4D_Articles__A Runners Guide to Fueling for Races

A Runners Guide to Fueling for Races

4D_Articles__A Runners Guide to Fueling for Races

Article from  Lindsay Martin, MS, RDN, LDN | 


As I dust off my running shoes and start to train for my first half marathon in about 5 years, I have had to change up not only my training schedule, but also my eating routines.  Some may think that the most important part of training for a half marathon is the actual physical training, but the nutrition side is equally as important. Yes, of course the dietitian would say that, right?  That doesn’t change the fact it’s true though. To be able to do all the long runs, speed work, and strength training, you must know what to put into your body to make sure it all goes smoothly.

While proper nutrition strategies are important throughout training, it’s fueling up in the days leading up to, and the day of, the race that many runners tend to get confused about. This causes people to ask questions like “Should I carb load? Should I drink sports drinks, or do I only need water? What should I have for breakfast that morning? Are snacks necessary?”

Well no need to worry about these, y’all! Let’s break down the important fueling information that you’ll need to know to have your best race!

The Day Before the Race: Eat CARBS 

Carb loading is a nutrition strategy used by endurance athletes who are preparing for an event that will last longer than 90 minutes. Carb loading means eating a larger quantity of carbohydrates at meals than normal. This is done is because your muscles store carbohydrates in a form called glycogen. When you are doing endurance exercise, your body needs this glycogen to supply your muscles with a steady stream of energy.

Think of your muscles like a sponge and think of carbohydrates for energy like the water that a sponge can hold.  If you try to squeeze a dry sponge, nothing is going to come out of it.  But if you saturate that sponge with water, it’s easy to squeeze water out.  Meaning, if you eat good, carb-rich meals leading up to your race, it’s easy for your muscles to use those carbohydrates for energy.

For most recreational athletes, a half marathon will generally take somewhere between 1:30 and 3:00 hours, so carb loading can be somewhat beneficial (and shown to improve by 2-3%).  It doesn’t mean going crazy with your meals for weeks before your race though.

Instead, focus on balanced meals that contain some good sources of carbohydrate for 2-3 days before your event, and then enjoy a high-carb meal, like a big ‘ol bowl of pasta for dinner before your event.

This strategy will ensure your muscles have good glycogen levels to provide you with the energy needed for your long activity.

Race Day: What to Eat Before the Race

Now it’s finally race day! But what exactly should you be eating before you begin? We’re back at carbohydrates, again, as these will give you that fast energy wanted on race day. The key is to aim for easily digestible carbohydrates that will settle well in your stomach on race day morning.

Eat a meal with carbohydrates and some protein about 1-4 hours before your race.  The specific time frame depends on your personal preferences – generally you’ll want to consume more the further out your race that you eat. Doing this will also give your body more time to digest.

Some examples of good pre-race breakfast options:

  • Greek yogurt with fruit (berries are my go-to)
  • Banana with peanut butter
  • Rice cake and peanut butter
  • Bagel with some cream cheese or peanut butter
  • Waffle with fruit
  • Grits with an egg
  • Sweet potato breakfast bowl

If you are the type of person who can’t get yourself to eat before working out, try drinking a sports drink before your race. This will still provide you with some carbs (and needed electrolytes) to help fuel your run.

A quick tip:  You may want to avoid eating high fiber foods both the evening before your race and on race day morning.  Fiber can cause stress in your GI tract (especially when coupled with exercise) and leave you running for the bathroom instead of the finish line.

Each person has a different sensitivity to fiber, but it’s often wise to skip foods like leafy green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, beans, lentils, and high-fiber cereals before your race, especially if it’s a new food and you’re not sure how your body will respond.

During Your Race: Fueling & Hydration

During your race your goal is to stay hydrated with fluid/electrolytes, and fuel yourself a bit with carbs.

When it comes to hydration, you want to make sure you are replenishing some of the fluid and electrolytes that are lost via sweat.  There’s no hard-and-fast rule as to the exact amount of fluid you should drink, because people sweat at different rates.  The weather affects this as well, with hot temperatures generally increasing sweat losses.

Generally, it’s good to try to hydrate throughout your race but sometimes, it’s easy to ignore these signals with the amped up environment of your event. If that happens to you, remind yourself to drink something every so often (like every 20 minutes or at every aid station).

  • Since a half marathon is over an hour of activity, it is also important to fuel yourself with carbohydrates. Aim to eat 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. This can come in many forms, such as the following:

Each has a relatively similar range when it comes to carbohydrate content per serving and should be tried out before the day of your race, so you know which one works best for your body. Adding in these things are essential to keep a steady stream of energy flowing to your muscles.

After your Race: Recovery Snack

After your race you might feel obligated to reach for that boozy drink that’s usually at the finish line, but it is a better idea to first grab a chocolate milk or a sports drink along with a protein bar.

Once you’ve finished a long and hard workout, you’ll want to eat a snack that has both carbs and protein. This will help repair your muscles and of course restore glycogen levels once again.

Chocolate milk has a 3:1 carb to protein ratio so it is an excellent recovery source. A bottle of sports drink (for carbs) and a protein bar (for protein) is also a good option as is a good balanced meal from the post-race buffet. The choice is yours!

Ideally, you want to have one of these within 30-45 minutes of finishing your race. If you are only able to grab a small snack, then you should also try to have a good meal within 2 hours of finishing. Aim for a meal that consists of healthy carbs, protein, and fat.

Lastly, you can’t forget about hydration! Drinking water is just as important as eating well afterwards. Try adding a Drink 4D packet to your water for quick recovery benefits – you can order here www.drink4d.com.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, fueling for a half marathon is quite important. It gives your body the energy you need to perform in your race, and helps your body recover afterwards. We hope these tips are useful as you prepare for your upcoming race!