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What to Eat After an Ironman (So You’re Not Hangry at 3 AM)

Going out? Ordering in? Eat this, not that.


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You’ve dreamed of this moment since the day you registered for the race—after months of sacrifice, hard training, and fueling primarily for performance, now you’re ready to eat for fun. We all agree that you should eat whatever your post-race heart desires. But hold tight a second. You know that saying, “your eyes are bigger than your stomach?” In the hours after an Ironman triathlon, your eyes could be misinterpreting what your stomach can handle.

After an Ironman, the GI system is not firing on all cylinders. After processing sports fuel at race efforts all day long, your stomach needs a rest. It’s a long day for all parts of your body, not just the muscles that propelled you through 140.6 miles of swim, bike and run. Unless you also have an iron gut, err on the side of caution with your post-race meal. Otherwise, you might find yourself sitting down to a big post-race meal, only to find your stomach revolting after the first bite.

It might help to think of your post-race fueling period as a “reverse taper.” Think back to how you ate in the few days leading up to the race: low fiber, low-fat, and avoiding spicy and/or greasy foods. Those are good guidelines to follow immediately after an Ironman, too. This will let your GI system gently recover from the day while also getting you the nutrients you need to rebuild after the intense efforts of the race. More importantly, you’ll get the food you need immediately so you’re not waking up at 3 a.m. with hunger pangs. Food is important after an Ironman, but so is sleep. With smart choices, it’s possible to get both.

 

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Immediately after the race

Choose liquids, not solids

Once you cross the finish line, kick-start your recovery with liquids. In addition to helping you rehydrate after a day of intense efforts, this strategy can help you test-drive your gut. Liquids will go down easier than solid foods, so grab a drink from the post-race buffet, like:

  • Chocolate milk
  • Soda (not diet – calories and sugar are your friends right now)
  • Apple juice
  • Sport drink
  • Recovery mixtures
  • Smoothies
  • Broth
  • Tea

If you must munch, do it wisely

If you’re wanting solid foods right away, opt for easy-to-digest carbohydrates that won’t put a lot of strain on your stomach. Post-race buffets are usually stocked with these, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding things like:

  • Pretzels
  • Crackers
  • Bagel with peanut butter
  • Bananas
  • Applesauce
  • Dry cereal
  • Pizza crust (skip the heavy, greasy toppings for now)

After this small meal, it’s probably a good idea to let your stomach settle a bit. This is a good time for what I like to call the “Hollywood Shower,” a long, luxurious shower fit for a movie star, with all the soap and water you can stand. If you’re not feeling queasy or bloated when you emerge from the shower, it’s time to think about the post-race meal.

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Building the perfect post-race meal

Now that you’ve jump-started recovery and given your GI system time to calm down after the race, you’re probably primed for a hot meal. You want to find something that will not only be supremely satisfying, but will stave off stomach aches and middle-of-the-night hunger pangs.

What to eat

The first meal after finishing an Ironman triathlon should include:

  • Easy-to-digest carbohydrates, to restock glycogen stores in the body
  • Lean protein, to support muscle repair and improve satiety
  • A small amount of healthy fat, to optimize gut emptying and accelerate muscle repair and glycogen reload.

The combination of carbohydrate, protein, and fat work together to increase glycogen storage, reduce inflammation (and the dreaded delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS), and boost immunity—all good things after an Ironman.

What to avoid

Though you’re probably wanting to eat anything and everything at first, it’s possible your body isn’t ready for that just yet. Certain things may be harder to digest, which may leave you feeling queasy as soon as the food hits your stomach. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to avoid the following immediately after an Ironman:

  • Peppers
  • Onions
  • Spicy foods
  • Cream sauces
  • Fried food
  • High fiber
  • Processed candy
  • Uncooked meats

Don’t worry, this reprieve is only temporary. You will have plenty of time to enjoy these foods after your GI system has recovered from the race.

