Training for a marathon is unlike anything else. As Jen A. Miller wrote in Running, A Love Story, “It’s not simply doubling mileage. It’s dedicating a sizeable chunk of your life to the training: the running, the preparing for the running, the recovering from the running, the eating and sleeping right to continue to do all the running.” Having recently completed a joint training cycle for my second and third marathons, I can attest to this fully.
In fall 2016 I purchased Run Fast Eat Slow, Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky’s cookbook full of nourishing recipes for athletes. When I first sat down with the book, I earnestly tore through the introduction and first two chapters, which include important nuggets of healthy-eating wisdom as well as a tour of their kitchens/pantries. As I began skimming through the actual recipes, I panicked at the number of ingredients that were required for many of the meals. Assuming that lengthy ingredient lists corresponded with pricier grocery hauls and more time spent in the kitchen, I placed the book on the kitchen counter, where it sat for months along with the rest of the cookbooks in my arsenal.
Fast-forward to January 2017—and exactly seven weeks into my training cycle for the LA Marathon. As my mileage consistently hit 30-35 miles per week, I experienced a noticeable decline in my energy levels and an increase in my recovery time after each workout. I felt fatigued and I was constantly hungry, never fully satiated after meals. I snacked on anything in sight that I deemed remotely healthy.
[To give you a little background on my eating habits, I meal prep every Sunday, I always have several tubs of protein powder on hand, I eat kale salads every day for lunch, and I don’t shy away from carbs. I eat five times per day, am conscious of my macronutrient intake, and keep a relatively sharp eye on my portion sizes.]
Stepping back to evaluate why I was feeling so drained, I realized that I was so focused on my immediate energy needs, that I was missing out on the lasting nourishment that my body needed to sustain and repair itself while training. Cue Run Fast Eat Slow—take two.
While listening to the Rich Roll podcast with Shalane and Elyse during my long run that Sunday, I decided that I would eat exclusively from Run Fast Eat Slow the upcoming week to learn if and how it would impact my training. And for an added twist, I decided to go vegetarian as well! When I returned home from my 16-miler, I grabbed the book off the shelf, sat down with a pen and paper, and planned out my week.
M/W/F – Superhero Muffin + fruit
T/Th – Can’t Beet Me Smoothie
Sat – Superhero Muffin (pre-run)/Teff Pumpkin Pancakes (post-run)
Sun – Swiss Muesli Bowl
M/W/F – Apple + peanut butter
T/Th – Superhero Muffin
Sat/Sun – Coconut-Kale Smoothie
M/T/W – Recovery Quinoa Salad
Th/F/Sat/Sun – Root Lovers’ Winter Salad
M/W/F – Cucumber + Don’t Get Beet Hummus
T/Th – Green Tea-Green Apple Smoothie
Sat/Sun – Turmeric Pepitas
M/W – Zucchini Quinotto with Roasted Garlic
T/Th – Shalane’s Breakfast-Meets-Dinner Bowl
F/Sat – Penne with Roasted Butternut Squash and Sage Brown Butter
Sun – Soba Noodle Salad with Runner’s High Peanut Sauce
My mileage for that week totaled 33.88 miles, and my workouts were as follows…
Monday – strength training/hiit (legs/cardio)
Tuesday – 6 x 1000m at 10k/tempo pace, 6 x 100m strides
Wednesday – Recovery (4 mi); strength training (arms/abs)
Thursday – 6 x 400m at mile pace, 2 miles at marathon pace
Friday – Recovery (3 mi); strength training/hiit (full body)
Saturday – Long Run (18 mi)
Sunday – Rest Day
After I finished mapping out my meals and workouts for the week, I went to Sprouts for my grocery haul (where I ended up spending $20 less than I normally do per week!) and then returned home to meal prep. I typically spend two hours meal prepping every Sunday, and that day was no different. So despite my initial fears when perusing the recipes in Run Fast Eat Slow, I ended up spending the same amount of time in the kitchen and spending less money.
At first I noticed minor, day-to-day changes. Throughout the first two days alone, there was a decline in my snacking between meals – and by decline, I mean I stopped entirely. Aside from my planned morning and afternoon snacks, I was never tempted to hit the fridge or the pantry. I also kicked the mid-afternoon slump to the curb. Prior to my experiment, I consistently felt sluggish after lunch and would usually pair my afternoon snack with iced coffee and almond milk for an energy boost. As the days went by, I noticed that my energy levels were higher and that I was able to sustain them throughout the day – even on days where I ran and did strength training.
With respect to my workouts, I was able to sustain my energy levels longer and I was able to push myself harder. This was most apparent on speed run days. Leading up to this week, my 400 splits at mile pace were consistently around 90 seconds. There would be the occasional sub-90 interval, but those were few and far between and I always felt like I wanted to die afterward. That Thursday my splits were 84, 84, 83, 82, 82, and 81. And they felt GOOD. This particular workout is one that I do almost every Thursday. I did nothing differently that day – except for the fact that I drank a Can’t Beet Me Smoothie for breakfast and I was four days deep into my Run Fast Eat Slow meal plan. I remember looking down at my watch after each 400 and thinking, “Wait a second, did I really just do that?” And when I hit 81 on the final interval, I threw my hands up victoriously after I crossed the finish line and shouted, “Yes!” into the chilly night air. It was then that I knew there was something special happening – I was eating slow to run fast, and it felt amazing.
As Saturday’s long run drew near, I knew that my meal plan would truly be put to the test during those 18 miles. I carb loaded on Friday night with the Penne with Roasted Butternut Squash and Sage Brown Butter – which was sensational, by the way! On Saturday morning, I chased a Superhero Muffin with a glass of water, grabbed my Clif Bloks, laced up, and set out to conquer 18.
I’ve had good long runs and bad long runs, but I felt like I destroyed this one. I did a five-mile progressive warm up (8:30 pace), followed by 10 miles at marathon pace (7:55-8:00 pace), and I ended with a three-mile cool down (8:15 pace). My energy levels were great and I felt strong throughout the entire run. Usually I’ll have some minor aches and pains along the way and I just push through them – there was nothing to push through this time. I felt as if my body was a well-oiled machine and that I was finally fueling it with premium fuel, as opposed to low-grade regular fuel. That feeling was the deciding factor for me – from then on, I would fully embrace the “eat slow” lifestyle.
Shalane and Elyse reshaped my mindset with respect to food. Instead of focusing on calorie counts and macronutrient measurements, I now focus on eating a balanced diet rich in wholesome foods. They define their way of eating as “indulgent nourishment” – filling up on healthful foods they love and eating in tune with what their bodies need. Consequently, Run Fast Eat Slow focuses on micronutrients—phytochemicals, antioxidants, omega 3s, and minerals—and the ways that eating delicious foods can help supercharge your training.
In the world of running and endurance training, it is ingrained that every run has a purpose. Thanks to Shalane and Elyse, what I now know to be true is that every meal has a purpose as well.