Do you remember the last time you got home from a big run…. and stuffed your face full of food?
What food was it? A healthy lentil stew, or a dirty cheese enchilada?
In this post, I want to explore whether it’s ok to stuff your mouth with candy and cake just because you’re a runner, or whether you are doing your body a disservice by making bad food acceptable just because you “ran it off.”
Should you be mindful of the types of food that you eat?
And when is it ok to cheat?
Luckily for most of us, it’s most likely a case of adjusting and timing your treats.
I thought I’d start with the difficult question of how much you can indulge in sweets and generally unhealthy food. And to be honest, you most likely already know if you’re going overboard.
But here’s the caveat: it all depends on your health.
Suppose you’re like me, and you’re continuously fighting with your body due to an autoimmune or an inability to cope with inflammation. In that case, “too much” for you may end up only being very little to someone else.
Personally, that’s why I rarely indulge. It’s not worth the knock-on effects of either damaging my health or limiting my recovery.
Whereas, if you’re a health-conscious runner for most of your day, you eat well, recover well, and you’re not fighting any illness, then a treat after your run is not going to ruin your gains. And if anything, it’ll just have the positive effect of making you happy.
Is it a habit?
When talking about overeating, it’s essential to clarify whether it’s a habit, addiction, or a regulated action (who knows, maybe you’re an athlete and need the calories).
But if you’re habitually reaching for a cookie after every meal, or you can’t kick your midnight snack, then you probably need to question if what you’re doing is right. Becoming reliant on any food, substance, drug, or feeling is something to be aware of and take action against if it starts harming any part of your life.
I can attest to this with coffee.
Coffee is not necessarily a harmful drink; some research even shows it’s an excellent addition to your diet. But the fact that I crave a coffee every morning is a sign I should keep things in check. And that’s precisely my point. Be in control when it comes to your food and drink consumption!
Now we’ve talked a little about how much is too much; what about the question of when to indulge?
Well, it may seem counter-intuitive, but I’m going to suggest you avoid overeating and indulging in “unhealthy” foods on your heavy training days/race days.
The main reason for this advice is all based on stress and inflammation.
You’re already stressing your body to the maximum by overexerting yourself during training or when you’re racing. By eating something like a gluten-heavy muffin, you’re adding more fuel to the flames, especially for your gut.
Did you know that excessive exercise may damage your gut? Results aren’t conclusive, but the cited study did state that the evidence is “worrying.”
Let’s think about it in terms of inflammation in the body. Suppose you are overexerting yourself during a hard training session or a race. In that case, you can’t expect your body to have all the resources to maintain an optimal gut and repair the damage from your intense exercise.
When you combined exercise-induced damage on your gut with the damage that gluten can cause on y our gut – your gut is now getting attacked on two ends simultaneously.
It’s like getting punched in the face and the stomach at the same time. A body can only handle so much punching. So why not arrange being punched in the face on Monday (aka your gluten day) and get punched in the stomach on Saturday (your training or race day) so your body can at least recover from Monday?
If you’re not familiar with the effects of gluten on everybody’s gut, then jump over to “Should everyone avoid gluten?”.
I’ve mentioned that gluten-heavy foods may not be the best post-race snack, but are there any other foods or substances you should avoid?
Well, commonsense would tell you that anything that may be damaging to the gut is probably not a great idea.
If you’ve signed up for my gut health freebie, you’ll know the three big gut offenders are:
I know, I know. You usually head to the bar with your friends after a race and throw down some pizza and beer. Next time maybe opt for a steak (hold the fries). Even better, eat some quality vegetables and combine them with a quality protein.
As I said previously, gluten or at least unfermented gluten is probably a no go post-training or on race days.
As for alcohol, well, it’s a toxic substance, and that should be reasonably obvious from the intoxicating effect it has on your body.
That’s not to say you can’t enjoy an occasional drink if you’re healthy. Maybe in your case, it’ll mean a single drink after a race, or perhaps it means zero.
Just think of it as another stress. With that in mind, is it a great idea to add alcohol on top of a hard race? Probably not. Just be aware of what your body needs.
Lastly, you’re probably craving sugar. Why not, you’ve just pushed your body to the limits, and you need to refuel. Well, sugar will only go so far.
Sure, it will replenish your energy supplies, but it’s not going to help rebuild your body for the next onslaught of stress factors. Plus, too much sugar can be somewhat inflammatory inducing, similar to alcohol.
If you’re healthy, keep the sugary sweets to a minimum, and if you’re fighting gut issues like SIBO or Candida, it’s best you stick to lower carbohydrate treats like nuts and dark chocolate, or maybe even my amazing energy balls found on my instagram.
If there’s so much we should avoid, then WHAT should we eat?
Suppose you want to dig into specifics regarding nutrition before, during, and after your run. In that case, I’d suggest that you head over to my Running Nutrition Explained page, which has a whole heap of running nutrition topics. It takes you from start to finish and throws in a few hydration tips too!
In general (and as a quick overview), I’d suggest eating nutrient-dense foods that are kind on the gut, especially when you’re trying to recover from a run.
- When choosing vegetables, reach for the deep-colored variety—Kale, eggplant, beetroot.
- When choosing meats, don’t choose chicken. Opt for nutrient-rich organ meats. Muscles, clams, and fish can also be good choices.
- When choosing desserts, opt for anti-oxidant rich fruits like berries. If in doubt, opt for tart varieties. Choose nuts for healthy oils and minerals.
- Feed the gut with some healthy fiber after your run. (Not before – because you’ll risk getting the trots) Beans and rice are a perfect combination for post-run meals.
We can mostly sum up the above points with “eat real food.”
But society has traveled so far from real food in recent years that we’ve mistaken what real food actually is. Usually, a great way around this is to eat what you’re grandmother would have cooked. Or even better, what your ancestors further back would have eaten.
Your body is tuned or hard-wired for the types of foods our ancestors ate. So eating tons of sushi or large amounts of tropical fruits might not work as well for you as it does for others.
What to do next?
In this post, I’ve attempted to convince you that your dietary choices matter, especially when you’re stressing your body through running.
Every time we eat, we have the choice to do the right thing. And yes, sometimes the right thing is to cheat. But it’s essential to cheat in the best way possible.
- Cheat only when you’re at your healthiest.
- Do not cheat often
- Avoid cheats when stressed (mentally or physically)
- Refuel with nutrient-dense options.