fbpx

What To Eat Before A Half Marathon, According To Our Running Coach And Nutritionist

Here's exactly what to eat in the days, hours, and minutes before your half marathon.

Runners tend to spend a lot of time thinking about or planning their training.

Between choosing what type of workout you will do, which of your favorite running routes you will take, or what race distance you want to train for next, there are always elements of training that can take some significant time and attention.

However, it’s also important to think about your diet and nutrition when training for a half marathon, or any race for that matter. It’s vital to know what to eat the week before a half marathon and what to eat the day before a half marathon to be well-prepared to perform.

In this guide to what to eat before a half marathon, we will discuss what to eat the week before a half marathon, the night before, and what to eat for breakfast the day of your half marathon to help ensure your body is properly fueled for your best race.

A runner eating a granola bar.

What Should I Eat Before a Half Marathon?

Throughout your training program leading up to half marathon race day, you’ll want to follow a nutritious, balanced meal plan that fuels your body with healthy foods to get the nutrients you need to fuel your workouts, recover from your running long distances, and maintain optimal health.

Your usual diet should consist of a variety of whole, natural, unprocessed foods, such as vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, legumes, seeds, nuts, whole grains, eggs, low-fat dairy, healthy fats, and plenty of water for hydration.

As much as possible, you should avoid processed foods, such as frozen entrees, canned soups, packaged cakes and cookies, candy, fried snacks, processed food, and foods with hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, and artificial or chemical ingredients.

For overall health, it’s also advisable to limit your intake of foods high in salt, sugar, or trans fats and your consumption of alcoholic beverages. 

The week before the race, avoid alcohol, foods high in salt, sugar, or fat, and greasy foods. Drink plenty of water.

The day before the half marathon, you can follow your normal diet until dinner. 

However, you should avoid greasy foods, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, or foods high in sodium, soda, or other foods you know upset your digestive system.

First-time half marathon runners will have less experience with the foods that tend to work best as a pre-race meal, but you should use your training runs to practice your nutrition strategy.

In my work as a running coach, I always suggest that runners use the longer runs during the half marathon build-up to try different foods and settle on a race-day nutrition strategy that will work both in terms of nutrient timing and what to eat before a half marathon.

Chicken and potatoes.

Do I Need to Carb Load Before a Half Marathon?

Carbohydrate loading before a half marathon isn’t as essential as carb loading before a marathon because your muscles and liver glycogen stores should be adequate for most runners who are following a well-balanced meal plan the week before the half marathon.

Even so, you should aim to eat a pre-race dinner that is high in complex carbohydrates to ensure these glycogen stores are fully stocked up.1Murray, B., & Rosenbloom, C. (2018). Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutrition Reviews76(4), 243–259. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuy001

According to research,2Hawley, J. A., & Leckey, J. J. (2015). Carbohydrate Dependence during Prolonged, Intense Endurance Exercise. Sports Medicine45(S1), 5–12. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-015-0400-1 during exercise at intensities greater than approximately 60% of your VO2 max, blood glucose and muscle glycogen are the primary fuels being oxidized to produce the necessary ATP for your muscles because carbohydrates can be oxidized for energy much quicker than fats. 

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an endurance-trained athlete can store up to 1,800 to 2,000 calories of fuel as glycogen in the muscles and liver, though smaller runners might store closer to 1,500 calories or so.

Depending on your body size and running pace, this means that you might store enough glycogen to support about 75-100 minutes of running at your half marathon race pace effort.

Overnight oats.

Most runners take much longer than 75 or even 90 minutes to finish a half marathon.

Running Level reports that the average half marathon finish time is 1:43:33 for men and 2:00:12 for women.

The slower you are, the more important your pre-race half marathon fueling strategy (and during the race fueling strategy) becomes because your muscles will be burning through glycogen longer as you make your way to the finish line.

Essentially, just because your running pace is slower, doesn’t mean that your effort level is any less than a more competitive runner, so even very slow runners may be burning primarily glycogen during the half marathon.

Ultimately, this means that your pre-race fueling strategy doesn’t provide a sufficient number of grams of carbs, you will arrive on the starting line the morning of the race with already partially depleted glycogen stores (the body burns through some glycogen overnight). 

Then, because glycogen is limited, your muscles won’t have as much glucose during the race, which can result in the dreaded experience of “bonking” or “hitting the wall” because you don’t have enough energy in the form of glucose.

Therefore, it’s important to get enough carbohydrates in the pre-race dinner, and in the breakfast and snack on the morning of a half marathon.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

What Do I Eat the Night Before a Half Marathon?

What you eat the night before a half is nearly as important as what you eat the morning of the race. 

As mentioned, full carb loading as might be done before a full marathon or triathlon isn’t necessary before a half marathon, but it is important to have plenty of complex carbohydrates in your dinner before race day.

However, most sports nutritionists and registered dietitians recommend that instead of having a huge bowl of pasta, a better nutrition strategy for what to eat the night before a half marathon is to have a well-balanced meal with complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats.

Eating too many grams of carbohydrates can leave you feeling bloated and sluggish, and may cause cramping or other issues with your digestive system.

The balanced meal that you eat the night before a half marathon should still be centered on complex carbohydrates, but should also include lean protein (such as fish, poultry, tofu, eggs), veggies, and healthy fats (avocado, olive oil). 

