How To Fuel For Your First Half Marathon

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Getting ready for your first half-marathon? You’ve probably already started a training program and getting your nutrition in order.

But have you thought about your in-race nutrition? Fueling is something many first-timers need to remember. And it’s not just for race day – you need to start preparing while you’re training!

Here’s our guide on how to fuel your first half-marathon. Read on to see our tips and recommendations.

What is a Half Marathon?

A half-marathon is a popular race distance, at 13.1 miles—26.2 kilometers. As its name suggests, it’s half the distance of a full marathon, so it makes an excellent step for runners who have completed a few 10k races already and want a new challenge.

How Long Does It Take to Run?

The cut-off time for many half-marathons is 3 ½ to 4 hours. It can differ based on the race and the race organizers.

If you’re running it for the first time, you can expect to finish sometime between 2 and 3 hours, depending on your fitness level, the course, and the weather.

Should I Fuel During a Half Marathon?

You should be fueling for any race longer than an hour. Even if you eat a few hours before your race—your body only stores enough glycogen in the muscles for around 75 to 120 minutes of running.

The key is to start fueling before you hit that level to maintain a constant pace. While you probably could run a half-marathon without fueling, it’s not likely a fun experience as your body will start digging into its fat stores for fuel.

Why Proper Fueling is Important

Fueling correctly is the key to having a great race. This comes down to both the fuel and the timing—in other words, what you eat and when you eat it.

Your body relies on carbohydrates for quick, easy-access energy. When you carbo-load before a race, your body stores those nutrients as glycogen in your muscles.

When the starting gun goes, you’ve got around 90 minutes worth of quick-access energy stored right there. But once it’s depleted, you have two choices: allow it to start using your fat stores—which breaks down slowly and doesn’t release much energy—or fuel up by giving your body the carbs it needs.

You can opt for quick options like energy gels, energy chews, and energy drinks, or you can go for something like a fruit bar.

As for when you eat, you should aim for 25 to 30 grams of carbs every hour. That means you only need two or three bits of fuel for a half-marathon.

Make sure that if you use gels that you also take some water after eating one. You need the water to help process the gel. Not doing so might also lead to an upset stomach.

When Do You Start Fueling?

Fueling technically begins during training. It’s an important part of the process, so don’t leave it for the taper!

Training Nutrition

You want to “practice” your fueling during your training runs. While you’re not likely to be running a full half-marathon distance, any run longer than an hour can be an opportunity for fueling.

You can also fuel up on shorter runs to show how your body responds to energy gels and chews. Not everyone’s stomach will like the consistency of gels, so it’s wise to check this long before race day. You may also have a preference for certain flavors or brands.

We’ve spoken to many runners (luckily it hasn’t happen to us) who didn’t take this advice and happened to grab whatever gel was being offered during the race. The result? Gut bomb that gave them nausea and cramps. So practice, experiment, and see what works for you!

Pre-Race Fueling

This begins the night before. Opt for a healthy combination of complex carbs and lean protein. Something more bland might be better to avoid any potential stomach issues.

Don’t go all out here in the name of carbo-loading. Processed carbs like pizza or a burger may cause bloating, especially if you’ve been following a strict diet. Choose wisely, and you’ll be fueling your muscles with glycogen.

You should eat a decent meal 2 to 3 hours before your race. Again, complex carbs—about 30 grams—and lean proteins will do.

Race-Day Nutrition

If you can, take a quick sip of energy drink before the race to top off your energy stores.

After the race starts, have your first bit of fuel around the hour mark. You want to get ahead of that 75 to 120 minute glycogen drop. You can start here if you’re feeling pretty exhausted already by 45 minutes.

From there, you can take another one every 45 to 60 minutes. You should set an alarm on your watch to remind you!

Post-Race Recovery Nutrition

Most races will hand out some easy-to-digest carbs at the finish line so you can replenish. This is a good idea, as your body needs refueling almost immediately when you’re done.

Within an hour after finishing, eating a decent protein-rich, high-carb meal is highly recommended, a ratio of about 4:1 protein:carbs. This will provide your muscles with the sustenance they need to recover.

We advise continuing to eat healthy in the days following your half-marathon so your body can recover more easily.

What Should You Eat During a Half Marathon?

You can’t exactly take a full meal with you, which is why energy gels and chews are so popular. They’re easy to carry in a running belt or pocket, bite-sized, and they go down quickly.

You can opt for other, less convenient things like pretzels, fruit bars, or a PB&J sandwich! But they’re harder to carry and more difficult to eat on the go.

