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

Learn how to properly eat and hydrate on your race day and beyond.

The Start-to-Finish Guide to Fueling for a Half Marathon
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When you sign up for your first half marathon, you might not have any clue about what your training program should look like — or how you should be fueling your body when you're not hitting the pavement. And while the latter is largely overlooked by those new to running, your nutrition choices matter just as much as your practice miles logged if you want to perform your best on race day. So, how do you keep yourself properly fueled as you run these long distances?

This handy guide will help you build a nutrition strategy that will soon become second nature. Ahead, learn how to eat and hydrate for a half marathon (such as the SHAPE + Health Women's Half Marathon) including advice for when you're beginning your training, how to fuel during your race, and what to eat after you cross the finish line. (And if you're the type of person who works better with guidance and supervision, you might also want to consider meeting with a registered sports dietitian in your area.)

How to Fuel While Training for a Half Marathon

If you're a first-time half-marathon runner, 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.

Load up on carbohydrates.

You've probably heard about carb-loading (or you became a runner solely because of it). While training for a half marathon, carbohydrates are your friend because they are broken down into glucose, your primary fuel source while running. You need to eat enough carbs so that your body can store the glucose that your body doesn't immediately use in your liver and muscles, where it's known as glycogen. The carbs you eat ahead of your training session and the glycogen will provide energy during your long runs.

As you increase your mileage, your stomach will probably rebel. (Yes, runner's diarrhea is real.) "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. 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.

Make food choices based on the time of your meal.

Fueling isn't quite as simple as munching 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 long run — something like a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread with lettuce, tomato, and cheese will do the trick. If your meal has to occur within an hour before your run, stick with simple, easy-to-digest carbs, such as a sports drink or banana.

Hydrate before and throughout your runs.

This is where first-time half marathoners stumble the most. Hydration is just as important as eating before and during your run. Not only should you be drinking water while running, but it's also 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. Or, try the "skin pinch test." Pinch the wrinkly skin on your finger's knuckle. If your skin returns to normal right after you pinch it, you're well-hydrated, but if the pinched shape sticks for a few seconds or longer, you're likely dehydrated,

How to Fuel During a Half Marathon

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 from your pre-race meal are used up. The greater the workout intensity, the faster muscle glycogen runs out, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But regardless if you're striving to hit an Olympic-level finish time or you're simply fast-walking the half marathon, you need to be prepared to do a lot of re-fueling throughout the race.

That's where sports products, including drinks, gummies, and chews that are loaded with easily digestible carbs, come in handy. 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.

Hydrate with sports drinks.

Sports drinks come in for a lot of criticism due to their sugar content. But they're formulated to enhance athletic activity for endurance sports, and they're a crucial tool for half marathons. 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.

Snack on gummies and gels.

These sports products usually offer a shot of sugar (read: carbs) and caffeine (which is known to make exercise feel easier), but they lack 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.

How to Fuel After a Half Marathon

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.

Prioritize carbs and protein.

Although everyone is obsessed with protein, carbs are just as important for running recovery. Glycogen stores are generally used up after about an hour, and they need to be refilled for proper recovery. Think of your muscles as the gas tank and carbs as the fuel. For the engine to start up again tomorrow (even if you just plan on taking a gentle recovery walk around the block), you need to refill it with carbs. Protein also helps to repair tired muscles. Post-race, try an egg sandwich on whole-wheat toast with a side of fruit. The eggs provide protein, while the toast and fruit restore glycogen levels.

Don't forget to hydrate.

Chances are you'll finish the half-marathon 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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