As many of you complete your big virtual fall race in the coming weeks, it is important to consider what you will do afterward – from both a training and nutrition standpoint. And even if you are not planning to run a race soon, you likely take a rest day or two every week. The same principles apply to rest days as the recovery week and it is a popular topic I am often asked about. The bottom line: what you eat on rest days and on the days following a race can and will impact how well you are able to recover. Eat junk, and you will likely feel like junk. Eat well and you will likely return to running sooner, feeling better and well-rested.
We all need rest days, some more than others. They help our bodies recover from the work we put in day after day as well as allow us to go harder, faster, and longer in the days following. But do we need to eat the same on a rest day as we do on a training day?
Rest days not only allow our muscles to recover but also allow us to refuel with the right combination of macro and micronutrients to help repair muscle tissue and make those important training adaptations we are looking for.
Check out the following tips to help you adequately fuel up on rest days and even enhance your recovery efforts leading to faster, stronger performances on the roads, trails, or track in the future.
Do not cut carbs or calories. If you do not have enough of either, your body will not be able to adequately recover. Carbs are our main fuel source during exercise, and we have limited stores in our muscles and liver. When we deplete them – as we do during long runs or hard workouts – we need to adequately replenish those stores for future workouts to be successful. At minimum, aim to get at least 50% of your calories from carbs on rest days.
A good way to ensure you are getting enough: include a carbohydrate-rich food or beverage at each meal and snack. To translate to your plate, at least 1/4 to 1/3 of your plate should be dedicated to carbs, whether it is rice, pasta, potatoes, or a starchy vegetable like corn, carrots, or peas. Emphasize nutrient-dense carbohydrate sources when possible, like whole grain pasta, brown rice, sweet potatoes, or quinoa. In other words, getting the most nutritional bang for your carbohydrate buck. Refined or processed grains are fine, but on rest days we tend to tolerate higher fiber options and with those whole-grain versions, you are also getting some extra B-vitamins and protein. Further, the added fiber will help fill you up and leave you more satiated.
Pack in some high-quality protein. On rest days our muscles have the best chance to fully rebuild and ultimately get stronger. To do that, you need adequate protein preferably spread out over the course of the day to enhance muscle protein synthesis that takes place all day long. If you only eat protein-containing foods at dinner, you are missing out on the chance to enhance your recovery. You may also find you are constantly hungry. Spreading out your intake can help not only from a muscle rebuilding standpoint but also with feeling fuller and preventing the late afternoon or post-dinner hangry monster. As with my suggestion for carbs, try to include a protein-containing food at each meal and snack. Aim to have it take up at least ¼ of your plate.
Good options: hard-boiled eggs, string cheese, lean meat or chicken, fish, tofu, tempeh, edamame, protein powders (just watch out for added sugar and unnecessary ingredients), yogurt, cottage cheese, tuna or salmon packets, or even different types of jerky. Or make these pumpkin protein cookies (pictured below) for a perfect afternoon pick me up!
Accentuate antioxidant containing foods to help reduce inflammation. When we workout we are putting stress on and ultimately doing some damage to our bodies, leaving it in a state of acute inflammation. It is normal and as our body repairs itself it gets stronger. To aid this process as well as help prevent sore, tired, and achy muscles, do not forget to include some antioxidant-rich foods with each meal and snack on your rest day (and every day for that matter). Antioxidants help fight free radicals produced when our body is in an inflammatory state. You can find them in all kinds of fruits and veggies – so fill at least ½ your plate with your favorites on rest day.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! A day off from training does not mean you should skimp on hydration. Continue to drink frequently throughout the day and aim for at minimum half your body weight in water (so for example someone who weighs 150 lbs would aim for 75 ounces – or about 9 cups – of water/day).
Sick of plain old water? Add lemon or lime slices, cucumber, frozen berries or enjoy one of my favorite rest day drinks: mix about ½ to 1 oz tart cherry juice concentrate (which contains antioxidants) with a 12 oz can of sparkling water and serve over ice.
Rest day does not = cheat day (or week). You might find you actually feel hungrier on a rest day than after a long run or tough workout. That is not uncommon, as post-workout or longer run our appetites can be suppressed since our blood flow during the workout has shifted away from our gut towards our muscles. As a result, we may not take in enough calories on those days leaving us with an increased appetite on rest days as our body tries to make up for the calories we missed out on. But resist the urge to go on a “see-food” diet (you see food, you eat it). Filling your tanks with junky foods and not incorporating a balance of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins, may leave you feeling fatigued and further dehydrated. That does not mean you cannot enjoy a burger, donut, ice cream cone, pizza or even a beer on a rest day. It is just a friendly reminder to have balance in your diet – and not just on rest days – but throughout your training.
Hopefully these tips provide you with a better understanding of how to fuel your rest days to optimize your recovery and stress less! As always, I’m here to help and if you are struggling with your nutrition, feel free to reach out to me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to set up a free discovery session and/or learn about the 1-on-1 services I offer!