Training for endurance events means you can eat whatever you want, right?
Not quite. Ask any marathoner who’s gained weight over the course of their training, and they’ll kindly inform you otherwise. Run 20 miles in a single session and inevitably “runger” (aka hunger caused by running) will set in.
It’s that insatiable feeling when you decide you can — and should! — eat everything in sight, immediately. And in those precious post-run moments, you manage to undo that 2,000-calorie burn by eating an entire 2,320-calorie pizza.
The logic starts off sound enough. After burning energy on the track, you crave a mega-dose of calories to replenish what you’ve lost. Plus, you need enough in the tank to fuel your upcoming workout, too. But a full stack of pancakes (as a side dish to your French toast) might not be the best call at boozy brunch.
This is because after you run, your metabolism may be downgraded at other times of the day to conserve energy, says Pip Taylor, professional triathlete and nutritionist. It’s not uncommon for your hunger to spike later in the day or even the next day.
How do you recognize actual hunger from what you think is hunger, and learn when you can eat more? We called in the experts for their tips to help you manage your runger, once and for all.
1. Assess your effort. If you’re running less than an hour per day, there’s no need to increase your daily intake, says Taylor. However, you do need to be sure that you are refueling properly post-workout. “The biggest mistake athletes make is under-fueling [after a run],” she says. While this is sometimes done intentionally to lose weight, always consult with a pro before running on empty (aka fasted cardio) or skipping post-run nutrition, particularly after a more demanding run.
2. Fuel for thought. When that ravenous hunger does kick in, our bodies don’t always register immediately that we’re full. This is when it’s easy to overcompensate and consume excess calories. To prevent this, aim to match tougher workouts with increased fuel immediately before or after workouts, rather than make your base meal larger. For example, try having a banana before or during a training sessions for extra fuel or a small recovery smoothie right after, so you’re not hitting the dinner buffet table hard.
In the same way some coaches recommend stepping up no more than 10 percent in mileage per week, Ben Greenfield, NCSA-certified trainer, recommends bumping up calorie intake between 10 and 20 percent per week. If weight gain is a concern, consider staying on the lower end of that range, while being mindful of energy levels and how your body is responding.
3. Heed hunger cues. Our bodies are great at regulating themselves — if we let them. “Be aware of when you’re feeling most hungry during the day. Any other time is a trigger to change up the timing or distribution of your food,” says Marni Sumbal, a triathlon coach and Registered Dietitian. She adds that we’ve become accustomed to trying to silence these cues or confuse them through poor diets high in sugar or refined carbs. Eating whole, real foods and minimizing the processed stuff will help you tune in to what your body is telling you. Keeping a food log to assess what you’re actually eating can help.
“Never run just to eat. Eat to run.”
4. Plan your treats. “Never run just to eat,” says Sumbal. “Eat to run.” If your intake supports your training, you’ll develop a healthier relationship with food and optimize performance. Since most post-run indulgences tend to be high in carbs and sugar, she recommends sneaking in some nutritional value where you can. For instance, combining your favorite sweet with protein, such as a cookie and yogurt. One other way to approach your cheat meals, Greenfield says, is to opt for nutrient-dense snacks such as coconut and dark chocolate balls. They’ll hit the spot, but won’t leave you as guilt-ridden as, say, a box of Entenmann’s donuts.
5. Know the lows. Cravings aside, it’s important to be able to recognize signs of intense hunger. It can present itself through dizziness, extreme irritability, lack of concentration or sleepiness, says Greenfield. Experiencing a combination of these symptoms can often mean you’re overdue for complex sugars, and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) could be to blame.
On the flip side, “If you’re still burping up your pre-workout meal or you’ve been stuffing your face with gels and sports drinks during your workout, you can probably wait until an hour or two after you’re done before your true hunger sets in.” Not only will this prevent “bonking,” but you will avoid that must-eat-right-away feeling. If you’re truly supporting your training, you’ll be eating to properly recover and refuel and those slumps won’t sneak up on you.
For a more personalized nutrition plan, consider enlisting a sports nutritionist in order to figure out your specific caloric needs.
How do you deal with the intense hunger that comes on when you increase your training?