Avoiding the weight gain trap of the postseason recovery period

I’ve got a marathon coming up. It’s MARATHON WEEK in the life of Lauren Ross. If you have known me personally over the past 4.5 years, you know this is a big deal – I have a propensity to injure myself before getting to this point. And while the biggest test is coming up on Sunday, I’m celebrating that I’ve gotten to this point and mentally preparing both for the big day and for the period after: recovery.

It happens to tons of athletes: high school kids after the season is over, ultrarunners after their big race, marathoners after they go the distance. We’ve all got to take some time to rest and let our bodies recover. One component of this recovery period is reducing exercise significantly, which leads to  significant reduction in calories burned. Unfortunately, eating is an activity governed by habit and social factors as much as it is a biological activity, and it’s not uncommon for athletes to fail to adjust their caloric intake to lower levels of activity. Just take a look at one of those photo galleries of currently tubby former professional athletes. It’s not that their muscle turned to fat – that simply does not happen. It’s that the habits we create related to food die hard.

So what do you do about it? After this race, I’m going to have several weeks of reduced running, which (lets be honest) translates into reduced overall activity because I sure as hell will not be on the elliptical for an hour plus every day. They key is to recognize your changing needs and be intentional about the way you feed your body. You’re going to need specific nutrients to recover from the race/game/tournament/season. You’re going to need less calorie intake with reduced expenditure. I’ll give you a little info about what those needs are and your job is to actually do something about it. K?

For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to talk specifically about recovering from long distance running events.


Immediately post-race

  • Replenish glycogen stores – Running a marathon or longer pretty much wipes out all your glycogen, which is the storage form of carbohydrate. Glycogen is metabolized quickly and efficiently to move your muscles and power your body, especially during exercise when you need a lot of fuel quickly. Immediately after the race, you should think about eating back some of that precious carb that you burned through.
  • Protein for muscle repair – If you’ve ever run a marathon and woke up the next day (or tried to get up after sitting down immediately afterwards) you now your muscles are greatly affected. What has happened is you’ve broken them down over the course of your race, the same way that you intentionally break them down in training but to a greater extent since the demand of the full race is so much more than any single training run. You need to supply some protein building blocks so that your body can go back in there and repair.
  • Rehydration – You just ran for a really long time and chances are you sweat out several POUNDS of water. You need that back. Get to hydratin’, and make a bunch of it water, not just beer. I’m serious.
  • Timing of food – Your body is especially good at replenishing glycogen within the first hour after the race. Additionally, with such a big demand for nutrients, it’s a really good idea to get something that provides both carbohydrate and protein within this 1-hour period. You’ve probably heard that chocolate milk works great for this, as the 4:1 ratio of carbs:protein is particularly well suited to restock all the stuff a distance runner loses, and many are better able to stomach liquids soon after a hard effort than a more substantial meal. Just get something with carb and some protein in in this period – PB&J, a bagel with cream cheese, yogurt, even something like a nature valley protein bar with 10g protein and some whole grains plus a little added sugar (which can quickly become glycogen!) stashed in your drop bag – the hunger likely will not set in for a bit.


In the few (2-3) days following

  • Celebrate, but don’t just celebrate – If a brownie sundae got you through the last 10 miles of your 100 miler (or the last 3 of your 26.2!), by all means you get to eat a freaking brownie sundae! However, you should’t subsist purley on chili cheese fries and milkshakes for the rest of the day – you need some quality nutrients as well.
  • Focus on nutrient density – I don’t even care if you eat your dessert first, but for god’s sake get some fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins in there. You’ve depleted a bunch of the vitamins and minerals your body uses as well as the glycogen. Choose foods that are going to do something for you.
  • Listen to your hunger – You’ve experienced the delayed-onset hanger before, I’m sure. In the days immediately after a long race, you’re probably going to find yourself randomly starving. By all means, EAT! Plan good balanced meals and keep snacks nearby.


In the weeks after your race

  • Be nice to your body 🙂 – Chill for a while. Like, don’t run and stuff.
  • Reduce calories to meet reduced demands – After your race you need to REST and RECOVER. You’re not burning as many calories on a day when your “activity” is couch surfing as when you were going out and running 8×1-mile repeats. You don’t need the same kind of calories! The best thing to do is listen to your body. A lot of the time when we eat, what we eat, how much we eat, and where we eat are simply habits.  But how does one do this effectively?
    • Increase vegetables – Vegetables let you continue to eat pretty big volumes of food for very few calories. I always preach 1/2 your plate vegetables, and if you do that regularly, you can even bump it up.
    • Serve smaller portions on smaller plates – People eat less when served on smaller plates. People eat less when served smaller portions. Do you know about the refilling soup bowl experiment? People whose soup bowls refilled without them knowing ate significantly more soup and reported being just as full as those with regular bowls, who ate less. We seem to be programmed since birth to be hungry until an absence of food on our plates tells use we’re done eating, so use this to your advantage.
    • Slow down your eating – The slower you eat, the more likely you are to realize you’re not starving anymore. You know those days when you’re sitting in traffic on the way home from work and so hungry all you can do is think about what you’re going to eat when you get in the house? Then you get in there and you alternate 10 bowls of cheerios with spoonfuls of peanut butter? And then you all of a sudden stop and realize you feel like absolute crap??? Yeah, don’t let that happen, eat more slowly (you probably also need to plan your snacks better if this is happening).
    • Track caloric intake – The only real way to know how many calories you’re eating is to track it. Use My Fitness Pal. Don’t tell me it’s time consuming and hard because it’s a million times easier than tracking was before the app existed and I have zero sympathy.


So there you go – my tips for being more mindful and intentional about your post-race nutrition recovery. Hopefully the next time you hear from me I’ll be basking in the afterglow of a job well done and eating a mixing bowl full of salad 🙂


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