the electrolytes you've sweat out. Aim to have one 16- to 20-ounce sports drink immediately after finishing and another within the next hour. Continue until you're rehydrated. Remember that you're looking for a pale yellow urine color, even after the race.

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