Why am I so hungry on rest days?
Photo by Ashley Green

Why am I so hungry on rest days?

Have you ever wondered why athletes experience great hunger on some rest days? If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about it roughly goes like this.

‘It’s my rest day. I’ve had breakfast, run some errands. It hasn’t even been two hours since that meal, but I’m already hungry for a snack. I have coffee instead to help me stick to my nutrition plan. Sometime later I’ve had my snack. And then a spoonful of peanut butter (or six), four bananas, two slabs of cheese, pita bits with hummus, a bowl of ice cream, a healthy pizza with anchovies and a delicious chocolate-covered toast(s).

The contents of my fridge are rapidly diminishing, but I’m still hungry and craving the strangest of things. I’m definitely not pregnant, so this means I’ve got the hunger.’

The hunger is a pet name for insatiable appetite that comes on some rest days or sometimes even training days. Experienced by both men and women it usually strikes in periods of high volume and intensity of training. It’s common across many disciplines and certainly not something to worry about.

What causes that insatiable appetite? 

These are two most-relevant theories attempting to explain this phenomenon. While we still can’t explain many energy-related processes occurring in our bodies, all these theories confirm that there is nothing worrying about this.

  1. ‘On days of high training load/volume, hunger is often suppressed after exercise (especially after vigorous exercise), most likely due to redistribution of blood flow to the extremities, away from the gastrointestinal tract. There appears to be a delayed compensatory response, whereby a lag of 1-2 days, or longer, seems apparent in order to even out days of higher energy expenditure.’ (source) This suggests that the hunger is a sign that we did not consume a sufficient number of calories on training days. On rest days, our bodies try to make up for this deficit.
  2. ‘The glycogenostatic theory suggests that glycogen availability is central in eliciting negative feedback signals to restore energy homeostasis. Due to its limited storage capacity, carbohydrate availability is tightly regulated and its restoration is a high metabolic priority following depletion. It has been proposed that such depletion may act as a biological cue to stimulate compensatory energy intake in an effort to restore availability. Due to the increased energy demand, aerobic exercise may act as a biological cue to trigger compensatory eating as a result of perturbations to muscle and liver glycogen stores. However, studies manipulating glycogen availability over short-term periods (1-3 days) using exercise, diet or both have often produced equivocal findings. There is limited but growing evidence to suggest that carbohydrate balance is involved in the short-term regulation of food intake, with a negative carbohydrate balance having been shown to predict greater ad libitum feeding.’(source 1)(source 2) In more common terms, the hunger is the body’s attempt at replenishing the glycogen stores in the muscles, which is essential for recovery.

Even though hunger seems to be the body’s call for what it needs, it’s perfectly fine to give in to it within reason. Sticking to relatively healthy stuff is important too. Home-made pizzas, curries and burgers are always a better option.

Many athletes worry about consuming extra calories, especially on a day when they haven’t earned them through exercise. While it’s good to retain a healthy dose of self-restraint, limiting your food intake excessively will lead to slower recovery and hinder your performance. Making sure to consume a sufficient number of calories and nutrients on training days will help avoid the hunger response on rest days and most likely improve your performance by limiting exhaustion.

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