Fueling and the Brain

A man resting during a run

science has a lot to say about how and what we eat after a hard workout

A recent study published this year by the University of Kentucky finds that “doing something virtuous can make indulging later even more pleasurable.” It’s called licensing, and we do it all the time in training (surely, you’ve read at least one article about weight gain during marathon training).

But why?

According to researcher Aaron Garvey, who appeared on NPR’s podcast Hidden Brain earlier this year, when you do something good or “virtuous,” you subconsciously feel like you have freedom to then go and do something bad or “less virtuous.” And that’s only the beginning. The study revealed that the non-virtuous indulgence feels better.

So, after your weekend long run, your brain might lead you to feel like you deserve a reward (burger, fries, and a couple of beers, anyone?). And, as the study indicates, when you do eat the burger, it’s going to taste better than it would have had you not done a long run.

So, how do we train smart and eat smart if training amplifies our food reward system? We turned To GU Energy Sports nutritionist Roxanne Vogel for some answers.

If we have a clear training goal in mind, how do we combat licensing behavior in a healthy way? Or do we? Is this just our body’s way of telling us it’s OK to indulge?
There’s room in the diet for occasional indulgences, within reason. When your training volume increases you are going to feel hungry from burning additional calories. It’s normal to want to eat more or feel hungry throughout the day when you are working hard. The thing to keep in mind is the quality of your calories. I think high volume training means you have a little more wiggle room in the diet, but you need to focus on getting the nutrition that supports your efforts, like additional protein, antioxidants from whole food sources, healthy fats, etc. These are the calories that will help you recover faster and perform better each training session. It’s okay to have an occasional treat, but those calories aren’t what I’d consider “value-added” meaning they just provide additional energy and not much else. The best approach is to find healthy indulgences that hit the spot and also offer other health benefits (e.g., around 70-percent dark chocolate delivers health-boosting flavanols and fiber in addition to great taste).

What do you recommend your clients eat after a hard workout to satiate both hunger and cravings?

I usually recommend a post-workout recovery protein shake or snack that delivers at least 20 grams of high-quality protein. Protein is satiating and vital for muscle repair and recovery after training. For convenience, recovery protein shakes are a delicious option that rehydrates, replenishes key nutrients, and satisfies sweet cravings right after a workout. (A client favorite is flavored protein powder blended with nut butter, milk/non-dairy beverage and fruit.)

If you find your cravings are out of control during training, what do you recommend doing to combat this?
Out of control cravings may be a sign that you aren’t getting something your body needs: enough calories, certain vitamins or minerals, sleep, etc. I recommend paying close attention to the nature and timing of cravings (is it for something savory, something sweet, something crunchy, soft and chewy, salty?) and try to meet it with something that “hits the spot” but doesn’t make you regret your decision. For salty cravings, maybe you just need more sodium in your diet because of heavy sweat losses. Try adding a little electrolyte mix to your water during training, or lightly salting your food for a couple of days to see if that diminishes the craving. A lot of times, we get cravings because we are simply stressed or tired, which is why you also need to pay attention to the timing of cravings. Mid-afternoon/early evening cravings are usually just a sign of low energy, and you can have a small snack to get past the slump. A handful of almonds and a piece of fruit provides fiber, a little sweet fix, and protein to keep you going strong until dinner time.

Finally, does mid-long run fuel help to combat post-run cravings? If so, how and why?
You should fuel for long runs over an hour in duration. Providing energy (calories) during long runs decreases the amount of stress placed on the body and creates less of a caloric deficit which is what makes you more prone to cravings after.

You’re not aiming to replace all of the calories you burn, however. 30 grams of carbs per hour usually suffice for lower intensity efforts, but for very long runs you may need closer to 60 grams of carbs per hour. By helping your body preserve its carbohydrate stores (glycogen) during long runs, you will finish in a less depleted state, and therefore require less replenishment after to restore glycogen levels.

You still need to refuel after long runs even when you fuel during, but you can usually get by with a small snack or recovery shake and wait an hour or two until your next meal ... cravings crisis averted!