What to Eat When Training for a Half Marathon

From the First Day of Training to Race Day

plate of chicken, rice, and sweet potatoes

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Running a half marathon for the first time or as a seasoned athlete takes proper training and excellent nutrition. In fact, without the right nutrient intake, athletic performance can be adversely affected. Low energy levels and dehydration can occur when not properly fueled. In order to ensure a successful training experience and event, the following nutrition tips will be your most helpful tool. 

Good Nutrition for Training

Deciding to run a half marathon is a significant step up from 5K training. What you eat on a daily basis is as important to prepare for your event as what you eat the day before. 

Consuming a wide variety of healthy foods containing good carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats provides essential nutrients. Drinking plenty of water is also important for optimum athletic performance. Understanding how to fuel your body with the right nutrition during the training process is vital to your success.

Half marathon training is demanding and requires several hours of running practice per week. This training also varies and challenges different energy systems of the body. Having a healthy nutrition plan in place fuels our body and enables us to meet the physical demands of training.

If you were not eating healthy before, it’s time to incorporate healthy eating habits. This means stocking your pantry and refrigerator with real quality food providing nutrients and not empty calories. Basic nutrient-dense foods will help improve your health, fitness, and prepare you for half marathon training.

Healthy Food Categories

Your diet should include food from different categories. Examples of healthy choices are listed below for each category but you can expand your diet with foods that you enjoy.

  • Lean protein: Choose organic and grass-fed lean protein when possible. Nutritious options may include white meat chicken, turkey, lean pork, fish, and eggs.
  • Whole grains: Oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, barley, farro, or bulgur
  • Legumes: Beans, lentils, or edamame
  • Vegetables: Leafy greens, carrots, peppers, or cauliflower
  • Fruits: Frozen fruit, fresh fruit, unsweetened dried fruit
  • Starchy vegetables: Sweet potatoes, different types of squash
  • Healthy fats: Nuts seeds, olive oil, avocado, nut butters
  • Low fat dairy: Greek yogurt, cheese, milk
  • Non-dairy alternatives: Almond milk, oat milk, cashew milk

Smart Fuel Choices

Putting a foundation of healthy eating in place will help ensure proper fueling and meet the energy demands of half marathon training.

A sensible training period for a 10 to 13.1-mile run should be a minimum of 12 weeks with a gradual increase of weekly mileage and long weekend runs.

As you increase in mileage, it will require increased calories with the focus on healthy eating. Avoid the temptation to fill up on empty-calorie foods as a reward for hard work.

Generally, for exercise or running practices lasting over an hour, it's good to consider taking fuel with you. Different options are listed below. But keep in mind that it is important to personalize your choices. Finding the best foods that work for your body during training will come from trial and error. This process of elimination will have you ready for race day and confident with what and when to eat. 

Hydration is recommended every 20 minutes so packing a water bottle or wearing a hydration vest will be a necessary component of training and race time.

Training runs will be a time of self-discovery not only to increase your endurance but to learn when you need to fuel and hydrate.

Hydration

water in sports bottle
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Hydration Tips

  • Hydration is a crucial part of successful training.
  • Prior to training, hydrate with at least 16 ounces of water during the two hours prior to starting.
  • During training, hydrate with 6 to 8 ounces every 20 minutes.
  • Let your thirst be your guide.
  • However, more is not better—let the guidance be just that … guidance.

Sports Drinks

  • Provide fluids, carbohydrates (approximately 15 gm/8 ounces) and electrolytes. Electrolytes, such as sodium, are lost through sweat so it is important to replace them on long runs.
  • Dilute them to 50 percent strength or less with water until you know what you can tolerate. Too much sugar can cause gastrointestinal side effects.
  • Many options are available.

What to Eat Before Long Training Runs

hot oatmeal with fruit in a bowl
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Consume easily digested complex carbohydrates and protein two to four hours before starting your long training run. Great examples would include oatmeal, fruit, and milk or a bagel with peanut butter.

For those of you who hop out of bed and eat in the car on the way to training, try something more transportable like a banana, a bar which contains protein and carbohydrate, or handful of trail mix. There will be less chance of upset stomach or nausea with a lighter, quickly digested meal.

