There are so many things to look forward to post race, especially if it’s an IRONMAN.
Months of hard training, early starts, early nights, plenty of missed events; not to mention that intense focus on recovery, nutrition, equipment prep – it’s A LOT.
It’s easy to see the golden promise of sleeping in; not just showing up, but staying at the party; enjoying a drink or two, planning a family weekend away and yet the most talked about, talked-up and thought out post-race plan always involved food.
It’s not in the recovery sense either, with foods and drinks spoken about in the extreme and in quantities that aren’t usually on the radar of most athletes.
Burgers, chips, ice cream, doughnuts, pizza, thick shakes seem to dominate the conversations and post-race dreams.
But why? And is it a bad thing?
First of all, high fat, high carb, high salt foods post-race actually make a lot of sense. The body is depleted of calories as well as electrolytes and it’s a pretty natural biological urge to want to replace these efficiently. Salty, fatty foods are the most commonly desired after a day of sports drinks and gels, with not many people after sweet, sugary foods at least in the short term.
High fat/salt/carbs also make sense psychologically, in the moment they provide a sense of comfort and tick reward centres in the brain. I am all for post-race celebrations that include some of these indulgences. After all, food, like life, is there to be enjoyed.
What I do find intriguing though is for some athletes there is almost a sense of obligatory gorging. They have built the post-race feast to such an extent in their heads, after months of hard work and sacrifice, that over-eating becomes the second race of the weekend.
Equally intriguing is that often when an athlete doesn’t have the result or race they planned or perhaps a DNF, these post-race food plans are quickly scuppered. As if they don’t deserve that indulgent feast because they didn’t run as fast as they wanted, or because a mechanical on the bike meant they didn’t meet that goal time – in that moment food then becomes a punishment.
If you find that’s you – an all-or-nothing approach to post-race foods – you may well find you’ve been overzealous in thinking you need to be restrictive of certain foods or just overall intake in your race prep.
Prepping and fuelling for a race of any kind, especially an IRONMAN should mean your training nutrition intake is high, and while the bulk of this is nutritious and meets overall health and performance goals, there should also be ample room for ‘treats’ and less nutritious foods. That way you make sure you are enjoying the process, enjoying life, and not feeling as though the whole build up is an arduous punishment endured simply with the dream of stuffing your face post finish line. Food isn’t something that needs to be either a reward or a punishment and I would encourage you to figure out a way of incorporating all foods – even those you don’t consider healthy – into your diet all year round.
Having said all that, post-race is an excellent time to enjoy any food you like!
Keeping season race goals in mind, recovery is still important and even if you aren’t racing again for a long time, recovery still matters. Waking up dehydrated and depleted will just make you miserable and miserable to be around. So fluids, adequate carbs, protein and some salts in a timely manner as per recovery recommendations still hold true.
However, these can be really broad – pizza, burgers, nachos – all tick those carb/protein/salt boxes. From a practical sense, overeating will have zero impact on body composition or health markers (for generally healthy individuals) in the short term. You just want to watch that it doesn’t spill into weeks of overeating.
My last post-race meal was gnocchi bolognese with extra salt, but the frequent go-to in the past was a burger, chips and tomato sauce (excellent for salt replacement!).
A few things to consider in the days after you cross the finish line…
Hit your hydration, carbs, protein and salt post-race; in a way that appeals most. If pizza and a beer soothes the soul in a way that salmon and brown rice can’t – go for it! As tempting as it may be, post-race isn’t the time for more than 1 or 2 drinks though. Inflammation levels are high, fatigue is high and alcohol in more than a small/moderate amount will prolong post-race pain.
Day 1 post-race:
Focus on hydration as the priority. Some people actually find their appetite is low the day after an IRONMAN. If your guts, which have tolerated countless gels and sugary drinks, feel a bit sensitive, then aim for liquid meals (smoothies, shakes) as well as some plain foods such as pasta, toasted sandwiches, yoghourt and fruit. Prioritise carbs and proteins but keep it simple and frequent.
Day 2 post:
Expect to feel ravenous two days after a big race. This is also the time to start to try and get back on track with regards to nutrients. After a few days of race foods and post-race indulgence (ie higher sugar, fat, salt), it’s likely you’ll actually be feeling like that salad or veggie based meal. Try and get back into regular meal times with nutritious snacks in between.