There are many aspects to running a half marathon: What training plan should I choose? How many weeks should I train? What time of year is best for me to run a half? How will I feel for my race? What will I wear? An often overlooked topic is what to eat before a half marathon, including the few days preceding the race as well as the morning of.
Carbs: A Runners Best Friend
As a runner trains for a distance race, he or she needs to think about fuel. Most runners find that carbohydrates are an essential form of fuel in order to keep their body operating efficiently.
Paired with lean meats and healthy oils, carb loading truly can be a runner’s best friend.
Fuel is Not One Size Fits All
The first rule of thumb for figuring out how to fuel your body on race day is to not wait until race day. There is a runner adage “nothing new on race day.” The idea behind this is to try everything out prior to the big day. This refers to clothing, shoes, pre-run food and fuel during the race.
To a non-runner this may sound like overkill; however, any experienced runner can tell you this is wise advice. A new sports bra can cause chafe. Shoes can cause blisters. And food can cause stomach cramps or diarrhea.
How does this impact your food? First, keep track of how you feel during your long runs compared to what you have eaten for three to four days prior to the long run. Do you feel sluggish? Does your tummy ache? Do you find yourself in a mad dash to the bathroom? Your food could have a direct correlation on this.
Most runners find that carb loading for three to five days prior to a big race is sufficient. Leading up to a race, the optimal intake will have the runner getting 75% to 85% of their fuel from carbohydrates.
Many runners think carbs have to come from bread or pasta, but that is not accurate. There are many natural carbohydrates such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, oats, quinoa, and fruits. Most of these items are easy to digest and will serve as a great carb fuel for a long run.
Fruits, however, can be high in fiber which could have a negative impact while running. This can be remedied by peeling fruits and also drinking fruit juices either low in a pulp or without pulp.
Having said that: pasta remains the most popular meal for the day before a big race. Just be certain that if you choose pasta it is paired with lean meat and not covered in rich, high fat sauce.
The Night Before the Big Race
If you have fueled yourself properly leading up to your big race, the day before should be a piece of cake. Many runners favor flipping the larger meal to lunch and eating a smaller meal in the evening. This is to avoid a morning stomach problem. If you wake up just a little bit hungry, this can actually be good.
If you have a nice pasta dinner planned, try to eat it before 3:00 p.m. and then have a light snack early evening. A carb-heavy snack bar like a Cliff bar or some kind of cereal or oatmeal bar, paired with a sports performance drink, may do the trick.
Basically, just try to fuel yourself how you have before long runs (excepting those long runs that ended in disaster, use those as learning tools and do not replicate).
Plan to have breakfast two or three hours prior to the race. This ensures you are not racing on a full stomach. The most important rule of thumb is to eat something you have tried on a long run day. Oatmeal is a good pre-race meal. Some runners prefer a bagel with peanut butter. Other runners like some fruit.
Often, it is a good idea to wash breakfast down with some type of sports drink such as Gatorade or Powerade instead of water – although, many runners start every day, including race day, with a cup of coffee. If that is your normal, go right ahead; however, steer away from a large amount of any dehydrating beverage such as coffee.
Just remember: what goes in must come out. This includes food and beverages. Give yourself enough time to use the bathroom, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself in line for the porta-potty, perhaps even using it multiple times prior to the starting gun going off. Nervous pee is a very normal part of racing.
During the Race
All of the planning and preparation in the world will not help you if you have not planned how to fuel during the race. There are many products out there. Most runners use a fuel made especially for runners.
Race fuels come in many forms. There are gels such as Clif Shots, Torq or GU. There are also chews: Clif Blocks and GU chews are common examples.
Some runners prefer something they can drink like Tailwind or UCAN. The advantage of carbohydrates that can be consumed in liquid form is the runner has an easy time consuming these on the fly.
Some runners fuel with actual food during long runs and races. This can be anything from chunks of fruit, pieces of salted potatoes or small bites of a sandwich with nut butter. The downside is these items are often more difficult to carry. The upside is they are inexpensive real food items. For a runner with a touchy stomach, this type of fuel is sometimes the answer.
Although many runners also drink performance drinks such as Gatorade or Powerade, some runners prefer only to drink water while running. Most experts think a runner should take in at least some electrolytes and carbohydrates while running.
The important thing is to avoid hitting the wall, and the best way to do this is to plan to take in fuel long before your body screams that you need it.
For most runners, this means planning to take in fuel forty-five minutes into the long run and repeating the fueling every forty-five minutes. Some people resist this because their body isn’t yet asking for food, but it is good to prepare for fatigue and hunger before it hits.
As you prepare for your half marathon, planning for food intake just as carefully as you plan everything else will help you to reach your goal. What you eat during training, race week, the night before and day off will help you run the very best race you are capable of running.