So, you’ve set your sights on an upcoming half marathon? 13.1 miles is the perfect distance to test your physical and mental endurance. It’s also the perfect time to roll out a solid nutrition plan to help improve your performance on race day.
All too often, runners put in the disciplined work of following a training plan religiously but overlook the nutrition aspects. Paying greater attention to your nutrition now will pay off on race day. Upgrading your nutrition game will help your recovery from the various training workouts (and the toils of everyday life) so you show up to the start line well-prepared and ready to tackle the distance. File these nutrition tips under ‘control what you can’.
- Choose a balance of foods. Aim for balanced nutrition. Include plenty of vegetables, fruit, nutrient-rich carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats throughout your day. Stay hydrated with water, seltzer water, and unsweetened herbal teas. Think of your plate as a canvas. Paint your plate with vibrant foods and add flavor with a splash of herbs and spices.
- Shift your carbohydrates. More active days, more carbs. Less active or rest days, fewer carbs. Carbohydrates are your primary fuel source so see what your training plan calls for each day and make adjustments to the amounts.
- Follow your gut’s intuition. Try a more intuitive eating approach vs. counting calories, macros or following a trendy diet. Think, “how can I make this better?” We tend to make nutrition too complex and miss the opportunity to appreciate the nourishing beauty of food.
- Set a realistic mindset. 70/30 or 80/20 vs. all or nothing. A balanced nutrition mindset is not all or nothing. Most of the time, you’re eating soundly in a given day (70% or 80%) and the rest of what you’re eating might be more ‘indulgent’ (30% or 20%). This eating pattern doesn’t sabotage you. It’s all part of a balanced plan. Even caffeine, alcohol, pizza and dark chocolate can fit routinely into a balanced nutrition pattern, it’s true!
- Take your sleep seriously. Make it a priority most nights. Quantity and quality. Sleep ties into your nutrition, metabolism and overall muscle recovery. It’s really a secret weapon for improving performance.
- Time your recovery. After an intense or long workout/run, choose mostly carb and some protein within 30 minutes of finishing. Banana with nut butter. Yogurt with fruit and seeds. Saltines with cheese or hummus. A glass of chocolate milk. This buys you time for a full, balanced recovery meal later on. Timing some of your recovery nutrition right after your workout helps initiate the process to replenish glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate) back to the muscle. Replenish, rehydrate, and repair so you’re ready to go for your next workout.
- Experiment on rehearsal runs. Test out your fueling strategies and timing on long training runs. Mimic the race day start time on at least 1-2 long training runs. Eat breakfast and hydrate 2-3 hours before you start. If that’s too early for a balanced breakfast, your dinner the night before the long run serves as your primary fuel source.
- Choose carbs & electrolytes as race day fuel. The half marathon is a long enough distance that you’ll most likely benefit from some nutrition support throughout the race to avoid hitting the dreaded wall (glycogen depletion). A big part of your training plan is training your gut to get used to taking fuel while running. Aim for at least 30-60 grams of carb per hour for runs lasting over an hour. Some runners use more, some less (or none), but 30-60 grams of carb/hour is ideal for most. Portable fuel options include gels, chews, sports drink, candy, pretzels, Fig Newtons and banana slices (to name just a few). Figure out your timing strategy, product choice and flavor. Visit the race website to see what will be provided on the course. If you’re not using what’s offered on the course, order the product and flavor you plan to bring along so you’re prepared well in advance.
- Consistency is your best friend. Race week calls for consistency. Keep your balanced nutrition plan and go-to favorite foods on hand as you head into race week. “Carb loading” is best achieved by way of tapering your exercise and keeping your balanced eating patterns consistent with what you’ve been doing throughout the training. Piling on the pasta or excessive carbs the night before the race might lead to ‘bad belly’ on race day. Stick with what you know. A heavier hand with the salt shaker at your pre-race dinner might be helpful, especially if the race forecast is for warm weather.
- Organize before race week sneaks up. Have your race week/race day plan in place. Spicy food, greasy food, a new high fiber energy bar, a hot new restaurant? NOT THIS WEEK. Go with what and where you know. If you’re entertaining family or friends in town for the race, let them know your food plans and timing prior to their arrival. Keep in mind, an early start should mean an earlier pre-race dinner and bedtime than you may be accustomed to. It might be best to meet up with your family and friends for a meal after the race is behind you, not before.
- Execute your plan. Have your pre-race breakfast/hydration as you’ve been doing all along for training. Bring along any portable nutrition that you plan to use. Partially tear open any wrappers so your sweaty race hands won’t have to worry about it mid-race. Aim for 30-60 grams of carb per hour during the race, or whatever amount works best for you. If you’re feeling awful (this won’t happen), swish and spit some sports drink periodically as your mind may perceive you’re getting a benefit and trick your legs into playing the part and get you through the later miles. Have your plan but be flexible and allow for any last minute changes.
- Focus on a steady pace. You’ve heard it before, but here it is again -- avoid going out too fast! A steady pace helps you execute your fueling plan and avoid hitting the dreaded wall. Negative splits (finish faster than you start) are always welcome but set an intention to start the race relaxed with control.
- Cross the line. Soak it in. Hydrate, grab some snacks, walk around, change your clothes, stretch a bit, and then make it your all out mission to find your favorite meal and drink. Enjoy!
.1. Don’t forget: smile as you cross the finish line and hold your head up high for the paparazzi. You’ll want to remember this race, superstar!
Tara Mardigan, also known as "ThePlateCoach", is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and co-author of Real Fit Kitchen, a cookbook for athletes. She works in private practice with everyone from couch potatoes to elite athletes. She is also the Wellness Coordinator at Odyssey House NYC where she helps people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction establish healthful behaviors to rebuild their lives.
Tara is a longtime member of the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation medical advisory board.
Prior to moving to NYC in 2015, Tara worked for a decade as the Team Nutritionist for the Boston Red Sox. She is an avid runner and member of November Project Brooklyn and Crown Heights Running Club. She founded the BedStuy Flyers Track Club in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
You can reach Tara at firstname.lastname@example.org and @theplatecoach.