05 Oct 2022

EXPLAINED: Do you need to change your diet if you’re training for a half marathon?

EXPLAINED: Do you need to change your diet if you’re training for a half marathon?

You may be taking on your first big race soon. But along with regular short and long runs, steadily increasing in distance, should you be changing up your diet to train for a half marathon?

You may be taking on your first big race soon. But along with regular short and long runs, steadily increasing in distance, should you be changing up your diet to train for a half marathon?

You might assume getting your five a day, a good balance of protein and carbs, and drinking plenty of water is enough for your 13.1 mile adventure. But, according to experts, there are small changes that could seriously improve your performance, and perhaps more importantly, your recovery.

Don’t let the tank get empty

James Phillips, head of athlete support at Precision Fuel and Hydration, who works with athletes including Eilish McColgan, says that nutrition needs vary from person to person, “but fundamentally you need to focus on carbohydrate intake. That is vital when exercising. You don’t want to run the fuel tank down to zero and then top it up – top it up part way. When running, pure sugar will sort you out, so using gels and chews when training should help.”

Arj Thiruchelvam, head coach of Performance Physique explains that nutrition, for runs lasting more than 60 minutes is vital.

“Nutrition is the greatest influence on any activity that lasts over 60 minutes. It won’t make a massive difference below that, but may help with recovery. We only have enough carbs to last us about 60 minutes without having to slow down due to a lack of energy,” he says.

But training your body to know what to expect nutrition-wise on the day of the race is an integral part of prep.

“Never do anything on race day that you haven’t done beforehand. Work out whether you’re comfortable eating before you do training runs. Opt for carbs before if so, but if you are not comfortable, it is worthwhile practising that for a run per week. You need to eat before the race, and around two hours before,” Thiruchelvam says.

“Caffeine and creatine offer valuable performance benefits and can improve cognitive function, just research how to take it. Have a coffee before a run, two hours before on race day.

“As soon as you’re doing above 10k, start consuming energy gels. Your gut isn’t used to it if you don’t [practise taking them] and you will get a tummy ache. One or two of those 40 minutes into your run will help keep you motivated, so as long as you implement this in training early doors.”

Phillips adds: “Fluid, and electrolytes, need replacing, so drink something with sodium in.”

Get the right balance

Consistency is key over your training period, and making sure you are getting enough macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat, that provides your body with energy and calories) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals – from foods like avocado, eggs, mushrooms and grains) will help your body recover.

For maximum nutrient intake, it’s recommended to eat a rainbow of colours when it comes to fruit and veg.

If you want to get very technical, Thiruchelvam says: “Macronutrient requirements are individual with a quarter of your calories from fat, aiming for 1.8g of protein per kg of body weight. The remainder should be carbohydrates with fibre, around 4g per kg of body weight.”

But in simple terms, it’s all about balanced meals. During your training, he suggests cooking a meal you enjoy to eat on a regular basis, “that contains all the macro and micronutrients you need – a roast dinner say, so you don’t get bored of it”.

Fuel for recovery

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Once you are completing three or four runs a week, you need to up your protein intake – whichThiruchelvam says will help “improve muscle repair.”

To minimise delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), eating during exercise helps, Phillips says, and carbohydrate is particularly good.

“A standard recovery meal is something with a ratio of two to one, carbs to protein. A recovery shake may do it straight after. If you train around work, have a balanced meal before your workout too,” he adds.

Meat substitutes by companies like Quorn (the official sustainable protein partner of the Royal Parks Half Marathon) are also great sources of protein, so if you are following a meat-free diet you can still make sure you are getting enough in your diet to keep training up to scratch.

Super supplements

Don’t supplement for the sake of supplementing, says Phillips.

Supplements are really effective when it comes to making sure your body is getting everything it needs to cope with the training process, however.

“Things like whey protein help increase your protein content and promote repair of muscle tissue. Only a handful of supplements have proven effects but consider taking Vitamin B3 and fish oil concentrate,” says Thiruchelvam.

Don’t cut out foods you really enjoy

You don’t need to restrict yourself from the foods and drinks you love throughout the training process though – in fact, with all those miles you’re clocking up, it’s a great time to give yourself treats too.

“It is not a bad thing to enjoy things like cheese and chocolate,” says Thiruchelvam. “Cheese is a great source of protein, when you eat it it helps your body’s management of fat. Fit it within your diet, just in moderation.

“The reality is if you binge on wine, cheese, chocolate or other treats, it will damage your performance but a little now and then is a good thing.”

Consider drinking less

Thiruchelvam says cutting down on alcohol would be beneficial purely for your health. “You don’t want to be consuming any non-nutrient rich calories – booze is not nutrient rich but has a lot of calories. Motivation will lack as well if you are drinking too often or feeling hungover.”

But, you don’t have to cut it out completely, like everything else in the training process, moderation is key.

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