“I’m so much hungrier than normal!” In coaching marathoners and half marathoners, I frequently hear these comments. Marathon training hunger often strikes after mileage increases or in the peak of training. It makes sense that you need to eat more – your body is burning more calories in training! Many runners worry about overeating, which just exacerbates the problem.
You want to manage marathon training hunger in a way that helps you train strong, feel good, and stay injury-free. These tips will help you manage marathon hunger (or half marathon hunger). You should feel strong and good in training, not cranky and ravenous!
Disclaimer: I am a certified running coach, but I am not a registered dietician. If you need help ensuring you eat enough or on tweaking your diet for performance, please do consult a registered dietician.
Why runger can be a warning sign
Overly fatigued, ravenous, and moody is not how you should feel even during marathon training. If you are, these are signs of either overtraining or, more likely, undereating. Energy deficiency throughout the day has been linked to sub-optimal performance and increased risk of injury.
The risks of energy deficiency expand beyond just feeling “rungry.”
In early 2018, the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism published a study on with-in day energy deficiency in male athletes. The study found that a correlation between large spans of energy deficiency throughout the day and high cortisol and low testosterone levels. The resting metabolic rates of the athletes were suppressed and catabolic markers were present. A similar study conducted on female athletes found that hours of energy deficiency lowered estradiol and raised cortisol in women, even if they consumed enough calories within a day. The female athletes who spent time in an energy deficient state were more likely to experience irregular menstrual cycles.
Low testosterone levels in men, low estrogen in women, and raised cortisol in both genders can indicate Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). RED-S occurs when an athlete exists in a chronic energy deficiency. Sometimes it occurs due to disordered eating, but in other cases, it occurs due to a lack of knowledge about proper sports nutrition or the influence of diets on social media. RED-S can cause amenorrhea in women, overtraining, injury, depression, and a whole host of problems that are neither conducive to performance or overall health and well-being.
Even before the extreme cases of RED-S, insatiable hunger means you aren’t fueling your body for its energy needs based on training load. Instead of optimizing performance, you hinder your ability to recover from training and handle harder training loads. Plus, no runner feels his or her best when ravenous!
Eat enough throughout the day
Eating enough throughout the day is the simplest, most effective way to manage training hunger. For example, if you train in the morning or afternoon but eat scant meals at breakfast and lunch, you will complete your workouts on low energy. Your blood sugar will likely drop at times, leaving you ravenous.
Ideally, you want to spread your calories out equally throughout the day, including around your workouts. Eating enough at each meal will keep your blood sugar and energy levels steady. Use your hunger as a cue: if you are hungry within an hour or two of eating a meal, try increasing your portion sizes or adding more quality nutrients to your meal. If you feel ravenous at certain times of day, add in a healthy snack. Your body will give you the feedback you need to know how much to eat.
Consume quality protein after workouts
Your body uses protein to repair the muscle damaged incurred in training. Protein also promotes satiety and regulates blood sugar levels. Without adequate protein in your diet, your body won’t recover properly and you will feel hungrier as your body searches for resources to aid in recovery. You should spread out your protein throughout the day, but also make it a priority to consume protein after long runs and hard workouts.
Don’t restrict food groups
Low-carb diets can work for some runners, but those runners are often in the minority. (And, as a note, are often men – female physiology requires more carbohydrates to support menstrual function.) A majority of runners thrive on a balanced diet that includes carbohydrates, fats, and protein.
Unless you have a food allergy, ethical/religious reasons, or diagnosed medical condition, there is no virtue in restricting food groups. Carbohydrates provide the energy essential for aerobic metabolism. Meat supplies B-vitamins, iron, and protein. Fats, whether in the form of nuts, full-fat dairy, meat, or plant sources, support hormonal health and reduce risk of injury.
Restricting a group of macronutrients, whether carbs, fats, or protein, often leaves your body in some sort of deficit. As a result of this deficit, you will feel hungrier and not feel as easily satiated. Instead of restricting, give your body a healthy balance of carbs (especially complex carbs), protein, and healthy fats.
Aim for 5-9 servings of fruits and veggies
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables has multiple benefits. Most fruits and vegetables are high-volume for the serving size, which means they promote satiety even when you are ravenous. Fruits and vegetables are also dense with the nutrients necessary to support your running (along with overall health).
Don’t skimp on pre or post long run nutrition
If you are trying to avoid weight gain or lean down for race day, it is tempting to reduce caloric intake around runs.
However, calories before and after a long run or hard workout support your performance and recovery. If you eat too little before, during, and after a marathon training long run, you will feel ravenous as your body tries to climb out of that calorie deficit.
The exact amount will vary from runner to runner. Before a long run or a hard workout, eat a snack or meal that energizes you throughout most of the run (without having GI upset). After the run is complete, aim to eat a combination of carbs and protein within an hour. This could be a full meal or if you don’t have much of an appetite after a long run, a smoothie, protein drink, or snack to hold you over until the next meal.
Adequate hydration is essential for marathon training. The more you run, the more fluids you require. If you are under-hydrated, your body may send out mixed signals that can be mistaken for hunger. Water certainly does not replace food, but make it a priority to stay well hydrated throughout the day.
Let yourself indulge occasionally
Life would be pretty boring if you never enjoyed a beer, bowl of ice cream, or a burger (or whatever indulgence you enjoy!). There is room in your diet for these treats on occasion, even if you are aiming to maximize your race performance. You burn a lot of calorie during marathon training. Perhaps your body is signaling it needs more calories, more calcium, more iron, or just a treat. Sometimes, you just crave a certain food, and there’s nothing wrong or harmful about that.
How do you manage marathon training hunger (or general running hunger)?