Marathon fueling is one of the secret strategies that professional runners use to win marathons. Fueling helps runners to fight fatigue and allows them to sustain a steady level of energy during the race, especially when they have to run for several hours, almost without any breaks.
However, one question that many new marathon athletes ask is “do I need to fuel during a half marathon as well?”
A half marathon will usually take anywhere between one and a half to 4 hours in order to be completed by a runner. For such a lengthy physical exercise, proper fueling is necessary to maintain consistent performance and keep up during the race.
If you want to find out more about fueling during a half marathon, what to consume, and more, keep on reading this guide!
Do I Need to Fuel During a Half Marathon?
Well, the quick and short answer to this question is “yes!”. However, in order to understand why fueling is essential and reach this conclusion, there are a few sporting and energy economy concepts that you need to understand.
For starters, you need to keep in mind that our bodies require energy in their reserves to do just about any kind of exercise imaginable, and running is a great example of a demanding exercise.
Ideally, for any endurance athlete out there that is putting their body under sporting stress for a few minutes, most of the energy comes from the quick energy reserves stored in the muscles.
However, when a sporting event takes longer than 30 to 45 minutes, the body starts to run out of all the immediate energy supplies that are directly stored in the muscles.
In that case, the carb stored as glycogen inside the body turns into simple glucose and goes to the muscles in order to release their energy component.
Not only that, but the body also starts running out of essential electrolytes, amino acids, and other essential micronutrients needed to sustain your performance at maximum level.
Half a marathon is about 13.1 miles (21 km), which is a pretty long distance that takes well beyond 45 minutes to finish.
In fact, the world record here by Abel Kipchumba is 58 minutes and 7 seconds, so it’s clear that refueling is quite necessary, not only during the race day but also during a long training run!
How Often Do You Need to Fuel?
Ideally, you need to start fueling for your marathon before it even starts, as proper fueling begins from the race day morning.
There’s a difference between fats and carbs metabolism for runners. Carbohydrates are usually a source of quick but short bursts of energy while fats are a source of slow-releasing but sustained energy.
To enjoy the best of both worlds you need to focus on complex carbs that are released relatively quickly and sustain your energy levels.
As a rule of thumb, you always want to load on calories and energy before you need them because they take some time for them to process in your body.
In fact, if you start refueling because you start to notice that you’re critically low on energy, your performance and results will suffer greatly. In other words, you need to refuel as soon as your body needs it to avoid running into problems.
A Sample Refueling Plan During a Marathon
An optional tip here is to consume a pre-workout right at the start of the race because it’s built so that it provides your body with instant energy and electrolytes.
If you’ve fueled properly before the race, you’re going to need some refueling during the first 45 to 60 minutes of the half marathon, which is usually at about the third mile of the half marathon.
After that, you might want to refuel once every 45 to 60 minutes again to retain your energy, which should be about the 7th or 8th mile of the marathon. This time, you might want to refuel with a food or drink that contains caffeine to sharpen your senses.
When you reach the final mile, make sure that you consume food items that are quickly absorbed to provide you with a final boost before the finish line. But more about what to consume in the following sections!
Yet, you should know that this is a general rule. Some marathoners may run out of energy before or after that, so it’s always worth it to time yourself and see the ideal time for refueling.
The best way to refuel is to carry your own food and drinks. This way, you can get exactly what you need for continuing the race at the top level. You may also try to time your refueling with the water stations, so you don’t have to carry a water bottle and wash the food down quickly.
What Kind of Food Should You Fuel On During Marathons?
Now that you have a better knowledge about the importance of proper nutrition and hydration during a half marathon, here are some of the best types of food items that you can use as a source of reliable energy on longer races:
1. Energy Gel
Energy gels are prepackaged gel-like snacks that are designed with high carbohydrate and calorie content in order to boost your energy levels quickly, making it one of the most popular refueling items during marathons.
However, standard brands contain a lot of fructose sugar, which is known to cause a lot of gastrointestinal discomfort for some runners and can even cause diarrhea in some cases.
Luckily, there’s a wide range of energy gels on the market, and some of them contain more natural ingredients that don’t upset the stomach.
For that reason, it’s always essential that you test these brands out individually on regular training days and see which one of them works best for you.
