Why Do We Get Cravings When We Exercise?
Do you really need the calories or just want them out of habit?
It’s probably happened to you. Deep into a long training day you start craving a bacon cheeseburger and suddenly that pile of ground meat is all you can think about. Turns out, you’re not alone. Even the best athletes lust after certain foods during a race or run. Here are a few of the things athletes crave, plus a biological explanation of why these cravings happen.
The reason for most cravings is simple: you crave what you need. “It’s a good thing—it’s a survivor thing,” says San Francisco Bay Area-based sports nutritionist and ultra-athlete, Sunny Blende. “An ultrarunner wanting something salty, they probably need more electrolytes. If they’re craving sweets, they probably need more calories. Coke probably means they’re tired.” Jerky, peanut butter, and burgers can signal a protein deficit. “You get those cravings because you’re breaking down muscle,” she says.
But cravings are influenced by other factors as well. Flavor fatigue, for instance. Most athletes, like DiGiulian and Boone, turn to something salty after half a day or more of eating sweet sports food.
The feel of the food can also influence cravings. “Swimmers in long distance races often crave canned peaches,” Blende says. “They’re dry from mouth breathing and swimming in the ocean, and it’s a little like glycerin on your tongue.”
And then there’s the mental aspect to cravings that goes beyond nutritional needs. If you’ve been following a strict diet, or “you’re dreaming about it because you can’t have it, you’re going to think, ‘When I finish this race, I’m going to have a big hamburger and French fries and a coke,’” says Blende. “That’s good too—whatever gets you through.” The same goes for comfort foods, athletes tend to crave mac and cheese or chili fries for the same reason most people do: they have headaches, they don’t feel great, and comfort food fixes it, at least temporarily. “Your body may take the rational, logical thing you need [like protein] and turn it into a certain craving because egg whites aren’t going to do it for you—you’re not going to be dreaming of egg whites” to get through tough moments, Blende says.
As for cravings on rest days after a big training block or an endurance event, Blende says that has to do with adaptation; your body gets used to the high volume of exercise and the calories needed to sustain it and “it’s too soon for your body to realize you’re not training. It can’t switch on a dime like that,” Blende says. That’s when you need to ask yourself if you really need the calories or just want them out of habit.
The Foods Athletes Crave
Lynsey Dyer: Big Mountain Skier.
“You think you’re going to have deep moments while training, or on the skin track, or hiking, or mountain biking. But all you’re doing is thinking about food.” Dyer typically envisions the “freaking cheesiest thing I can imagine,” which is usually chile relleno or cheese enchiladas. On her last 50-mile mountain bike ride, it was beer and a bacon cheeseburger—“organic, grass fed, of course.”
Jenn Shelton: Ultrarunner
Shelton has a thing for cheese tamales “’cuz you can put them in your pack and they get all hot and they kind of cook themselves,” she says. She also craves Coke and Capri-Sun. Lots of it. “I want a Camelbak bladder in the shape of Capri-Sun and filled with Capri-Sun,” she says.
Nat Young: Surfer
“Sometimes I’m surfing for five or six hours straight, and the only reason I get out of the water is because I’m too hungry to keep going,” says the 24-year-old athlete. “Sweets sound amazing when I’m out on the water. Cookies, cereal or anything like that, probably because it’s quick and easy. But sometimes it’s burritos or nachos. I can eat two burritos in a sitting when I’m really hungry.”
Amelia Boone: Spartan and Tough Mudder World Champion
“I dream of peanut M&Ms. If an aid station has peanut M&Ms, I will clear them out,” Boone says. But only during long races. Après race? “I don’t normally drink diet soda, but for some reason post-race, the first thing I want is a massive Diet Coke. And potato chips. When I was in law school, I’d have a Diet Coke as a reward, like ‘OK, I got through 100 pages of reading,’ so now it’s a reward type of thing and when I finish a race.”
Sasha DiGiulian: Rock Climber
The 22-year-old tends to go for turkey jerky. “When I am climbing for longer periods of time I prefer salty to sweet which is weird because normally my 12 o’clock cheat is a cookie or ice cream.”