Should I eat less when I am tapering? What about during my post-race recovery period? Won’t I gain weight since I am not as active?
No. The end.
Okay, that’s not the end, but it might as well be. The long answer short is that your body needs the fuel and energy provided by food when you are tapering and when you are recovering from a race. It needs it then more than ever, actually. These are questions I get all the time, and I don’t blame people for asking, as it’s a very valid question. The answer, however, is much simpler than most would think. I will dive a deeper into each scenario, with the hope of providing some clarity on the topic.
Taper: The whole point of a taper is to allow your body and muscles to recover so that you feel as energized as possible going into a race. A calorie is a unit of energy. So, eating less means you literally have less energy, which is the opposite of what you want going into a race. Eating too little causes muscle breakdown as well, which is also not ideal at any time, but especially going into a hard effort. You may be burning less calories daily since you aren’t exercising as much, but your body uses the food you eat to make sure you’re ready to go come race day. During a taper you reduce training load, which means you expend less energy, allowing your energy stores to fill up. Glycogen, the storage form of glucose (sugar) is what the body uses as energy. You’ve likely heard of carb loading. The goal of this process is to fill up glycogen stores through increased intake of carbohydrates, which are converted into sugar and stored as energy. Carbohydrates also allow the body to hold on to more water. This scares many individuals because it does indeed result in weight gain. However, this is strictly water weight which, in reality, shows that you tapered and fueled properly allowing your glycogen and fluid stores are filled to the brim. Don’t sacrifice your glycogen levels or performance out of fear of gaining weight. You don’t need to eat more than usual (unless you weren’t eating enough to start with), but if you eat less, you’re putting less energy into storage. You’d rather head out on a long road trip with a very full tank than an almost empty one. You should do the same for your body.
Post-Race Recovery Period: Similar to a taper, the goal of some down time after a race is to allow the body and mind to rest and heal so that you can get back after it when you’re ready. A race takes a lot out of the body, and it needs rest in order to return to a “normal” state. This cannot happen without the energy and nutrients from food. Remember, the less we eat, the less energy we have available for use. Your body is in overdrive as it tries desperately to repair, and will use any food you throw at it to do so. By cutting back on what you eat in fear of gaining weight you will delay the recovery process, increase chance of injury, sacrifice quality of sleep, and most obviously, you’ll be physically and mentally exhausted. Instead, fill your body with nourishing foods, and listen to your hunger and fullness cues to decide how much you need to eat. You may find you’re extra hungry the days after a race, or you may find you’re a little less hungry since activity has gone down. Neither is right or wrong, it is just your body making the question of “how much should I eat,” easier to answer! I don’t mean you should take the whole week to eat copious amounts of indulgent foods, but rather, focus on filling your belly with wholesome, colorful, balanced meals and snacks. And if you’re wondering “can I have the post race burger, fries, and milkshake?!” Yes, yes you can. I truly believe everyone should treat themselves a bit in the day or two after a race. You did something big! Don’t let a fear of gaining weight prevent you from relishing in your accomplishment.
Eat up, friends.