Nutrition Tips for Running a Half Marathon
Nutrition is confusing. Just trying to figure out how to eat every day to give us energy is tough, period. Now combine that with training for a physically demanding run, yeah, things get messy real fast. In this blog post I seek to explain the 6 phases of the nutrition cycle (as defined by me :)) that encompass training for a half-marathon. If you are wondering what those phases are, here is how I break it down. My hope is that the info from this blog, will help you live your best life and feel strong, confident, and beast mode for your next race. Woo Hoo!
Fuel for Training
Nutrition for 2-3 days before the race
Morning of the race
Fuel & Hydration during the race
If you are looking for an overview, more basic summary of nutrition and running, please read an earlier blog post I wrote Top 5 Nutrition Mistakes Runners Make.
Now let's get into it. First off, why is nutrition important? We can all agree that it is, but why? My answer... optimal performance and injury prevention. Now to keep it simple I am going to refer to both Nutrition and Hydration throughout, and at times combine these terms with a new word I made up "Nutraytion", just to keep it simple. Nutraytion becomes important to provide adequate fuel and prevent fatigue during your training weeks, which in turn will prevent injury during your training weeks. If you pay attention to your nutrition post runs, this will also aide in recovery, thus preventing injuries further, injury free, me likey a lot. And the performance piece, well that is simple, nutrition is fuel, particularly carbohydrates or sugars become a direct fuel source for your body when running, but we cannot ignore the other nutrients either, we will get into that. You are an athlete, and it is time to start thinking like one ;) no pressure though. One of my RD colleagues, used a really great analogy, with a cell phone. Think of having only 50% battery power on your cell, ANXIETY STRIKES, we need to think of re-charging that battery to make it through our day! Now apply that to our body...food and water is our fuel, carbohydrates fuel us and we need to re-charge our batteries too, and not wait until we are 0%. Now let's get into the phases...
1. Hydration: the main objective for running is to replace fluid losses and prevent dehydration.
Dehydration = fatigue, fatigue= injury, we want to avoid this vicious cycle. Being hydrated will ensure we have good blood circulation, which means good oxygen circulation, it helps us release the heat as well. Each person requires a different amount of fluid based on how much sweat, the time of day and climate/temperature when running. As a general rule, our bodies cannot absorb more than 1 L per hour of fluid, so do not over do it. The BEST way to judge your personal hydration is the color of your pee! Is it apple juice yellow? I'm not trying to turn you off AJ, but the reality is, if your pee is that dark, you are not drinking enough! How many times a day do you go to the bathroom? If you go once during the work day...you're not drinking enough! Keep it simple and carry a water bottle around with you, keep filling it, and just keep drinking, remember to drink, let your water bottle be a cue for you to drink!
If you want to get really down and dirty you can do pre and post run weigh ins to determine the amount of fluid lost during the run, and then seek to replace it. I have not done this personally, but have worked with clients who appreciate this process.
What about electrolyte replacements?
Everyone's favorite answer...it depends haha. It will depend on how much you sweat, and how much salt you eat in your baseline diet, and the heat/humidity you are running in. Electrolyte replacement during training and race day is OK, but do not over do it. Sports drinks, are formulated to contain both sugar aka carbohydrates for fueling, and electrolytes. Sometimes we do not need the carb and just need the electrolytes. So look for options that are carb-free, electrolyte replacements, many, many options, the one I currently am using is called Biosteele and I like it, but try different ones out!
2. FUEL for the training cycle: the main objective is to maximize performance and minimize injury.
It is called "training" because we are practicing, and getting better, faster, stronger, and as we train, our nutrition needs change, and we need to plan for those adaptations. During the training cycle, it is possible that runners gain weight from overestimating calorie needs, and possibly an un-satiable appetite from increased activity OR they can loose weight as a result of increased training demands, just hopefully not muscle mass losses!
I will keep this message simple and have you visualize a healthy plate, a simple tool that we can use to make better choices at all meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner. Using this method and discussing portions/ratios is a far easier approach for most people to grasp, as it is visual, not numbers focused. I can however calculate individual nutrition needs that are more detailed, please contact me if you are interested in that level of detail! Now back to the plate. What do you notice about it? 3 parts (vegetables, grain/starch---CARBS!, protein (meat/alt)). But also, notice the ratios, equal parts pro/carb, twice the amount of vegetables. Let's get into the importance of each part.
Mainly for replenishing muscles and aiding in recovery. It is not the primary fuel source for our body during running, but is important for our overall health and maintenance of strong bones, tissues etc.
These are the main source of fuel our body utilizes while running, so we must include them in our meals, but not eat them exclusively.. who do you think you are? A Carbdashian? These foods are grains and starches; breads, pastas, bagels, rice, potato, sweet foods.... Milk products and fruit also contain carbohydrates and you can get your fuel there as well.
Vegetables provide little to no calories depending on the kind (potato and corn are starchy and we consider those more grain and starch choices). But we still need these! Vegetables are FULL of antioxidants, which heal and protect our body cells from oxidative damage or stress. When you run, YOU PUT YOUR BODY UNDER STRESS. Pounding the pavement, day in and day out...it is not easy on our body and we need these antioxidants to keep the machine well oiled and working in tip/top shape.
Lets talk ratio
On run training days that plate should favor carbohydrate in a 2:1 ratio. Twice as much carb as protein, and therefore the veggies shrinking to accommodate the ratio change. On cross training days or off days, keep the ratio 1:1 just like it is shown in the plate photo. This will ensure the body is getting the fuel it needs, when it needs it.