What to Eat During Long Training Runs

pretzels on a plate
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Easily digestible, transportable, generally "bite-sized" healthy food products are recommended during your long training run. These may include commercial options or real food as shown below: 

Commercial Gels, Jellies, and Sport B​eans

  • Usually contain 25-30 gm carbohydrate and may include caffeine, electrolytes or vitamins.

Commercial Sports Bars

"Real" Food

  • Fig bars
  • Peanut butter and jelly on soft wheat bread smooshed into a zip-lock sandwich bag
  • Pretzels

Whatever you choose for fuel during your runs, plan to fuel up at the same time. Also, remember that everyone is different in terms of what they can tolerate when they run. Some people need to avoid fiber during and immediately before long runs to avoid gastrointestinal distress while others are okay. Keep in mind how your tummy acts when you exercise before you choose a snack option.

More Training Tips

Training runs provide an opportunity to figure out how you're going to carry fueling and hydration necessities. You will need plenty of practice running with them, whether hydration belt with gel holders, handheld bottle, or hydration vest. This is your chance to experiment with what works best for you and select that option prior to race day.

If you belong to a training group, they typically provide at least hydration support for your long weekend runs. Be aware this may not be the case at your event, or what is provided may be different. Always be prepared with what works best for you.

You may wish to find out ahead of time what will be provided at the event and where the water/fuel stations are on course.

What to Eat the Day Before

Spaghetti
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

This is not the time to stray from your healthy nutrition plan. You have spent months preparing your body with the right fuel and hydration that works best for you during the long run. Stick to what you know for a successful race. 

Often a half marathon is associated with a marathon and there will be a wonderful Runner's EXPO to attend with all sorts of interesting fuel and hydration possibilities to try.

Sampling is fine, but don't make a spur of the moment decision to try something new and different on race day.

Carb-loading or making a concerted effort to eat extra carbohydrates two or three days prior to the event may be beneficial.

Continue to choose complex carbohydrates and ​lean proteins you've been eating as part of your normal healthy eating pattern.

Avoid high fiber foods in the evening meal before the event to reduce the risk of stomach upset during the race.

What to Eat on Race Morning and During the Event

sports drink bottle with iPhone and headphones for exercise
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

The food you consume on race morning should be the same as the fuel that you have used successfully during training. Race day is not the time to experiment with new foods, new gels, or new sports drinks.

Hydrate and fuel on race morning as you have been doing during training. Continue your hydration strategy during the event as you have practiced.

For example, a combination of carbohydrates and protein (such as whole grain bread with nut butter and 1/2 banana) is a smart choice for runners who can tolerate fiber before endurance exercise. If this has worked for you in the past, then it is the best choice on race day.

During the race, those in the back of the pack should always be prepared for water/fuel stations to run low towards the end of the race. This does not happen often, but it does happen.

What to Eat After the Event

bagel with peanut butter on a plate
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Immediately after crossing the finish line, consume healthy, easily digestible carbohydrates.

For example, simple carbohydrates such as a fruit ( an apple or a banana) should be eaten right way to restock glycogen stores. You'll often find these foods are handed out in the recovery area.

Within 30 minutes to an hour or so you should have a protein-rich snack to repair muscles. Typical recommendations require a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio. Smart choices include chocolate milk, low-fat cottage cheese with fruit, a grilled cheese sandwich with low-fat cheese, low-fat greek yogurt with berries, or an egg sandwich on whole grain bread with veggies.

Throughout the rest of the day, it's back to foundational healthy eating and should include the following:

Once again, resist the temptation to eat and drink whatever you want because you think you deserve it. Wait until you run that marathon!

A Word From Verywell

The 10 mile to half marathon distance will take all but the highly elite runners over 60 minutes. Most runners and walkers complete the race in over 90 minutes. Regardless of your pace, proper fuel and hydration are essential. Following proper nutrition guidelines through all stages of training, during the event, and for the race, recovery is an important part of the training process.

That being said, every athlete is different and will benefit from healthy eating during half marathon training. Drinking plenty of water is also an extremely important component. Beyond that, every athlete should determine what additional fuel and hydration needs will help them do their best on event day. Perhaps the sports drink provided by the event organizers, diluted with water, is enough. Maybe a sports gel or banana at mile 8 will be enough.

It's up to you to use this information and experiment throughout the training process to learn how best to use your resources on race day.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.