If you’ve ever run more than a couple miles, you may have experienced the desire to engage in a marathon of eating for hours afterward.
Sometimes you just need to refuel, and after polishing off a huge bowl of Paleo Chicken Tikka Masala, you’re totally satisfied. Other times, an insatiable appetite’s symptomatic of something else that’s going on in your body.
In order to figure out what nourishment you really need once you’ve kicked off your sneakers, it’s important to understand the root cause of your post-run hunger pangs.
Scroll down to see the 5 reasons running’s working up your appetite—plus how to properly recover without overeating.
Why are you so hungry?
1. Straight up calorie burn. If you’re training for a half or full marathon, your hunger may spike for the most basic reason: You’re burning calories like woah. “Significant hunger after a long run—10–12-plus miles, for example—makes sense [because] you’re burning a ton of calories and not eating for a while,” says Jason Machowsky, RD, a sports dietitian and exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery.
And even if you’re new to running or not a big exerciser in general, jogging 3–5 miles could mean a spike in calorie burn. “Running is a pretty vigorous form of exercise,” explains Lauren Antonucci, RD, sports dietitian and owner of Nutrition Energy. “You may be burning significantly more calories on a 45-minute run than if you’re walking or on a stationary bike or elliptical machine at the gym.”
2. Your runner hunger is relative. Not all exercise affects your appetite in the same way. So it’s possible you feel more famished after a run compared to other physical activities. For example, studies show short HIIT workouts actually suppress hunger.
“You may be burning significantly more calories on a 45-minute run than if you’re walking or on a stationary bike or elliptical machine at the gym.”
3. You’re not eating enough. Machowsky says the people who report runner hunger to him often tend to be those who are dieting. “Those restricting calories are already in a deficit, so added caloric burn from the run can be further stimulating appetite,” he says. “This can be magnified if the person hasn’t eaten in the hours leading up to the run.”
4. Your hunger is psychological rather than physical. Could you be giving yourself permission to eat rather than actually feeling hungry? Antonucci says she sees this all the time. People high ball the number of calories they’re burning while exercising and feel like they deserve to eat more because of the work they put in. “Psychologically, it’s like ‘Hey! I ran—I must be really hungry.”
5. You’re dehydrated. Turns out it’s pretty easy to mistake thirst cues for hunger pangs. “I see this in my practice all the time,” Antonucci says. “People are dehydrated and will end up eating.“
What to do about it
1. Drink more water. The easiest fix for runner hunger is to make sure you’re hydrated before you set out—and then drink a bottle of water afterward.
2. Eat right after your run. “Try to plan a meal within a few hours of training, so you don’t finish your run feeling ravenously hungry,” Machowsky advises. If that’s not possible, he says to eat “a small snack with a little bit of protein and some carbs—yogurt and a piece of fruit—within an hour or two of training.” This could fend off overeating later in the day.
If you’re training for a race and are running 10 or more miles, you may need even more fuel before, during, and after training. “Your appetite may stay elevated for the rest of the day and even the day after in these instances, especially if the runs are very, very long,” he says, so eating protein and carbs consistently is key.
“Try to plan a meal within a few hours of training, so you don’t finish your run feeling ravenously hungry.”
3. Adjust your plan. If you’re new to running or have been away a while, you’ll be a less efficient runner—and therefore, may burn more calories initially, leading to more hunger. “Adjusting running distance or including cross-training to accommodate resulting hunger pangs may be of use,”Machowsky says. “Experimentation and tracking outcomes [are] key.” For instance, maybe you’ll find that if you swap out a day of running for weight training, you’ll get the same results and feel less inclined to overeat.
4. Learn to tune in to your hunger. This may be the most important aspect of all. Antonucci says she works individually with clients to help them respond to hunger cues more effectively. “It’s important to try to reconnect with your hunger,” she explains. Hey, maybe what your body is really craving is some serious post-workout foam rolling.