Avoid fiber if your stomach tends to be on the sensitive side. Whatever you choose to carry with you, each snack along the way should contain between 25 and 30 grams of carbs.

How Much Water Should I Drink During a Half Marathon?

Remember that hydration forms part of your nutrition. Almost every race will offer water along the race, but if you want drink more frequently, you can invest in a handheld water bottle or waist pack.

Remember that if the weather is warm, there’s wind, you sweat a lot, or you’re really pushing hard, you may need to err on the higher side for safety’s sake.

Water vs. Sports Drinks

Water is your best bet. It’s pure and hydrating; however, it doesn’t give you any calories or electrolytes.

Like energy gels and chews, sports drinks offer some carbs, so you can use them as fuel. They also often replenish lost electrolytes. Make sure you choose one that has a decent amount of calories and carbs, but isn’t loaded with anything unhealthy.

Keep in mind that they may contain stimulants like caffeine or taurine. If you can tolerate them, then go for it. But if not, leave stimulant drinks out of your fueling strategy. Non-stim drinks are a good choice.

What Can Affect a Runner’s Fueling Strategy on Race Day?

Certain factors can affect your fueling strategy on the day. They may require a bit of adaptation, but being aware of them in half the battle won.

Weather Conditions

Extra heat and humidity may require more fueling. The hotter it is, the more you sweat, the more fatigued you become, and the more fuel you may need. If race day is predicted to be hot and humid, take some extra fuel just in case.

Altitude

The higher the altitude, the harder your body will work to run at the same intensity. This means you’ll need to refuel sooner than at lower altitudes.

Course

Tricky terrain means more hard work as you run, which leads to more burned calories and less energy over a shorter period. Be prepared to feel fatigued sooner on hilly courses, and pack extra nutrition to account for it.

Time the Race Starts

Some races start extremely early, while others are later in the day. The time your chosen race begins could affect your fueling.

For example, if you’re not used to eating early but your start time is at 7am, you might feel uncomfortably full having eaten so early. Take this into consideration and plan for it in advance!

Should You Drink Coffee Before a Half Marathon?

First thing’s first—if you’re not a coffee drinker, it’s not a good idea to try and add coffee to your race day routine for the kick. It might give you a bit of a boost, but to the untrained stomach, coffee will have some adverse effects.

If you are quite used to coffee, you can drink a strong cup about 30 minutes before your half-marathon. Caffeine kicks in at about the 45-minute mark, which will be 15 minutes into your run.

You can use caffeinated energy gels or chews for a small boost during your race. However, it’s a good idea to experiment with these in training, as they can cause some stomach upset. Once you know that you’re okay with them, you can work them into your fueling plan, about one per hour.

Tips for Fueling During a Half Marathon

Ready to do your first half marathon? Here are our final tips for fueling yourself through the race effectively.

Use a Fueling Plan That Works for You

Everyone is different, so the same fueling plan isn’t going to work for every runner. Find—or create—a plan that works for you. You should test it out in your training runs as far as possible to ensure it’s right for you.

Start the Race Properly Fueled

If you start fueled, you’ll be able to push off strongly, and you can run for longer before needing to refuel. Start on an empty stomach, and you’ll be uncomfortable and without stored energy. Your body will be running on fat until you give it your first bit of fuel, which is not optimal.

Hydrate Before and During the Race

Hydrating properly will help you to start off at your best and maintain hydration more easily. Hydration is important for fueling, as dehydration can ruin your run and negate your carefully planned fueling!

Take Advantage of Aid Stations

Aid stations are there to make your life easier! Take the opportunity to grab a quick energy boost, usually in the form of orange slices or bananas. This will also help you to save your own nutrition if you need it down the line. If you don’t use it all, bonus!

Be Mindful of How Your Stomach Feels

If your stomach isn’t feeling great during the race, holding off on the energy chews and gels might be best. Find something a little more bland, like a banana if you can. This might help to settle your stomach, but if you can’t find anything or there aren’t aid stations, you may have to push through without nutrition.

Don’t Try Anything New on Race Day

This classic advice still rings true today. There’s a reason you train with your tried-and-true apparel, supplements, and nutrition. You know it works for you and doesn’t cause an adverse reaction. Why take the risk of potentially having a bad reaction to something new on race day and ruining your performance?

Stick to what you know. That includes your clothing, underwear, socks, shoes, sunglasses, drinks, breakfast, and your choice of fuel during the race.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.