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5 Expert Tips for What to Eat (and Drink) on Your Rest Days

Runner’s World logo Runner’s World 9/10/2020 by Runner's World Editors, Ted Spiker
a bunch of food on a plate: You already know how to fuel up on running days, but here’s how to adjust when you take the day off. Nutrition experts share their top five tips. © Alexander Spatari - Getty Images You already know how to fuel up on running days, but here’s how to adjust when you take the day off. Nutrition experts share their top five tips.

From figuring out the what to eat before a run, to trying different energy gels during long runs, to perfecting the best recovery meal, we spend a lot of time and energy on dialing in our diets to properly fuel our training. And we should, because nutrition plays a key role in optimizing our performances.

But that doesn’t mean you should ignore it on your rest days. In fact, how and what you eat on rest days can impact your next few workouts. Here are five top tips from nutrition pros on what to eat on your rest days so you can properly recover and fuel up for your next run.

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Don’t change too much.

While many think they need to tighten their grip on calorie intake come rest day, that’s not really the case. “It’s not necessary to restrict energy intake,” says Stephanie Howe Violett, Ph.D., a running and nutrition coach and the 2014 Western States 100 champion. “That’s when most recovery and adaptation occurs, and proper nutrients are important to facilitate those processes.”

Instead, tune into your hunger cues. As athletes, we are (generally) good at listening to our bodies, so eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Eating slower can help with both. You also want to opt for food quality over quantity. Sure, rest days are made for indulging, but be smart about your food choices. Try any of these 30 healthy food swaps and save the extra indulgent foods for your heavy training days.

Space out calories evenly.

Many people backload during the day, meaning they eat a light breakfast and lunch and then have a big dinner, says Tenforde. But that depletes your energy and makes your body more susceptible to breakdown. A steady supply is best, so if you must go light on your first two meals, balance it with healthy snacks such as nuts or fresh fruit or vegetables in between.

Fuel with micros.

Carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats—those are the macronutrients you need to fuel a strong recovery. But runners also need micronutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, and iron to replenish the body.

Calcium supports your bone and teeth health—that’s where 99 percent of your calcium is stored. It’s also an electrolyte, aiding muscle and blood vessel contraction, which is important during exercise. One cup of milk packs about 30 percent of your daily value, although fortified non-dairy drinks (almond, cashew milk) offer a more impressive 45 percent. Other sources include tofu, spinach, and chia seeds.

Being low in vitamin D can increase your risk for inflammation-related muscle injury. “A 2012 study found that when vitamin D was low in a group of runners, they had a biomarker for increased inflammation,” says sports dietitian Linda Samuels, M.S., R.D. Three ounces of salmon packs about 450 IU of D. Other sources include egg yolks, milk, and some mushrooms (certain brands are grown in a way that increases their vitamin D content).

And “iron transports oxygen in the blood and muscle,” Samuels adds. A ½ cup of lentils supplies 3 milligrams of iron. Other sources include red meat, dark meat poultry, and fortified cereals.

Eating whole foods—lots of fruits, vegetables, and meat or beans—will help cover most of your bases. Violett says you should aim for about half of your plate to be full of vegetables, whole grains, and fruit. Then add a serving of high-quality protein and top with healthy fat such as avocado or olive oil to make sure you get essential fatty acids that also aid in recovery.

Remember to hydrate.

Rest days are a great time to prehydrate, says Violett, as starting a run dehydrated is about as much fun as losing a toenail. That doesn’t mean you should slam a bunch of water at once—just be mindful about your intake (and check your urine color to see if you’re on track).

The official recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is that men consume approximately 125 ounces (about 15 and a half cups) and women consume approximately 91 ounces (about 11 cups) of water each day. This is total cups, meaning about 80 percent—or eight to 12 cups—of that fluid comes from drinking water and beverages, while the other 20 percent comes from water-rich foods like fresh fruit.

Don’t stress over it.

At the end of the day, rest-day foods should be fun, easy, and enjoyable. Since you’re not running on these days, consider spending the extra time on your hands in the kitchen trying out new healthy recipes (like one of these 17 ideas) or baking up some energy snacks for future runs. The best diet for every day (including rest days!) is the healthiest diet you can commit to over the long term that supports your run training, so focus on your personal preferences and needs, and have fun with it.


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