Photo: Getty Images
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Going out? Ordering in? Order these dishes

Appetite and food preferences are unique to each athlete—some hit up the drive-thru on the way home from the race, while others get room service or pizza delivery, and still others want a homemade meal. While perusing the menu, consider the following general guidelines for safe and risky choices. (Also, order small portions; you’ll want to avoid overloading the gut all at once.)

Fast food

The best meals to get on the drive home:

  • Hamburger
  • Cheeseburger
  • Grilled chicken sandwich
  • Pizza (hold the mystery meat)
  • Milkshake or smoothie
  • Avoid: Chili, fried chicken, onion rings, barbeque, special sauce

Room Service

Looking for dinner in bed? Try one of these room-service options:

  • Turkey and cheese sandwich
  • Grilled cheese sandwich
  • Chicken noodle soup with crackers
  • Mac and cheese
  • Pasta (light on the sauce)
  • Baked potato
  • Avoid: Salads, corn, beans, raw veggies (especially broccoli)

Asian food

It’s calling your name! Go ahead and answer it, but carefully. Smart bets include:

  • Chicken Lo Mein
  • Steamed chicken
  • Cooked carrots
  • Brown rice
  • Avoid: Kung Pao chicken, super-spicy curries, and uncooked meats (sushi)

Mexican food

If you’re going to hit up a taqueria, add these to your order:

  • Tortilla chips
  • Cheese or chicken quesadillas
  • Chicken tacos
  • Rice
  • Avoid: Fajitas, salsa, pico de gallo

Not craving anything at all?

If the mere suggestion of a restaurant meal makes your stomach turn, try a smaller, homemade meal instead. In addition to smaller portions, homemade meals let you be in control of the ingredients. They’re also readily available, so you can eat whenever you do feel up to it. Before the race, stock a few options in your home or hotel-room fridge, just in case. These can include:

  • Peanut butter and banana sandwich
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Pretzels and peanut butter
  • Cereal with milk
  • Oatmeal and yogurt
  • Greek yogurt with fruit
  • Bagel with nut butter
  • Whey protein shakes
  • Avoid: candy, high-fiber muffins, processed chips and cookies

RELATED: What Are the Best Post-Race Meals I Can Get at a Gas Station?

A note on beer and coffee

As much as you think you want a celebratory beverage, give yourself 24 hours to rehydrate before indulging. Alcohol elevates cortisol, and post-race cortisol is plenty high. You’ll also want to get a good night’s sleep after the race, and alcohol can impede that goal. Additionally, alcohol has been found to impair post-race muscle recovery, which means you might feel even worse when you wake up. If you’re especially craving a post-race beer, consider a non-alcoholic option.

RELATED: Non-Alcoholic Craft Beers for Athletes

The same goes for coffee, both for rehydration purposes and sleep-impeding caffeine. Given that you’ve had your fair share of caffeine during the race, it might be a good idea to lay off the java for a day or two in favor of water, juice, and electrolyte drinks.

The most important rule of post-race fueling

The most important rule of post-race fueling is to listen to your body. Yes, you’ve been looking forward to that post-race food extravaganza, but there will be plenty of time for that. The first 12-24 hours post-Ironman can be unpredictable. Be patient with yourself and honor your body. It just carried you through 140.6 miles, so treat it well.

Once your appetite returns, continue to hydrate, but don’t go overboard. For the first few days post-race prioritize foods high in antioxidants to help reduce inflammation, such as:

  • Fruit (blueberries, grapes, raspberries, strawberries)
  • Nuts (walnuts)
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Beans and legumes (black beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas)
  • Fish (salmon, tuna steak, sardines, oysters, mackerel, albacore tuna)

When the time is right and your stomach is fully rebounded from the race, treat yourself to the decadent, delicious foods you’ve been craving. You’ve earned it!

RELATED: Traveling After a Race? Here’s How to Recover Right

Susan Kitchen is a Sports Certified Registered Dietitian, USA Triathlon and IRONMAN Certified Coach, accomplished endurance athlete, and published author. She is the owner of Race Smart, an endurance coaching and performance nutrition company that works with athletes across the globe as they strive toward optimal health, fitness, and performance.