Weight gain during race training is common for a reason: Gnawing post-run hunger makes it hard to feel satisfied. Here's how to get a handle on the hunger beast.
Training for a long-distance race like a marathon is a huge undertaking that requires planning and discipline. As a dietitian, I've worked with nutrition clients through the process to help them fuel properly and crush their goals. One thing that surprises a lot of people is that one of the most common nutrition issues during training is weight gain. The main reason? Overeating. While some people own up to going to town on junk after a long run, for many it's actually that incessant hunger that makes it hard to (ever) feel satisfied. So, here are some real-life ways to get a handle on that growling beast in your stomach so you can still properly fuel and refuel before and after every run without overdoing it.
Timing is everything.
Scarfing down a huge meal after a long run and trying to painfully work through hunger pangs later in the day is not the way to go. That one meal, no matter the size, is not going to stabilize your metabolism and hunger for the entire day. Instead, have small meals every three to four hours, and include a balance of protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats (aka macros).
If you're someone who finds food semi-revolting after a strenuous workout, you might have the opposite issue and won't want to eat a lot after your run. However, you should give your body something to replenish your glycogen (read: energy) stores and get you on the path to recovery. If a full meal or snack isn't in the cards, shake up some protein powder with water to tide yourself over until you can hop on the frequent and balanced small meals.
Choose carbs wisely.
Carbs are key when it comes to training, but they're not created equal. Focus on quality and avoid empty-calorie sources like sugary drinks, candy, chips, cookies, and other carbs that don't offer much nutritionally. Go for complex carbs like whole grains, beans, sweet potatoes, and berries, which will break down more slowly so you experience more stable blood sugar (and satisfaction) for a longer stretch of time.
Portions count, too, and it's easy to overdo it with carbs. Consider using measuring cups or a food scale to retrain your brain on what a serving looks like. That's usually about a third to half a cup of cooked grains depending on the variety, and half a cup for beans, peas, and lentils. More options: A medium sweet potato or 1 cup of cooked pumpkin or winter squash provides that same 15 grams of wholesome carbs. If you're craving fruit, the serving size is a medium apple, pear, or banana or about a cup of berries. But if you just finished a long evening run at race pace, and nothing other than pasta is going to do it for you, consider combining regular pasta noodles with low-carb zucchini noodles. You can use the same combination logic with traditional rice and cauliflower rice.
Another essential to post-run hanger management? Protein. This nutrient provides the amino acids your body needs to repair and build muscle. It helps you stay full and focused on things other than a growling stomach. Lean proteins such as chicken, fish, eggs, and Greek yogurt are great ways to meet your daily needs during training and otherwise, and you can also incorporate plant proteins like tofu and tempeh.
You'll hear all kinds of crazy numbers thrown your way about how many grams of protein you should be eating per day. While it's true you may need a little more than normal to support your training, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for athletes. That's about 76 to 127 grams for someone who weighs 140 pounds.
Fat is your friend.
Fat helps promote satiety by slowing digestion so you don't just burn right through what you ate. Prioritize healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds. Chia and ground flaxseed are also great ways to work in some anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Fat is vital for providing energy and nutrient absorption, but be mindful that a little goes a long way. One gram of fat is 9 calories, while carbs and protein provide 4 calories for the same amount. Focusing on quality ups your enjoyment factor, too. Use a small amount of extra-virgin olive oil on your salad rather than dousing the bowl in bottled concoctions that contain a bunch of "wtf is that" in the ingredients list.
Water is super important, but when you need to replenish electrolytes, consider reaching for an unflavored coconut water instead of a sports drink. Your body gets what it needs without the added sugar or food dyes. Another reason drinking enough fluid is important is that water works with soluble fiber (found in oats, barley, nuts, seeds, apples, beans, lentils, and many other foods) to help you feel full and helps move food through the digestive tract to promote regular digestion.
Choosing fruits and vegetables with a lot of water in them can also help you feel more full. Try watermelon, tomatoes, lettuces, bell peppers, and celery.
Be real with yourself.
While individual calorie needs will vary, it's safe to say you will need to increase your daily calories a bit during this time, but not drastically. Yes, you're running a lot, but that doesn't justify eating an entire pizza. Food is fuel, and never is that more apparent than during training. So prioritize foods that provide the nutrients your body craves.
If you're struggling either with gaining weight or with feeling like you're not eating enough to support your training, check in with a dietitian for guidance.