What’s great about these gels is that many of them also come in a variety of flavors, such as fruits, chocolate milk, vanilla, honey, and more!
2. Energy Bars and Chews
Similar to energy gels, you can also consume energy chews. These marathon fuels are also a quick source of glycogen and increase your carbohydrate intake without being too heavy on your stomach.
Since these fuels are chewable, you’ll need to prepare yourself to chew while running, which is another reason why you should try them and train yourself to run while chewing.
Like gels, these are also made by several brands. For instance, Stinger also makes waffle chewable varieties.
3. Nut Butter
One of the best things about enjoying different kinds of nut butter is that they’re an excellent source of healthy fats and calories per body weight. For example, only two tablespoons of peanut butter contain up to 188 to 200 calories.
In addition to calories, nut butter is a source of omega 3 and healthy triglycerides, which are great for mental functions and focusing during the race.
However, nut butter takes some time to process inside the body, so they’re considered more of a long term source of energy rather than a short burst.
4. Whole Foods
There are plenty of whole food options that you can also keep in mind if you want to avoid energy gels.
These whole foods are also a great source because they don’t only increase your carb intake, but they’re also rich in lean protein and amino acids, especially if you’re going for protein bars. You can also consider eating dried fruit, such as prunes, raisins, dried apricots, figs, etc.
Moreover, you might want to try pureeing some of your favorite fruits and adding them to a squeeze packet, which makes it easier for you to consume while running.
Whole foods are also the kind of food you want to load on before the start of the race because they take longer to process, so they’ll provide you with a consistent stream of glycogen and backup energy throughout the race
Candy is one of the easiest ways to raise your blood glucose level and get that sugar rush needed for the last mile in your half marathon. These also protect you from feeling lightheaded after running continuously for several miles!
While there are many options of candy to choose from, you want to pick the types that are convenient to run with. These candies are not messy all the while being easy to divide and consume.
The best examples, in that case, are gummies, jelly beans, Swedish fish, or any candy bar that you enjoy.
In addition to candy, some runners may also pack pretzels because they’re rich in salt, which is excellent for runners suffering from sweat problems, which makes them lose sodium quickly.
Are Sports Drinks a Good Alternative to Food During Marathons?
A lot of runners might question whether a sports drink can be a good alternative to gels, chews, candy, and whole foods.
The answer here depends on the kind of sports drinks that you’re going to consume during the marathon.
This is because many sports drinks out there are rich in electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, to make up for the minerals lost due to sweating.
However, not all of them are rich in calories and carbohydrate content needed for replenishing your energy. Make sure that you look for endurance sports drinks, such as UCAN, Skratch Hydration Mix, etc.
The good thing about sports drinks is that they also take care of your hydration needs, although some marathoners might be uncomfortable running around with a sloshing stomach from all the liquids, so you need to try it out for yourself.
Is Caffeine Good for You During a Half Marathon?
Caffeine, in general, is an energy-boosting ingredient without increasing your carb intake. However, you have to be a regular consumer of caffeine (or at least know how your body reacts to it) in order to properly benefit from it during a marathon.
Ideally, caffeine takes about 30 to 40 minutes in order to reach maximum concentration in your blood and the effects of coffee vary from one person to the other.
For instance, the diuretic effect of caffeine can range from immediate for some runners to negligible for others, so you have to take that in mind.
Most runners drink on the race day morning and may consume caffeine bars on the last mile for a quick boost of energy.
You should keep in mind that runners with low tolerance to caffeine (those who don’t consume it regularly) can benefit more from the caffeine rush during the marathon.
That’s why many runners lower their caffeine intake for about a month before the marathon to get that surge of energy on race day!
With that said, you now have a brief answer to the question do I need to fuel during a half marathon?.
Like all kinds of physical exercise that takes a long time to finish, you’ll eventually need to charge up on calories to provide your body with the energy needed to perform while running.
You can eat a wide range of food items as long as they contain the necessary carbs and glycogen, healthy fats, amino acids, as well as electrolytes needed for the run.
Always make sure that you plan ahead and try out your best fueling strategy during the half marathon training so you can avoid any unpleasant surprises during the race day.