Why Runners Don’t Need A Diet ‘Cheat Day’

Stick to a consistent pattern of foods that meet your training, lifestyle and personal preferences

Runners shudder at the thought of cheating on their training plan and skipping a workout or long run for fear of it “going off the rails” or being a detriment to their fitness. Yet, cheating on a diet du jour is, by nature, hard to resist.

Every time I host a nutrition event for runners, the Q&A session inevitably lands on either how to eliminate certain foods, or how to sneak them in on occasion. Translation: How can I eat what I actually want (and like) without sacrificing my training?

This means most runners are following a diet of sorts or some kind of nutritional regimen that includes some aspect of self-sacrifice. And eventually, they feel the urge to “cheat,” or even incorporate a regular diet cheat day, to stay sane—and well-fueled!

Why is a diet cheat day so appealing to runners?

Diet cheat days are appealing because diets leave us feeling deprived—both emotionally and energetically. It requires a LOT of mental energy to stick to a diet, and in doing so, our physical energy needs are often not met. This can be especially true for runners when they’re training, or maintaining a high activity level. Diets provide a temporary high—feeling successful by sticking to the rules!—followed by both an emotional and physical low.

A diet cheat day provides a break from all of the above, space to breathe and the ability not have to over-analyze food choices for at least 24 hours. Of course that’s both appealing and appetizing

What can be gained from a diet cheat day?

Weight, for one. But I’m not concerned about that. Weight alone is not indicative of health. Runners rarely need to be concerned about weight fluctuations, which are often natural.

A diet cheat day gives you (one weekly day of) food freedom. It’s one day when a dieter allows themselves to eat foods they actually enjoy, without thinking in grams of macros, calories, “safe” or “good” foods, or portion sizes. Eating becomes much less stressful when we’re not trying to calculate what, when, how, or why to eat according to a set of rules.

A diet cheat day also provides an opportunity to eat as much as you want, when you want … on that specific day. If someone is following a restrictive diet that eliminates many foods they enjoy, this is especially appealing. Feeling hungry may be their norm because a restrictive diet rarely (if ever) meets a runner’s daily energy needs.

So, on this diet cheat day, they eat to satisfaction. (If we’re being honest, the tendency is to eat far beyond satisfaction, because hey, it’s a diet cheat day!)

Then, at the end of a diet cheat day, distress may set in. Because following a diet is often layered with feelings of morality or superiority when the “rules” are abided by, it doesn’t feel great to cheat on the rules. A diet cheat day may be the break your body thrives on every week to meet energy and nutrient needs (and food variety!). It’s a sigh of relief, physically. But emotionally, it can launch you into a vortex of guilt that can only be lessened by getting “back on track” tomorrow.

What is lost in the midst of sticking to one diet cheat day per week? Or month?

By sticking to a one diet cheat day per week (or month), we lose sight of the fact that the diet mentality isn’t sustainable. The diet cheat day comes at just the right time every week, much like a long-awaited rest day—six days into dieting, and it feels unbearable to try and continue. That intense urge to “cheat” should be a clear sign that your body is asking for something different.

Think of this way: We can’t be in training mode 365 days per year. We need, and thrive on, rest days. We need breaks from training. We need to round out training plans with long periods of rest. Peak fitness isn’t meant to be maintained year-round.

But if we simply wanted to maintain our running fitness—say, running 4-6 miles a few times per week, for months on end—that feels easy and habitual. You get to do what you love (run!), in a way that it fits with your lifestyle and doesn’t create any added stress.

Eating, without a diet or the need for a diet cheat day, can also feel easy, sustainable and stress-free.

Instead of incorporating a diet cheat day, incorporate nutrition habits that work for you every day.

Instead of limiting the nutrients, and variety of food, you’re “allowed” to eat every day, practice eating without restriction. This might initially feel like a binge, but that won’t last.

If someone said “Run as much as you want every day!” you wouldn’t suddenly want to run marathons all day, every day. You would know when to stop. You learn quickly what your body wants and doesn’t want. You know what your body it is capable of at any given time, what feels good and what does not.

The same is true of nutrition, when we’re more mindful of what, when, how and why we eat—instead of mindlessly following a set of diet rules. When you eat foods you like—the “healthy” foods, and the so-called indulgences—in a way that satisfies your hunger and fullness, you don’t need a diet cheat day. Every day will be a pattern of foods that meet your training, lifestyle and personal preferences. Imagine that.

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.