Weeks before races, endurance athletes analyze their nutritional strategies with the same precision as their Garmins. But they shouldn’t neglect their nutrition once the race is over.
Even when you’re not downing GUs on the run, food can strengthen or sabotage your performance. Of course, your specific nutritional strategy will depend on your goals. But whether you want to maintain your race weight, lose fat or gain muscle, it’s worth considering your nutrition this offseason.
Eat for Recovery
Long after your epic post-race lunch, you should eat for recovery. Even if you spend a week or two resting afterward, don’t be afraid to eat. Muscles damage and inflammation persists for up to two weeks post-marathon, several studies have found, making the recovering athlete’s calorie needs much higher than the average sedentary person.
“The first few weeks after a race, the body goes into full recovery mode, and most athletes know that especially after that first week, they are ravenously hungry,” Katiesfitscript, Inc. running coach Katie Ringley says. “Therefore, even though clients are not continuing to work out as much, I keep their base calories just as high.”
Certainly, athletes are entitled to some indulgences after months of serious training, but keep it mostly clean, as anti-inflammatory foods and adequate protein will speed up your recovery.
Avoid Weight Gain
Many athletes want to maintain their racing weight throughout the year. After the acute race recovery phase, those athletes should gradually decrease their calorie intake.
“Typically after that, I move into decreasing their intake by about 5 percent and then monitor week to week from there to make adjustments,” Ringley says.
Giving up post-run feasts can difficult. But if you’re cutting calories, pre- and post-workout nutrition is a natural starting point. After all, you’re less likely to fantasize about pizza after running four miles than 14.
Athletes can also reduce their proportion of carbs, particularly fast-acting starches and sugars.
…Or Gain Muscle
Other athletes have the opposite goal of gaining muscle between training blocks. Though your gym sessions won’t require as many calories as your century ride, ensure you’re in a calorie surplus to put on weight.
Pay attention to your protein intake: nutritionists recommend consuming 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight to build muscle.
“Bulking” connotes images of unlimited chicken breasts and protein powder, but don’t go overboard. Carbs power our gym sessions and fats facilitate vitamin absorption, both of which are crucial for muscle building. And if protein crowds out necessary carbs and fats, it’ll have diminishing returns.
So in addition to adding protein, maintain a calorie surplus and a balance between carbs, fats and protein. Proper nutrition is necessary, but not sufficient, for gaining muscle though. So pair that protein powder with some squats.
Get Blood Work Done
When you’re in a constant calorie deficit, just catching up can be difficult enough without tracking micronutrients, vitamins and minerals. But left unchecked, many nutritional deficiencies have negative consequences for both health and training.
For example, female runners are notoriously low on iron and Vitamin D, each of which can lead to muscle fatigue. Magnesium deficiencies can also cause muscle cramps, shortness of breath and dizziness while low B12 causes symptoms of anemia and fatigue.
With more time and energy, use the offseason to identify and remedy any imbalances before they impede next year’s training, especially if you felt uncharacteristically depleted this season. Even if you’re taking a multivitamin, it’s worth getting tested annually, as our nutritional needs change throughout our lifetimes.