Should you eat back the calories you burn on a run?
As runners, most of us care (at least a little bit) about our health. We run to be healthy, to chase goals, to relieve stress, to improve fitness, and to feel good about our bodies.
When you want to run well and feel good in and about your body, you probably care (at least a little bit) about what you put into it. Therefore, I'm going to guess you care (at least a little bit!) about what and how much you eat.
Maybe you've been working on fueling properly and you want to make sure that you've recovered properly in order to run well tomorrow. Your watch estimates that you burned 500 calories, so you plan on eating a 500 calorie meal to make up for it. Sounds innocent enough, right? Or maybe you really want to go out for brunch with your run crew after your weekend long run, so you plan on "saving" all the calories that you burn so that you can enjoy bottomless mimosas or a juicy cheeseburger with fries.
Or maybe you came to running as part of a weight loss journey and you're wondering if you should AVOID eating any of the calories that you burned on your run (because then you'll lose weight faster, or so you think).
The problem with all of these scenarios is that you are forgetting some very important elements of fueling... elements that could actually make your running MORE difficult than it needs to be, even if you were well intentioned.
What are you missing when you decide whether (or not!) to eat back whatever calories you burn while running?
You have to fuel properly BEFORE a run, not just after
If you plan on just eating back all the calories you burned during a run, then you're ignoring the part where you have to make sure that you're properly fueled in order to go on the run in the first place! Pre-run nutrition - whether it is the morning of, the day before, or even a few days before - helps give your body some of the energy that it will use and burn during your run!
Think about preparing for a marathon, for example. You (hopefully) do some carb loading, you have a good meal the night before, you (hopefully) get up early enough to have a good breakfast before you race... all of that helps prepare you for your run so you have plenty of energy and don't hit the wall.
The same is true for a long run, a workout, or even an easy run. The food and drink you consume beforehand can be used as fuel to keep you going.
You need to fuel DURING a long run or workout
If you're running longer than 90 minutes, you're definitely going to need to take in some fuel. If you're running ~2-3 hours, then you need at least 30-60 grams of carbs per hour; anything over 3 hours means you could be consuming up to 90 grams of carbs per hour. Considering each gram of carbohydrate is 4 calories, you're looking at ~120-360 calories per hour!
You're likely burning (a lot) more calories per hour than what you're consuming. And you're not storing that energy that you're taking in on the run... your body is using it as you consume it.
If you skip this step of fueling during a long run so that you can eat more later (or for whatever reason you have), you're doing your body - and your run - a disservice.
"Calories burned" estimates can be crazy inaccurate
You know how pretty much every GPS and fitness watch tells you how many calories you burned during your workout or throughout the day? It is probably WAYYY off. How "off" they are varies, but I've read estimates of up to 50%. (So that 500 calories you burned? It might be 250, it might be 750.)
You'll never really know exactly how much your watch is off, because knowing exactly how many calories you burned requires precise measurements and equipment that you can't replicate at home.
Even if you don't use a watch, you're still just relying on an estimate. Treadmills and other fitness equipment use formulas to help estimate calories burned, but they can't take into account your individual body's profile or needs... so they're no better than your watch. Plugging your data into a form online might give you an estimate too, but again, it is using a standardized formula that can't account for everything that is unique about you, today.
Hunger varies from day to day
Some days you're just not that hungry after a run. Even if you're not hungry, you should still eat a recovery snack (or beverage) and have a meal within two hours. But if you're not super hungry, you shouldn't force yourself to eat however many calories you think you burned on a run. Make sure you eat a recovery meal and snack, and don't skip meals throughout the rest of the day, but don't force yourself to eat in a way that makes you feel sick.
Our bodies have a funny way of letting us know what they need. Some days you're not super hungry, and the next day you might be really hungry. That's okay. That's just your body's natural way of asking for what it needs in order to recover and run well again the next time.
Your goal shouldn't be to "save" your calories to eat whatever
I've heard from runners before that they skip breakfast and fueling on the run because they really want a post-run donut and mimosas. Or cheeseburger with bacon and French fries plus a beer. Or whatever it is. They basically "save" whatever calories they would have consumed before or during their run so that they can eat and drink more later.
One issue with this is that your run is going to suffer because you're not going into it well-fueled, nor giving your body what it needs during the run. This means you are more likely to feel like you're on the struggle bus... or hit the wall... or barely finish... or finish feeling ill... or feel really ill later. None of those are fun outcomes, right? And they hardly make your post-run mimosa more appealing.
So to combat this, I suggest you do your best not to worry about how many calories you burned on the run. It's just going to be an estimate anyway.
Here's what you can do instead:
Show up to your run well fueled - eat a good meal the night before or earlier in the day; don't go into it fasted.
Fuel during your run if it is >75-90 minutes and/or a workout.
Eat a recovery snack within 30-60 minutes of your run, even if you aren't hungry.
Eat a good meal a few hours after your run.
Don't freak out if you're not hungry the day of a run but are hungrier than normal a day or two later. That's normal.
Eat foods that make you feel good and that you enjoy. (Yes, even if that includes the occasional mimosa!!)
Do you want to feel energized not just during your runs, but during the day before and after you work out? Do you want a more sustainable approach to eating - something that allows you to feel confident you're fueling for performance, but doesn't make you feel bogged down by food rules or schedules or unsustainable habits? I can help with that!
I work with runners who want to run faster, feel better, and increase fitness... all without one-size-fits-all diets, calorie counting, or food rules. I'll help you figure out how to fuel your body so you can run YOUR best. What are you waiting for? Schedule your free call today!