How to Eat Smart During Your Off-Season

Tips to manage your nutrition during the off-season

“I’ve already gained 5 pounds!”

This is a text I received from one of my running clients a few weeks ago, after their goal race was completed and recovery began. This client was itching to get back to running, at least partially to get “back on track” with nutrition. I sensed the distress, that clearly if running wasn’t part of one’s weekly routine, weight couldn’t possibly stay stable.

Comments like these are one reason I encourage my clients not to connect running too closely to weight and food choices.

The off-season presents challenges for consistent runners—they don’t want to take time off of running, they don’t want to be patient with recovery, and they don’t want to eat any less than they’re used to. This isn’t true for everyone, of course, but I see it all the time with both running and sports nutrition clients. But the off-season can actually be a great opportunity to revisit your nutritional needs.

Your nutrition, and your weight, won’t always stay the same.

First of all, it’s very normal (and expected) for weight to fluctuate a few pounds every day and every week — especially if you’ve just finished a race or an intense training cycle. Our bodies are not in perfect weight homeostasis at all times, nor should we expect them to be. During training, weight fluctuations may be the result of hydration or energy deficits (or excess). When training is done, it can feel like going back to the drawing board with eating too. How much “should” I eat? How many calories do I need?  Without the set routine of a training plan—or maybe without the goal of a race to train and fuel for—daily food choices may feel directionless.

Your off-season is a good time to explore your food preferences and hunger signals.

We need mental and physical time off from running. In your off-season, you not only have more time in your day, but also a little more space in your brain to think about, and notice, new things! (Or maybe things you’ve pushed to the back-burner in order to survive training mode.) Sports nutrition practices quickly become habitual for many runners–specific snacks before workouts, staple meals before long run weekends, etc. The practice can save decision-making energy while training, and there’s comfort in knowing what foods “work” for you.

The off-season gives you the opportunity to tune into what your body needs and wants. Without needing to plan around, or for, upcoming workouts, you can enjoy a little more food freedom to eat that spicy burrito bowl, fried egg sandwich, or whatever else you crave but ignore because it won’t “sit well” on a run.

The off-season also provides a time to tune into your hunger and fullness cues. These are signals our body naturally provides (i.e. hormones it produces) to direct our food choices and get the nutrients it needs throughout the day. During training, it’s easier to ignore these–or not notice them at all–because sports nutrition food rules dictate when, what and how much you eat. But now, in this time of physical rest, you can manage your off-season nutrition by practicing mindful eating practices.

As you manage your off-season nutrition, you do you.

You can try the following “plan,” but it’s really just a way to tune back into your body’s natural energy and nutrient needs, and stay healthy between training cycles.

– Expect weight fluctuations.

It’s normal and natural for our weight to fluctuate. If you’ve run a long-distance race, your body may be holding onto some glycogen and water immediately after. If you’ve done a shorter race (or followed a shorter training plan), this may not be the case. But regardless of race length, you will probably experience some inflammation (and soreness) post-race, which rest and recovery should help alleviate. Stay off the scale (maybe indefinitely), and direct some attention to how you feel on a day-to-day basis.

If you notice any intense bloating, stomach or intestinal discomfort, constipation, or other digestive issues, don’t hesitate to reach out to a registered dietitian, or your physician, for some guidance.

– Separate how much you “should” eat from how many miles you run.

I see far too many clients adopt the “I run to eat” mentality, instead of “I eat to run.” The latter implies that you see food as fuel for your training. The former invites disordered eating and dieting patterns, as it implies food must be “earned” through running.

Even when you’re not running, your body needs fuel to maintain health and vitality. You may not be as hungry on a random Tuesday as you are on a long-run Saturday, but you still need to eat every day. You’ll stay fuller and satisfied longer if you mix nutrients—e.g. combining carbohydrates with proteins and fats—and eat foods you enjoy, not just the ones you deem “healthy.”

– Hone in on your body’s hunger and fullness signals.

Sports nutrition often takes precedence during a training cycle. While you may not feel hungry after a long or hard workout, runners usually understand that they need to eat and replenish nutrients (and start the recovery process) anyway. And rarely do I hear that people feel hungry on a long run, but it’s helpful to eat on a schedule to maintain energy and blood sugar levels.

In the off-season, your body, not your training plan, can set the schedule. Our natural hormones tell us when it’s time to eat, and when it’s time to stop. If these signals have long gone ignored in the name of sports nutrition or dieting (or sometimes both), it can take a little while to notice them. To start, keep a “hunger and fullness” log for a few days (or weeks), or work with a mindful or intuitive eating dietitian if you need some professional support in this process. Whatever works for you! But knowing and recognizing these messages from your body will keep you from worrying about those five “randomly” gained pounds and steer you toward keeping your body nourished and well-fueled.

– Last, but definitely not least, eat for satisfaction.

As I’ve noted, training often takes precedence over satisfaction in other areas. We skip out on a few happy hours or indulgences, omit a favorite spicy dish, or make other sacrifices to ensure a happy gut on the run. So, in your off-season, take the time to relearn what satisfies you. How can you incorporate more foods you enjoy, not just the foods that support your training needs? How does it feel to be satisfied after a meal or a snack, instead of just full? It’s okay—and I’d argue, healthy—to seek pleasure and satisfaction in our food choices, regardless of the number of miles run.

Heather Caplan, RDN

Heather Caplan is a registered dietitian with a private practice based out of Washington DC. She writes about running and nutrition for various publications, and on her own Real Talk RD blog at heathercaplan.com.