Runners often focus on what to eat the night before and the morning of a half marathon race, but knowing what to eat after a half marathon is equally important.
Although there are limited studies on half marathon running specifically, research has found that what you eat immediately after a marathon can have a significant impact on the amount of muscle soreness and recovery that you experience in the first 72 hours after the race.
In this article, we will discuss what to eat after a half marathon to optimize recovery so that your body has the resources it needs to get you back to training.
We will cover:
- Half Marathon Nutrition
- What to Eat After a Half Marathon
Let’s dive in!
Half Marathon Nutrition
Before we discuss what to eat after a half marathon, it’s important to briefly discuss the general approach that can be helpful to take with nutrition for half marathon runners.
Like all people, many half marathon runners struggle with their diet in one way or another. You might be inclined to overeat or emotionally eat, or you might adopt the common mindset of some long-distance runners that you can eat whatever you want and however much you want because you are running so much.
Although some runners have an extraordinarily fast metabolic rate and can seemingly eat whatever they want without putting on weight (and it can actually be really difficult to maintain the weight they want), it’s still always best to try to make healthy, nutrient-dense choices about the foods that you are putting into your body.
Whether you are trying to lose weight by running, maintain your weight, or even gain weight as a runner, try to aim to consume at least 80% of the calories in your diet from nutritious foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, eggs, lean proteins, legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats.
The other 20% of the calories that you consume can be more of a discretionary or lax “free” choice allotment.
For example, if you enjoy a beer with dinner, or you really like fruit snacks or potato chips, you certainly do not need to cut these out of your diet entirely, but they should form a relatively small percentage of your total caloric intake.Focusing on healthy foods will help you feel your best while running and achieve the body composition from running you are hoping to obtain.
Processed food, refined grains, excessive sugar, alcohol, industrial oils in fried foods, and high-sodium foods can all be very inflammatory and may cause you to gain weight.
They are also not particularly filling, so you might end up finding that you are suffering from “runger,” the feeling of an insatiable appetite after running.
What to Eat After a Half Marathon
Now that we’ve discussed the general overview of nutrition tips for half marathon runners, let’s look more specifically at what to eat after running a half marathon.
In general, the same principles apply: you want to try to eat at least 80% of your calories in your post-half marathon nutrition from nourishing, healthy foods.
The other 20% or so can be discretionary calories with celebratory foods that might not necessarily meet any particular nutritional needs. For example, you might enjoy a post-run beer, an ice cream sundae, or fries with your meal.
After all, you worked hard, and it’s important to celebrate and enjoy yourself.
With that aside, let’s focus on the nutrition you should be trying to focus on in what to eat after running a half marathon.
After running a half marathon, you will want to focus on replenishing your glycogen stores, restoring your fluid and electrolyte balance, and providing nutrients to repair muscle damage.
These goals are primarily achieved by eating complex carbohydrates, hydrating with fluids and foods naturally rich in electrolytes, and getting plenty of protein and anti-inflammatory foods to repair muscle damage and reduce inflammation.
Let’s take a look at each one in greater detail:
Complex carbohydrates will help replenish glycogen stores.
Although you have fueled properly prior to your half marathon and during the race, and your glycogen stores should not be as depleted as they are after a full marathon, it is still important to replenish glycogen.
The standard recommendation for carbohydrate refueling after exercise is to consume 0.6–1.0 g/kg carbohydrate within 30 min and again every 2 hours for the next 4–6 hours.
For example, if you weigh 165 pounds (75 kg), you should aim to eat 45 to 75 grams of carbohydrates within 30 minutes after finishing a half marathon.
Because there are four calories for every gram of carbohydrates, this equates to 180-300 calories of carbohydrates.
As will be discussed shortly, it is also important to consume proteins. Protein helps repair muscles, and it has been shown to help facilitate glycogen resynthesis after exercise.
The standard recommendation is to consume a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to proteins after endurance exercise, such as running a half marathon, with the goal of having at least 20 grams of protein (20-25 grams is ideal).
Therefore, for our 165-pound runner, after running a half marathon, it would be optimal to consume about 20 grams of protein and 80 grams of carbohydrates in the immediate post-half-marathon meal or snack.
Examples of high-carbohydrate foods that can replenish glycogen stores include whole grains such as oatmeal and quinoa, fresh and dried fruits, starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes and white potatoes, corn, and legumes.
Dried fruit, smoothies made with fruit, and energy bars are often great options for high-carbohydrate foods to eat right after running a half marathon when you might not yet have an appetite for a full meal.
Fluids and Electrolytes
It is important to start rehydrating after you finish your half marathon. Even if you drink fluids while you run, there’s a good chance that you will finish in a more dehydrated state than when you started.
Additionally, if you are having difficulty stomaching any solid food, sipping sports beverages can help replenish some carbohydrates and electrolytes. Electrolytes can also be obtained through foods rich in natural electrolytes.
Examples include fruits such as watermelon, berries, cantaloupe, honeydew, oranges, clementines, peaches, coconut water, avocados, potatoes, eggs, and vegetables like leafy greens. Salted nuts can also provide sodium, protein, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory fats.
After finishing running a half marathon, we often reach for sweet foods and simple carbohydrates, which is certainly a good way to start replenishing glycogen, but it is also important to eat protein.
Your muscles need the amino acids and proteins to start repairing damage incurred during your half marathon race.
Studies have found that the best post-running fueling strategy is to combine carbohydrates with protein because a balance of the two nutrients helps facilitate muscle repair and recovery and glycogen resynthesis.
It is best to spread out protein consumption in dosages of about 20 to 25 grams every four hours because the body has a limited ability to absorb a given amount of protein at one time.
For this reason, studies have demonstrated it is best to eat 20 to 25 grams of protein immediately after exercise and then every three hours for the next 12 hours.
After running a half marathon, you might not feel like eating common protein-rich foods like chicken, salmon, tuna, and ground beef, but many runners find that foods like protein bars, protein shakes, nuts, seeds, Greek yogurt, or even whole eggs are more palatable.
The source of the protein is less important than actually ensuring you take in enough protein.
Once your stomach has calmed down several hours after the race, you can focus on whole food sources of protein if you’re only up to eating a protein bar or shake after the race.
Finally, it can be helpful to eat anti-inflammatory foods after running a half marathon to help attenuate the inflammatory process that your muscles will sustain after the rigors that were imposed upon them in your race.
Decreasing inflammation may potentially reduce muscle soreness after your half marathon and facilitate faster recovery.
Foods that are high in antioxidants or omega-3 fatty acids tend to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
Examples include fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel, flaxseeds, walnuts and other nuts, green leafy vegetables, dark berries, tart cherries, broccoli, green tea, legumes, and tomatoes.
Overall, knowing what to eat after a half marathon can help provide your body with the nutrients you need to have a speedy recovery from your race.
Focus on nutrient-dense foods, including complex carbohydrates and protein, but don’t be afraid to indulge in something special as well!
Now that you know exactly what you should fuel with after a half marathon to recuperate completely, what about during your big race? Do you even need to fuel during a 21k?
For a complete guide on what to eat during a half marathon, check out our article: Do I Need To Fuel During A Half Marathon? Half Marathon Fueling Strategy Explained.