Salmon and quinoa.

Good sources of carbohydrates for a pre-race meal the night before the half marathon include quinoa, barley, rice, amaranth, brown rice, oats, teff, pilaf, and starchy veggies like potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, peas, corn, roasted carrots, and roasted beets, etc.

Although foods like legumes, cruciferous veggies, and other high-fiber foods are excellent for regulating your digestive system and supporting overall health and should be enjoyed in your normal nutrition plan, these high-fiber foods can cause bloating, cramping, and digestive distress.

Therefore, it’s best to limit fiber and foods that are hard on the digestive system the day before your race.

Even if you have a hearty digestive system and eat lots of legumes and fibrous whole grains in your normal meal plan, make sure your pre-race breakfast or pre-race snack is lower in fiber.

Here are a few examples of what to eat the night before a half marathon:

  • Roasted turkey or chicken breast with a baked potato and a Greek salad with spinach, tomatoes, feta cheese, olive oil, and chickpeas.
  • Vegan brown rice bowl with marinated tofu, mushrooms, carrots, snow peas, and sesame seeds.
  • Pan-roasted salmon with quinoa and veggies.
  • Whole wheat pasta with light pesto dressing, salad, and turkey meatballs or vegan meat balls.

Depending on your body weight, caloric needs, and carb intake, you should also have a high-carb snack with lean protein before bed such as: 

  • Greek yogurt with low sugar granola and mixed berries 
  • Low sodium cottage cheese with drizzle of honey
  • Trail mix and a piece of fruit
  • Smoothie or protein shake
  • Balanced protein bar with no artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols
A protein shake.

What Should I Eat for Breakfast Before a Half Marathon Race?

The most important component of your half marathon nutrition plan is your pre-race breakfast because it will directly influence how your digestive system feels during the race and the state of your glycogen storage and glucose availability.

Ideally, you should plan to have your pre-race breakfast about 3 to 4 hours before the start of the race so that you have time to digest your previous meal before stepping on the starting line or going through your warm up routine.

Your pre-race breakfast before a half marathon should consist of about 75%-80% carbohydrates, 10-15% protein, and 10% healthy fats to top off glycogen stores from the overnight fast and to reduce the risk of digestive distress. Limit fiber.

Here are some examples of good pre-race breakfast foods:

  • Bagel or English muffin with peanut butter and banana
  • Toast with almond butter and jelly
  • Oatmeal
  • Overnight oats
  • Smoothie made with banana, plant-based protein powder, tablespoon of nut butter, and berries
  • Whole-grain waffles with butter, syrup, or a little bit of peanut butter
  • Sweet potato with almond butter or peanut butter
  • Cream of wheat 
  • Low-sugar cereal made from whole grains but without added fiber (bran flakes)
  • Eggs with white rice
Waffles.

Generally, you want to have complex carbs in the pre-race breakfast 3 to 4 hours before the race, and if you are going to have a pre-race snack, it should be eaten at least 1 to 2 hours before the race.

The pre-race snack should be almost entirely simple carbohydrates that will provide glucose to top off your blood sugar levels and glycogen storage without taking much time to digest.

Depending on your body size, what you ate for breakfast before the race, and how much time you have before the race start, your pre-race snack might fall in the 150-250 calorie range, almost all of which should come from simple carbohydrates.

You can drink sports drinks if you have difficulty digesting solid foods, or water with electrolytes. Either way, be sure to hydrate well with water, aiming for pale yellow urine

If you are sensitive to caffeine, avoid coffee or caffeinated sports beverages. Be aware that many pre-run supplements contain caffeine, such as caffeinated energy gels and pre-workout sports drink powders.

Protein bars.

Here are some examples of the best pre-race snack foods for race morning: 

  • Banana
  • Energy bar or a granola bar
  • Applesauce
  • Crackers
  • Pretzels 
  • Rice cakes
  • Graham crackers or animal crackers
  • Fruit bar like a Nutri-Grain bar
  • Natural granola bar or energy bar like 88 Acres bars or Honey Stinger waffles
  • Dried fruit such as dried cranberries or raisins
  • Fig newtons
  • Half a bagel
  • English muffin
  • Piece of toast
  • Sports drinks
  • Pre-run supplements like energy gels, energy chews, or sports beans
Yogurt and granola.

Remember, it is always best practice to stick with pre-race foods on race morning that your body is used to and has responded well to during training sessions. 

In other words, don’t eat any new foods before the race or even in the several days leading up to the race.

You never know how your body will tolerate new foods and the last thing you want after weeks of training is to have stomach issues during the race, cramping, or bonking because you haven’t fueled well or the food you ate has caused issues with your digestive system.

Deciding what to eat before a half marathon often takes a little experimentation, and depends on your preferences, digestive system, running pace, time you have to be on the starting line, and caloric needs. 

Remember to use your training runs and workouts to play around with different combinations of foods and nutrient timing to see what feels best, rather than try new foods the morning of the half marathon.

Consider working with a nutritionist or registered dietician to nail down a general meal plan that provides enough energy for long distance training and helps you feel fueled for training and race day.

Overall, the most important thing you can do in terms of half marathon fueling is practice, practice, practice.

If you enjoyed this guide, check out this article on our best pre-run snacks for runners: 

References

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.