The half marathon is a tricky distance when it comes to fueling. It borders on the line of whether you do or don’t need to fuel. The answer depends on a number of factors, like the amount of time you’ve been running long distances or how fast you can complete the race.
For those targeting their first half marathon, knowing when to fuel, how much to eat, and what to consume can be confusing. Ok fine, even after running them for years a lot of us are still trying to figure what we need!
So let’s break it down to make it easier for us all, shall we?
Do I Need to Fuel During a Half Marathon?
Your body relies on two primary sources of fuel to feed the muscles during long runs—fat and carbohydrates.
Since fat breaks down slowly, it’s not the most effective source of quick energy, however it’s what you want to train your body to use more of during base building.
Once you get in to the half marathon taper, your body is going to build back up it’s glycogen stores. And this is crucial for your best race day performance! You need carbs.
We can typically store about 90 minutes worth of glycogen stores (aka carbohydrates) in our muscles before it begins to deplete. Since most of us will take longer, there’s going to be a pay off for a smart race day fueling strategy.
Running energy gels, chews, and some whole foods replenish the glycogen consumed by your body, providing a boost to continue forward at the same effort.
When To Eat During a Half Marathon?
Step one is to ensure you’ve eaten enough prior to the race, which is covered in depth in what to eat before a race!
The most important part of half marathon nutrition is getting those calories before you actually need them. If you’re feeling low energy or have already bonked, then it’s too late and your performance will suffer.
What’s interesting is it’s less about the calories and more about telling your brain that fuel is coming! Some studies have shown even that bit of sweetness on your tongue from a sports drink can give you a boost. Photo from @sandinypaver getting ready for an ultra.
- A good rule of thumb is begin consuming fuel between the first 45-60 minutes of a race.
- Continue every 45-60 minutes after that.
- Try and time your intake with the aid station so you can wash it down with water (not sports drink, that’ll be sugar overload).
Knowing when to fuel during a half marathon takes practice and learning to read your energy levels. Which is to say you need to fuel before you start hitting the wall!
Sample Half Marathon Fueling Plan
While I may not take in much during long training runs, on race day the following has worked well for me and a number of other runners I’ve spoke to:
- Start line pre-workout
- Mile 3 a little bit of fuel (couple shot bloks or suck on a gel for awhile)
- Mile 8 a little bit more fuel (I like something with a little caffeine)
- Mile 11 final fuel
Pushing this out to full marathon fueling:
- Start line pre-workout
- Mile 5 a little bit of fuel
- Mile 10 a little bit more fuel (I like something with a little caffeine)
- Mile 15 I will actually hold a gel and suck on it for a few miles
- Mile 22 final fuel
**Hilly races can be an exception because the higher your HR is shooting up, the more carbohydrates your body is burning. In those cases, I’ll actually organize my fueling around taking something a little before any of the major hills.
Remember if you eat breakfast two hours before even starting, you might benefit from those quick carbs on the start line. You want your body to feel primed to go.
You’ll notice I’m not saying to take an entire gel at any of those points. Because that’s always been more than my body has wanted, which is why we’re going to talk about options!But first, as always it’s key to find what works for you. Though you may not need a ton of fuel on your training runs, try out just one or two things to see what your stomach does.
Maybe you feel good with gels or maybe they give you an immediate stomach ache. Maybe you have a huge boost from caffeine or maybe it just makes you need to pee (and thus need caffeine free energy)!
Mid way through your race is not the time to try new foods!
What to Eat During a Half Marathon
The endurance fuel game has changed so much since companies started manufacturing them for distance athletes.
How do you even go about sorting through all the choices? For most, it’s trial and error. The right nutrition plan is the one that works for you and doesn’t give you an upset stomach.
While some prefer gels, others go with chews or whole foods. I’ve done a lot of testing to come up with the best running gels, but here’s a breakdown of the options.
Natural Energy Gels for a Half Marathon
Energy gels range from standard brands like GU to more natural options listed below. Standard gels can often lead to GI distress due to the fructose, so try several different brands to see how you feel afterward.
Your half marathon fueling strategy needs to start during training!! Go to a running store and buy individual packets to test out things, then you can buy a larger pack when you know what feels good.
A few natural energy gel favorites (of mine and those I polled) include:
Easier on the Stomach Energy Options
Chews are a great alternative for those who can’t stomach energy gels. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to practice chewing something gummy while running.
It’s not as easy as you think and 1 blok or a couple beans are not the same volume of energy as a gel (which is ideal for some, but not all!)
A few of my go to picks are:
- Honey Stinger Energy Chews + Waffles
- CLIF BLOKS
- PROBAR Bolt Chews
- Jelly Belly Sport Beans
- Skratch Labs Fruit Drops
The main downside here, is I find people munching on them as snacks. HA! We don’t need that much sugar between runs.
Whole Food Running Fuels
If all the sugars in gels and chews makes your stomach revolt, whole foods might be a better option.
Lately, I’ve been breaking up whole food energy bars like the vegan Better Than Coffee Energy Bars into small pieces to eat during longer runs or on race day because I like that steady little drip of caffeine and fuel.
If you choose whole foods, you may want to consider eating fewer calories, but more often, say every 30-45 minutes. These are some great whole food choices for race day:
- Squeeze packet of fruit puree
- Nut butter packets
- Dried apricots
- Energy bites (here are 21 easy and delicious recipes to make your own)
I’ve got an entire post on what you need to know about using whole foods for fuel, so go read that for all the details and lot more ideas!!Still trying to figure out your race day fuel? Here's an in depth look at what you need and some more natural options. #bibchat #running #runchat Click To Tweet
Are Sports Drinks Enough for Half Marathon Nutrition?
Maybe. Like gels, chews, and whole foods, sports drinks replace some of the lost glycogen stores.
In addition, the electrolytes contained in the sodium and potassium help with fluid retention lost from sweating.
If you plan to rely solely on sports drinks as your half marathon fueling strategy, then pick one with more carbs and calories. Here are three I’ve tested and like:
- Tailwind Nutrition Endurance
- Skratch Hydration Mix
- Gnarly Fuel2o
- UCAN – the flavor was off for me, but it’s one that works well for many
One Nuun tablet contains just 10 calories and 1 gram of carbohydrates. While it’s great for hydration, it’s not the best choice for fuel.
What about Caffeine on Race Day?
Half marathon fueling is often not just about the carbs, but that extra energy boost.
Many energy gels and chews include caffeine for an extra boost during a long run. If you’re not a regular consumer, then don’t just go all out on race day. That could be a recipe for disaster.
Instead, experiment with one gel or chew per hour and see how your body takes it.
Or try consuming a cup of coffee in the morning 30 minutes or so before heading out on a long run, as caffeine can take 45 minutes to peak in your system.
Be sure to pay attention to how coffee affects your GI system. Does it make you need to run to the bathroom immediately, or does it take a little while to work its way through? Make sure you know the answer before leaving for that long run.
If you’re a regular coffee drinker, you can get a bigger caffeine boost by giving it up completely for 3 weeks prior to the race. It will feel like rocket fuel that day. In fact, that’s why I like to use it on race day. I rarely have caffeine, so it’s a great energy tool for me.
Need more half marathon tips?
- Half marathon pace chart
- What to wear for a half marathon
- Half marathon pacing strategy
- How to Transition from the 10K to Half
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Photo from the lovely @jbirdruns