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Nutrition for running your best half marathon or marathon

May 14, 2020 5 min read

Nutrition for running your best half marathon or marathon


Understanding how to optimise your nutrition for running is essential for performing your best in a half, full or ultra marathon. While you can get away with a haphazard approach in shorter runs, nutrition can the factor which turns a great race into a disaster from the 10km point.

The biggest training mistake people make is not practicing their nutrition for running. Like any performance, you should have a complete dress rehearsal before the event. For runners this means trialling clothing, accessories, and fuelling strategies on your training runs.


Nutrition for running – what to eat and drink before your run


Start your run properly hydrated, a good sign is pale, straw-coloured pee.

On race day and also on your long run training days the food you eat and drink before exercising will help you to:

  • fuel and hydrate your body for the session,
  • train harder for longer, and
  • avoid getting hungry during the session

Ideally you should aim to have a meal 3-4 hours before your workout or a small snack 1-2 hours beforehand. Everyone is different with what they like to eat and what agrees with their stomach. However, in general, your pre-run meal or snack should be:

  • rich in carbohydrates to top-up your fuel stores
  • low in fibre, especially if you have a sensitive tummy
  • easy to digest– avoid foods high in fat as these are slow to digest

Some of my favourite options are:

  • a small bowl of wholegrain cereal or oats with yoghurt and fruit
  • sourdough toast with sliced banana and nut butter
  • Raisin toast with honey
  • Fruit smoothie

Nutrition for running – what to eat and drink during your run


If you’re exercising for less than an hour, you will have enough stored carbohydrates as glycogen in the muscles. You can just concentrate on hydration. Water is usually sufficient, although electrolye tablets can be useful in hot weather.

If you are exercising for more than 75 minutes you will benefit from some additional carbohydrates. Ideally you will take in about 30-60 grams of carbohydrates every hour. This will maintain blood glucose levels to fuel your muscles and brain and help you avoid “hitting the wall”. You’ll also get more out of your training session as you will be able to sustain the intensity for longer. Fuelling should commence within the first hour of your race whether you feels like it or not. Carbohydrate intake can be maximised through:

1 Using multiple carbohydrate sources including fluids, gels, bars, chews and even non-sports specific foods.

2 “Training your gut” to accept more carbohydrate by practicing fuelling on all training runs longer than 14km.

3 Scheduling your carbohydrate intake so that it is adequate and not forgotten.


Fuelling options: gels, chews and drinks


Gels, chews and sports drinks are the main sports-specific fuelling optionsused by runners. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. The best product for you to use is largely dependent on what you like, and what you can stomach.

VPA Gels provide 25g of carbs and 100 calories in each gel. As they contain water they are more convenient and quicker to absorb. They also contain sodium to replace electrolytes lost from sweat. VPA Performance Gels use two types of carbohydrates. They contain fast acting fructose to give you a quick acting energy boost. They also contain maltodextrin which is a slower acting energy source. Using two types of carbohydrates means that your muscles will get a steady stream of energy. Using multiple types of carbohydrate is easier for the stomach to digest, promotes muscle carbohydrate oxidation and enhances performance.

nutrition for running

Practicing your race fuelling


Trialling all your fuelling products, including your pre-run breakfast during your training is essential. You want to discover which products disagree with you on your training runs, not during your race.

Remember that sports gels should be taken with water not with a sports drink – the concentrated sugar mix may cause GI issues. VPA gels contain water already – making them super convenient.

It’s also time to think about whether caffeine or beetroot supplementswould be helpful and to trial them as well. This article talks about supplements for runners.

About 4-6 weeks out from your target event have a trial nutrition run. Eat your long run dinner, your long run breakfast, take gels and any supplements just as you plan to in your target event. It’s also a good time to trial your outfit and shoes. Now is the time to come up with a plan that works for you!

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Nutrition for running – what to eat and drink after your run


The goals of the recovery nutrition are to:

  • Refuel and rehydrate the body
  • Promote muscle repair and growth
  • Boost adaptation from the training session
  • Support the immune function

Rehydrating should begin soon after finishing your run. The first hour is key for restocking carbohydrates and repairing muscles. However, repair will continue over the next 12-24 hours. Use your next meal after your run for recovery nutrition. Or have a small snack to kick-start the recovery process, then use your next main meal to complete your recovery.

Post workout foods should be:

  • Rich in quality carbohydrate to replenish muscle fuel stores
  • Contain some lean protein to promote muscle repair
  • ·Include a source of fluid and electrolytes to rehydrate effectively

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There’s no “best” option for what to eat after exercise. The VPA Breakfast Shake is an ideal recovery shake. It combines a full serve of whey protein with carbohydrates from oats. Dairy foods such as flavoured milk, smoothies or fruit yoghurt can also be a great option as they can provide carbohydrate, protein, fluid and electrolytes ticking all of your recovery goals in one handy option. Some other options that you may like to choose include:

  • Lean chicken and salad roll,
  • Bowl of muesli with yoghurt and berries
  • My favourite – an egg with wholemeal toast soldiers

Carb Loading


The body only has a limited supply of carbohydrate in the muscles and liver. Since carbohydrate is main source of fuel for the body during high intensity exercise, muscle fuel stores should be topped up over in the 24-36 hours before competition to enhance performance.

In the few days before your race carbohydrate loading will make a big impact. Carb loading isn’t about a big bowl of pasta the night before your event – instead it focuses on replacing protein, fibre and fat with carbohydrate sources. You should be targeting between 8-12 grams of carbohydrate per kilo of body weight over the carb load period. So a 60 kg runner would need to consume between 480 and 720 grams of carbs over the day. As a guide 2 slices of white toast contain about 50 grams of carbs. If it’s your first time carb loading I’d suggest sticking to the lower end of the range.

The carbs you choose should be low in fibre to reduce the chances of getting an upset stomach during the race. This is the time to choose white bread, rice or pasta over wholemeal. You can go back to your quinoa after the event. You can also enjoy some of the foods you might not normally eat such as a crumpet with honey.

Here’s some detailed guidance including a meal plan covering carbohydrate loading.

Experiment with different fueling options in training so you can find a solution that works for you. Remember – nothing new on race day! Have a fabulous run and let us know how you go!

Source: Sports Dietitians Australia

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Rachel Eagleton

Rachel Eagleton (MHumNut) is a university qualified Clinical Nutritionist based in Sydney, Australia. She is a busy working mum of two teenagers, so is practical and realistic with her advice. Rachel offers private consultations to improve your sporting performance, or your general health and well-being.


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