Running News

Cheat Meals and Training

August 4, 202013:43


“Will my cheat meals undo my run?”

First of all, you didn’t “cheat”.  I know, it’s trite to say that, and I don’t expect you to believe me just because I say so, so I want to explain the principle below, but the principle flows from the mindset.  And if you’re thinking in terms of “cheating”, then by definition, you have painted yourself into a life of “living by the rules”, and that’s always going to be restrictive, and ultimately, less effective than a life of principles.

When we “cheat” (we will find a better word for it as we move through the argument), we are basically playing judge and jury with ourselves.  We find ourselves guilty, and thus worthy of some “punishment”.  In my experience, the punishment usually takes the form of an even stricter application of the diet afterwards.  The same logic applies to training “cheats”, like you skip a day or two of training – the response, which is really the “punishment”, is often train even harder for a week after.

The problem is that you’ve now framed your normal diet or training as the punishment, an unpleasant experience.  This creates negative associations with what you’re trying to do 95% of the time, which means you’ve just consigned yourself to a vicious pendulum where you’re either being punished (95% of the time), or you’re cheating (5% of the time) and feeling guilty for it.  You’ve accepted that you’re either going to be unhappy with a clean conscience, or temporarily happy with a guilty conscience!

That’s no way to live.  If you want to flip that right around, what you need is to find a normal routine that is an investment – you’re eating healthily and training productively because you’re investing in your health/fitness/performance/appearance – and then when you do give yourself a treat, think of it as the reward for your positive efforts.  Everything is thus positive.

And physiologically, you can afford to do this – it’s not even deceiving yourself to do so because that little ‘reward meal’ or rest day that you give yourself is a) a drop in the ocean in the larger scheme of things, and b) a good way to ‘reboot’ and ensure better compliance and results from the rest of your life.

To begin with, let’s imagine what your ‘reward meal’ (note that we’ve now changed the word, it’s no longer a cheat) consisted of.  Ice-cream? Confectionary, perhaps? A few gin and tonics and a platter of sushi?  Irrespective, that meal is so small in the context of your week’s energy intake that it really doesn’t move the needle.  At all.  That’s because the body is too ‘clever’ to be outsmarted, a fact that actually plays to your advantage in this instance.

Normally it’s the other way around – one of the big reasons that diets often stall or plateau (or simply don’t work) is because the body adapts to the environment in a way that manages our energy balance (calories in vs calories out).  Consider for instance that studies have found that when people skip breakfast, their metabolic rate drops a little for the next 12 hours, the end result being that the total daily energy expenditure is about the same as people who ate breakfast.  Another study found that if people trained in the morning, before they ate breakfast, their metabolic rate was lower for at least 12 hours, compared to people who ate and then trained.  

The key point here is that the body knows what the situation is.  It knows energy availability, and then adjusts energy expense, to keep us in balance.  The reason I’m telling you this is because in the context of that small “reward meal” you give yourself, the same is true in reverse.  It’s not going to make a massive difference, because the body generally wants to keep things the same.  This is especially true when you are also exercising.  Remember that over say, a month, the total calorie balance is going to be in the range of 60,000 kCal.  That small meal that adds less than 1% of that total, when you’re out for a run, it simply is not worth beating yourself up about!

Obviously, if you have such a reward meal every day, at every meal, then you’re on the journey towards chronically unhealthy eating, and you’ll reset your body’s metabolic set point over time, and become one of those sobering statistics, that tells us how difficult it is to lose weight once it has been gained.

But that’s not the scenario here.  This is an occasional treat, it’s not a crime, it’s not a cheat, and what is more, it keeps your relationship with food positive.  The same goes for training “cheats”, by the way.  A day off is not going to harm your fitness, or weight, or performance.  In fact, it might even help them, because that rest day often allows us to recharge, mentally and physically.  But if you carry guilt and anxiety in your mind as a result of that rest day, then you basically deny yourself the mental benefit (you replace the chance of feeling refreshed and positive with something negative).

So let’s agree – your commitment to exercise and healthy eating is an investment.  And like with all investments, you make them because you want to get something out.  There’s reward for you, both in the long and short-term.  Getting a little bit of that reward every once in a while is a good thing.  It is the physiological equivalent of popping the cork on the champagne, toasting your progress, and then continuing with your normal routine.  No guilt, no anxiety, just one more step on the journey!

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