3. 24-48 hours before showtime! The objective here is to ensure optimal hydration status and maximize muscle glycogen (sugar stored in your muscles).
The most important Nutraytion is two days before your event, so if your event is on Sunday, the Friday before is crucial for Nutraytion and a good nights sleep! This day we focus on being fully hydrated and fueling up on those carbs. For hydration, aim for 4L of water throughout the day (give or take), you want your urine to be clear this day. To ensure your body actually retains some of this fluid, add in some electrolyte drink, say 1 bottle of sports drink, diluted throughout the day...keep drinking...shots, shots, shots! Yeah...you get it.
For food fueling we want that 1:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio for breakfast and lunch, and for dinner, we want to crank that ratio up 3:1, so triple the amount of carbohydrate for that one meal. This last meal, focus on those grain or starch carbs more so than milk or fruit carbohydrates. Remember to adjust the portions of other foods you eat, so smaller amounts of protein and vegetables, don't just eat 3x as much, as this can lead to some major digestive issues, and we don't want that. My favorite meal is pasta :) I typically will indulge in a dish of Chicken Parmesan made with white pasta, and drink ++ water with this meal, and of course, NO WINE, NO ALCOHOL, that leads to dehydration and reduces your body's ability to mobilize the glycogen from your liver when it needs.
4. Morning of the RACE. Objective: top off glycogen stores.
As far as hydration, this is not the time to over-hydrate, you did the heavy lifting before this morning. Keep it to 250-500ml (8-16oz) of fluid before you run. If you are and have been a coffee drinker, drink coffee as long as your stomach can handle it, but have some water too.
As far as a meal is concerned, timing can be very important. If you like to eat long before the start time (3-4 hours) you can comfortably digest a larger meal. As you get closer to the start time, say you choose to eat 1-2 hours before instead, don't over do it, or have too large a volume of food. This can lead to cramping, bloating, gas, and you will not actually digest your meal and it will not provide you with that kick of energy that it should.
5. Nutraytion during the race. The objective here is to optimize performance and prevent fatigue.
In order to optimize performance we must ensure our blood sugar levels do not drastically drop, and that we can somewhat replace the fluid loss during the race, this of course will depend on how fast you plan to boogy through the race! The reality is, the human body can likely survive the whole race without fuel from food or sports nutrition, because our glycogen stores in the liver and muscle can last up to 90 minutes of a full on push pace. On the flip side, research suggests that even small amounts of carbohydrate can enhance performance, so why not?
We spoke earlier about calculating your fluid losses, and if you've done this, and know your number, well then you can plan to replace that amount of fluid. If you do not know, you can aim to ideally consume 8oz (1 cup) for every 20 minutes on the road. That just seems like so much to me, but that is an an average of a few different references. Having said that, if this seems unrealistic to you (like it does to me) plan to drink a few sips from each water station, or each time you choose to have fuel, have a few sips. As a rule, for myself, I only consume sports drinks during a race exclusively, because I want the extra carbohydrate that it will provide me with, and I typically drink only 16 oz the entire race, and focus on re-hydration after. Practice, practice, practice and figure out what works for you.
If you choose to fuel during your race with carbohydrate outside of what you might consume in a sports drink, there is a basic rule you can use. Aim for 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour of exercise. If you look at the nutrition label of your snacks or sports nutrition you will find the grams of carbohydrate listed there. You and only YOU can decide how you like to consume your carb, goo, gel, gummie, candies, dates, honey etc..practice. The next point to consider is the timing of this fuel, which of course depends on your anticipated completion time. Timing is crucial, because you want to stay ahead of your body, providing it with the fuel before it needs it, before your blood sugar plummets. My favorite approach is to space out your nutrition. Take some about 10 minutes before the gun goes off, just before the half way point- 10k or 6 miles, then nearing the end at the 10 mile or 16 km mark, collectively this will total the 60g of carbohydrate. Just please promise me that you won't try anything new on race day ok??
6. After the assault = recovery. The main objective is to replenish, re-hydrate, and rest!
As soon as you come whipping through that finish line, get some water and drink up! Now is when you focus hard to recover your fluid losses, and likely all day you will need to do that. Keep drinking and make sure your urine is a light yellow!
As far as replenishment, protein is major key! And it should be consumed no more than 30 minutes post run, because that is when your muscles are like sponges, soaking up all the recovery nutrients to re-build. Now important note, in order for that protein to be absorbed and used by your body, you need to consume some carbohydrate as part of your recovery snack. So think protein/carbo combo, like chocolate milk, it is the perfect ratio of protein-carbohydrate.
An idea for a post race recovery snack is to eat 1 banana, and drink 250ml (8oz) or 1 small box of chocolate milk, and maybe a small muffin or half bagel and that's it! Do NOT eat everything in sight, avoid copious amounts of sugar and fat! It's a typical problem and R-Kelly said it best..." my mind is telling me no, but my body, my body is telling me yesss sugar, yess!". Listen to your brain, your gut will later thank you for this! About 2 hours after your recovry snack, continue on eating a regular meal, but for most of us, it is a victory meal aka cheat meal :P
Ok there you have it, 6 phases of nutraytion for successful training and completion of a half-marathon. Now go out there, and live your best life and run strong! If you have any questions, please contact me directly, via my website, email firstname.lastname@example.org or via instagram @salads_are_sweet.