Here's What an Olympic Runner Eats Before and After Running

Shalane Flanagan and nutrition coach Elyse Kopecky offer their do's (superhero muffins!) and don'ts (skipping breakfast!) for pre-workout and recovery.

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September 01, 2022

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Photo by: Erin Scott

Erin Scott

At the very end of my first 20-mile-long training run for the New York Marathon, I involuntarily started crying. It was strange and unexpected. I was neither happy nor sad nor overwhelmingly relieved, simply tired. I did some Googling and learned many other people experience this phenomenon. Discovering the weird but cool ways bodies work was my favorite part of marathoning. Many of my findings centered around eating.

When my sister gifted me a copy of Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow. by chef and nutrition coach Elyse Kopecky and 4-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan (pictured running below), my perspective on eating and running changed. A big aha moment came when I learned the way you eat and hydrate can help your body recover more effectively to prevent burnout and injuries. Before this, when training for races, I’d often tweak a knee and have to take weeks off from running. After really long runs, I’d feel stoned, out of it and sleepy the whole day, needing to take multiple naps. I even wondered if this is what people really meant when they talked about “runner’s high” (spoiler: it’s not). As it turns out, I was making a few big mistakes.

On the heels of the latest cookbook from Kopecky and Flanagan, Rise & Run, which has an entire chapter dedicated to recovery-promoting recipes and tactics, I decided to chat with the authors to bring you a list of key recovery dos and don’ts. Much of the following info has helped me feel healthy and energized after running.

Photo by: Tiffany Renshaw

Tiffany Renshaw

Don’t: Skip Pre-Run Breakfast

If you run on empty, it’s much harder to catch up and recover, especially if you get dehydrated or deplete electrolytes.

“I’m a firm believer in eating a light breakfast and hydrating well before every run even if you run early,” Kopecky tells me. “I used to not eat before morning runs because I have sensitive digestion; turns I was just eating the wrong foods. Find what breakfast foods work for you and stick to it.”

For really early runs, she grabs a banana, a few nuts and dates, coffee and a homemade electrolyte drink. And in the summer heat she’ll even eat some olives for the salt (an electrolyte).

Do: Eat a Second Breakfast

Distance running depletes our energy stores, vitamins and minerals, so it’s important to replenish shortly after you finish a long run.

“Second breakfast is my favorite meal of the day! Most runners would agree. This is what inspired us to write Rise & Run,” Kopecky says. “When I don’t take the time to eat a complete meal after a workout I’m hungry all day and I end up snacking (mostly eating my kids snacks!). I recover much faster and feel more energized by eating a small breakfast before and a heartier breakfast after my run.”

Take the time to cook a balanced, nutrient-dense meal after your run and you’ll feel energized and satiated.

Don’t: Go Heavy on Bagels, Bread and Pasta

Simple carbs like bagels and bread are typically made from refined flour that lacks fiber, and can be easy to digest pre-run. However, complex carbs like oats will sustain you much better. Before a run, Kopecky likes to eat Superhero Muffins, a wildly popular recipe from her cookbook made from ingredients like rolled oats, almond flour, yogurt and grated/mashed fruits and veggies. Ultimately, she advises: “Find what breakfast foods work for you and stick to it.”

Do: Eat Balanced Meals High In Micronutrients, Healthy Fats, Protein and Complex Carbs

Good sources of micronutrients include fresh, seasonal produce and anti-inflammatory foods like olive oil, avocado, nuts/seeds, berries and ginger. Eggs are one of Kopecky’s favorite foods for recovery because they’re high in protein, healthy fats and micronutrients. “For brunch or ‘second breakfast’ I typically make a power bowl with rice or quinoa, sautéed greens, scrambled or fried eggs, plus avocado and kimchi,” Kopecky says. She also frequently makes a smoothie bowl or overnight oats.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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