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3 Diet Tips (And A Recipe!) From An Elite Marathoner

Photo: Courtesy of Elyse Kopecky
Photo: Courtesy of Elyse Kopecky

A pro runner and an expert chef team up to bring runners a taste of an elite’s diet.

If you’re planning to run a marathon, you may want to fuel like elite runner Shalane Flanagan. To help you acclimate to her kitchen, enter chef Elyse Kopecky.

Flanagan and Kopecky went to college—and ran, lived and cooked—together at University of North Carolina. The Tar Heels have now teamed up to publish a cookbook, Run Fast Eat Slow (Rodale, 2016), which comes out next year.

RELATED: How Marathoning Mom Steph Bruce Fuels For Her Training

To preheat this project, Flanagan kept a journal leading up to the Berlin Marathon last fall, and Kopecky started developing recipes based on Flanagan’s diet. But she didn’t simply mimic whatever Flanagan ate.

“There was a lot of room for improvement for her,” Kopecky says. “Runners don’t need light and lean; they need nutrient-rich meals.”

Here are three main themes Kopecky gleaned from Flanagan’s diet:

 1. Eat more whole foods. Kopecky suggested Flanagan replace the deli meat on her sandwiches with roast chicken. “Then you don’t have the nitrates,” explains Kopecky, adding that the chicken carcass can also be used to make bone broth. For more nourishing salads, she recommended swapping out spinach for whole grains, arugula and kale. Kopecky also advocates making homemade dressings and wholesome treats that are free of refined sugars and flours, as well as and using more maple syrup and honey as natural sweeteners. The whole grain teff is also a favorite.

2. Eat fats. Since there are so many fat-soluble vitamins, Kopecky focuses on developing recipes that include healthy fats. She says to choose whole-milk yogurt over others and cooks with coconut oil, butter and olive oil. “We love cooking with fat,” Kopecky says. “It helps you absorb nutrients and tastes good.”

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3. Make dishes that are yummy. Kopecky’s biggest challenge is developing tasty recipes. She explains that Flanagan’s pre-race favorite—McCann’s Irish Oatmeal—may be easy to digest, but her goal is to concoct a tasty recipe that can be made in a hotel room. “Sometimes it’s hard to find a balance between tasty and good for runners,” Kopecky says. Luckily some recipes are easier to tweak. “Shalane used to make this amazing concoction of rice, black beans, salsa and eggs, and we made a dressed-up version for the book,” Kopecky explains. The dish now features brown rice with sautéed vegetables, black beans, fried eggs and a spicy avocado cream sauce.

As Kopecky comes up with recipes, Flanagan tests everything, so the book is truly a team effort. About six months ago, Kopecky concocted this recipe by including all of Flanagan’s favorite flavors in a bar made from whole foods. “In college Shalane loved going to the North Carolina rodeo. We were joking if we had a bar like this the morning after going to the rodeo!” Kopecky says, “Shalane loves coffee and the energy burst.” For a taste of what’s to come, try out these Giddy Up Energy Bars:

Makes 16 small bars

12 large Medjool dates, pitted
1 cup dried unsweetened cherries
1 cup raw chopped walnuts
1/2 cup finely shredded unsweetened dried coconut
1/4 cup unsalted almond butter
1 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
2 Tbsp. finely ground coffee beans
1/4 tsp. fine sea salt

Combine all ingredients in a food processor. Pulse a few times to chop, and then process on high speed for 1 minute, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl and beneath the blade with a spatula. Process until ingredients are finely chopped and blended together. Empty the contents of the food processor onto a 12-inch sheet of parchment paper on your work counter, and use your hands to form into a ball of dough. Use a rolling pin and your hands to shape the ball into an 8-inch square about 1/2 inch thick. Using a sharp knife, cut the square in half, and then cut crosswise to form 16 bars, each about 4 inches long and 1 inch wide. Arrange the bars between sheets of parchment paper in an airtight container or wrap individually in plastic wrap. These bars will stay fresh in the fridge for up to 3 weeks or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Nicki Miller

Nicki Miller

Nicki Miller is the managing editor for Women's Running and spearheads our nutrition coverage. She’s an avid runner but also loves cycling (both on and off-road), yoga and all kinds of crazy videos to do at home. Formerly the editor of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, Nicki started her journalism career at The Washington Post. Her first races were duathlons (run, bike, run) in her twenties with her husband, and then triathlons, completing the White Lake Half Ironman in North Carolina. Since joining Women’s Running in 2013, she’s been more focused on half marathons and trail running. Some of her proudest moments have been running the Boston Marathon (first 26.2), and becoming an RRCA certified running coach and helping others take up the sport.