Recently, reader Meghan emailed me about a problem she’s having. In an effort to jump-start her weight loss efforts, she started running regularly for the first time (congrats, Meghan!). She says she’s now training for her first half marathon (me too!).
But she’s running into a problem common for people training for longer races: she hasn’t lost any weight and is “mind-numbingly hungry” all the time. Meghan says it’s gotten to the point where it’s distracting and often makes her light-headed.
I can definitely empathize. When I first started training for my half, I had a very similar problem. I felt like my stomach was always empty, no matter how much I ate. The tricky part about eating when training for a race is that there’s a very fine line between under-fueling, which can lead to fatigue and injury, and over-fueling, which can lead to sluggishness and weight gain. Here’s how to walk the line:
- Remember that carbs are important, but so are protein and fat.
Carbs are necessary for energy, but healthy fats, like the kind found in nuts, avocados, and plant oils, are necessary to fight hunger. Try decreasing your carbs slightly and adding more healthy fats and proteins into your diet.
- When you do eat carbs, make sure they have some fiber (but not right before a run!).
You don’t want too much fiber before a run or race, but in general, your carbs should be whole grain and contain a good amount of fiber (I shoot for about four grams per serving of whatever it is).
- Stay hydrated, but don’t drink your calories.
The only time you ever need liquid calories is before, during, or after intense exercise lasting more than 60 minutes. If you’re drinking lots of sports drinks, you’re consuming a lot of calories, but probably not going to feel very full. I usually have about 10 oz. of coconut water before a longer run (aprx. 60 calories) as well as a decent-sized snack, but after the run, it’s all about the solid food and water, water, water.
- Eat smaller 300-500 calorie meals throughout the day.
I said this in my last post, but it can really help keep hunger at bay. If you’re taking in 1,800 calories a day, that means you should be eating a full six times during the day! It’s hard to be hungry when you’re eating every two to three hours.
- Eat within 15 minutes of a run, regardless of hunger.
“Rebound hunger” is a common problem for athletes. The idea of food can be unappetizing right after training, but hunger grows exponentially for every hour you wait to eat. Eat something with carbs and protein, like a recovery smoothie or handful of dried fruit and nuts, within 15 minutes of completing a workout to avoid feeling ravenous later.
- Remember that it doesn’t take much to make up for the calories you burned running.
We burn about 100 calories for every mile we run. That means during a five mile run, we burn about 500 calories. You can easily eat a 500 calorie sandwich that cancels out that burn. You’ll still be at a deficit for the day, but my point is, your body doesn’t need a ton of extra calories when you’re training (mostly just right before and right after a run).
- Keep cross-training!
I can’t emphasize this enough. While training for my half, I’m continuing to strength train and do other cardio workouts, keeping my running to 3-4 days per week. The strength training and other workouts don’t affect my hunger in quite the same that running does.
- Know that your body will adjust its hunger levels over time.
When I first started training, I felt ravenously hungry all the time. Now that my body has adjusted to the schedule, I can do a long run and not get the same hunger pangs later in the day. I found it takes about four to eight weeks for your body to get used to the new type of physical exertion.