Half marathon season is getting into full swing now. Your winter training is done. The hard miles have been slogged in the cold and dark. Now it’s time to think about making sure you get the best possible result on race day.
A lot of people often wonder about the best nutritional strategy to help them perform at their peak in their race.
Simple Tips for an Extra Edge
The good news is that getting your nutrition right for a half marathon is much easier than it is for a full marathon. As long as you eat and drink sensibly in the days beforehand, you can’t go too far wrong.
Normally, the golden rule of race day nutrition is to never, ever try anything on race day that you haven’t practised in training. But you can bend that rule quite a bit for a half marathon.
If you do want to give yourself an extra edge on race day then there are a few tips you can follow.
Before Race Day
When people talk about food and marathons, carb-loading almost always crops up. For a half marathon, this isn’t really necessary. Most people have more than enough stored energy reserves to run a half marathon without running out of energy.
What you eat and drink in the couple of days before the race is more about ensuring that you arrive at the start line feeling good and comfortable.
Generally keep to a diet that you’re used to eating. Where possible, try to stick to light, fresh foods. Avoid rich, heavy or creamy sauces. Get plenty of carbohydrates, and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Limit how much fibre you consume. It can make you feel bloated. Obviously you’re normally super good and only eat wholemeal bread and pasta. In the couple of days before race day, give that up and stick to white bread, pasta, rice, cous cous, and so on.
Some people find that dairy sits heavily on their stomach, or causes stomach / digestive problems during a long run. It might be worth reducing the amount of milk, cheese and cream that you eat for one or two days before race day.
Make sure you a well hydrated. Drink plenty of water.
Avoid caffeine from about mid-afternoon onwards, especially the day before the race, because you’ll want a good night of sleep.
And, if you want to do your best on race day, you probably ought to avoid turning up with a hangover. But if you don’t want to do your best, I don’t know why you’re reading this!
On Race Day
People always say that it’s the most important meal of the day. For a half marathon, you’re looking for something that’s going to give you plenty of energy and not sit too heavily on your stomach.
Aim to have your breakfast about two hours before the start of the race.
My favourite pre-race breakfast is a couple of slices of toast with Marmite, a banana and glass of fruit juice. Plus a cup of black coffee. And a glass of water.
There is a lot of good science to show that caffeine helps reduce how tiring a run seems and delays the onset of feelings of fatigue. This means that caffeine helps you run faster for longer and further. Definitely good for your race! If you’re getting breakfast in a cafe and you have an espresso-based coffee, make sure it’s only got one shot in it. Too much caffeine, too early in the day won’t help you in the actual race.
After breakfast, you probably want to avoid drinking too much, because otherwise you might find yourself stuck in one of those interminable queues for the portaloos.
At The Race / Start Line
I quite like to have a banana about 20-30 minutes before the race is due to start. It’s not strictly necessary, but it makes me feel good. Occasionally, I use an energy gel. Gels have the major advantage of not getting badly bruised in my race bag.
It’s definitely worth having an electrolyte drink at about the same time. Electrolytes will reduce the risk of cramp. And will ensure you start fully hydrated.
Ideally try to get 50 – 100 mg of caffeine at the same time. Some hydration / electrolyte drinks and energy gels contain caffeine. The caffeine will top you up to give you a boost right at the start.
During The Race
You only really need to drink water. But do take the water at every station. It’s easier on your tummy to have smaller, frequent drinks.
If the drinks stations are offering an energy drink and you’re really struggling then by all means take one. It’s better if you’ve tried them in training, but for a half marathon, it’s a bit less important.
After The Race
Well done! Finishing a half marathon is something worth celebrating. Before you tuck into a well-earned plate of scoff (and maybe a little drinkie or two), see if you can get some good quality recovery nutrition inside you. You’ll feel much better the next day and that’s more likely to keep you motivated to keep on running.
There’s some reasonable science to say that you’ll recover best if you consume food with a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein within 20-30 minutes of finishing a hard exercise session. A chocolate milkshake will get pretty close to this magic ratio. But it might not be easy to get hold of one or it might not keep well in your race bag. You can get some convenient alternatives in recovery bars or drinks.
Your race bag will probably have some goodies in it. Try to go for the thing that is high in carbohydrate and low in fat first. Malt loaf or a branded recovery snack bar will be good options. If there’s a chocolate bar, leave that until a bit later, if you can. Honestly, your body will thank you for the abstinence the next morning.
How much do I need to eat? For something like a half marathon, a good rough guide is to get as many grams of carbohydrate as you weigh in kg. And to judge your protein from that.
And that’s about it. All that’s left is to enjoy your achievement. And start planning your next one.
Please can you add any ideas, experiences or comments on this advice?
- What’s your favourite race day breakfast?
- Do you eat / drink anything before you race?
- What’s your favourite celebratory meal?