By Heather Caplan, RD
When I moved to DC, the first thing I did was scope out running groups. I had no idea where to run, but had heard of the beautiful Rock Creek Park trails and saw photos of runners along the National Mall. With only one stroke of the keyboard and a few minutes on the internet, I found my people. They met Monday and Thursday evenings at the Smithsonian Metro stop and ran 3-5 miles. I can do that! I can get myself there! I convinced a friend of mine to join me; soon, we were the regulars.
Within a few weeks, I noticed that some of the runners sauntered off for food and drinks after the run. We battled the seasonal kickball and softball groups for a table, had no trouble putting back a few pitchers of beer, and enjoyed the fried chicken tenders and fries, or a burger, or whatever special was on that night. There was nothing nutritionally notable about this routine, other than getting my post-run meal in within that 30-60 minute window. And, sure, it was a mix of carbohydrates and protein (and sodium, and a few other things)! I also made good friends and relished that social time with my new running community.
I quickly felt at home in DC. I knew my way around the best running routes on the National Mall and in Rock Creek Park. I happily fell victim to peer pressure and signed up for my first marathon, because why not train while everyone else did? I was running faster, longer, and happier. The blow of that post-college real-life-transition was softened entirely by these people, all of the miles, those happy hour beers, and the baskets of salty french fries.
It never occurred to me to skip the beers and fries, and instead head home solo to whip up a “healthier” home-cooked meal, drink water, and get a little more sleep.
At the end of a nutrition talk I gave recently—focused on how to combine intuitive eating practices with sports nutrition—someone asked me if it was okay to drink beer after a run. For context: My overarching message was that sports nutrition may become a set of rigid rules that prevent you from actually enjoying your sport, and more importantly, your life. I see it happen all the time. I’ve been there, done that.
I hadn’t specifically given this example of my old run-happy hour routine but had eluded to my belief, as a sports dietitian, that you don’t have to consume perfectly “healthy” foods and drinks every day. The question was, in essence, “Would you say it’s okay to go get a beer with friends after a run, instead of going home alone and cooking a healthy meal?”
YES, I said. Exactly. There are plenty of reasons why giving yourself that social beer after a run can be “healthy” for you.
Athletes on all levels are quick to assume that fine-tuning their food intake will dramatically improve their fitness. This isn’t false, per se, but there’s a point of diminishing returns. There’s more we can do to improve our fitness—and our quality of life—than adding vegetables to our dinner plates, or eating the perfect ratio of carbohydrates to protein after a workout, or micromanaging “macros” intake.
A longitudinal analysis, conducted over eight decades, by Harvard researchers found that social connections “appear to be good for health.” Authors and performance experts Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg devote an entire section of their book, Peak Performance, to the benefits of real-life connections. And Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones—a book which outlines global communities with the longest life expectancies and healthiest populations—notes the importance of having a sense of community. Mental health and emotional wellbeing are material parts of your health not worth ignoring.
So, will that post-run happy-hour beer perfectly replenish your glycogen stores and help to start to rebuild and repair your muscle tissue? I mean, probably not. Should you also have a glass of water, and enjoy some food? Yes, sure.
I believe that allowing yourself the food (and life!) freedoms that come with choosing to do a social happy hour with running friends is healthier in the long term than forcing yourself to go home and cook a perfectly balanced meal. Truly. I don’t want to prioritize a 30-second PR over lifelong friendships and memories made. Maybe we can’t point to direct health outcomes of allowing yourself to have that post-run beer and enjoy it too, but why should that always be necessary? Anecdotally, both my clients and I seem to run better, find more enjoyment in exercise, and have a better relationship with food when we allow ourselves these freedoms of choice.
Heather Caplan is a registered dietitian with a private practice based out of the Washington DC area. She works with clients virtually and in-person to adopt intuitive eating practices and recover from chronic dieting, eating disorders, and/or amenorrhea. Her work has been featured in national publications such as Runner’s World, OutsideOnline.com, The Washington Post, and EatingWell.com. She is the co-founder of Lane 9 Project, and host of the RD Real Talk podcast. She prefers champagne to water, trails to road running, and hanging with her dog, Banana.