Shalane Flanagan’s Nutritionist Shares Her Diet Tips for Athletes
Photo: Alan Weiner
If you’re at Shalane Flanagan’s running level, then it’s a given you’ve got your nutrition down. If you’re not at Flanagan’s level (i.e., pretty much all of us) you can still eat like she does for your speediest runs yet. (Related: Shalane Flanagan On Winning Marathons and Drinking Beer)
Elyse Kopecky, the nutritionist who helped fuel Flanagan’s big NYC marathon win, teamed up with the runner for two cookbooks filled with recipes and pointers for athletes. The more recent of the two, Run Fast Cook Fast Eat Slow, is filled with quick recipe ideas geared toward runners and athletes of all levels. We sat down with Kopecky to get her best diet tips.
Make sure you’re eating healthy fats.
Like many people who lived through the low-fat craze, Kopecky experienced a complete change of heart in recent years. In college, she was a competitive runner and basically steered clear of fat. She suffered from athletic amenorrhea—a condition in which women lose their period because of exercise—for 15 years. Her doctors never suggested she change her diet, but then she moved to Switzerland, where she went from eating low-fat yogurt, frozen veggie burgers, and chicken breast to whole milk yogurt, full-fat grass-fed ground beef, and chicken. She started to get her period again, and realized how important fat is in a healthy diet.
Now, healthy fats factor heavily into both her and Flanagan’s diets, and they emphasize their importance in their books. “Having a good balance of healthy fats at every meal and snack is going to make what you eat stick with you longer and give you energy throughout the day,” Kopecky tells Shape. We’re not just talking avocados. In Kopecky’s book, butter falls into the “healthy fat” category. (Research suggests it’s not as bad as once thought.) “If you’re using good quality cultured grass-fed butter, it’s really nutritious and is high in vitamins and minerals,” she says.
If you only have the time to master two recipes in our new cookbook let it be the DIY Grain Salads and Power Bowls. What I love most about these 2 recipes is they’ll help you eat well for life. Both are more of a tool to teach you how to make a meal out of the ingredients you have on hand. We give suggestions and a formula to follow, but the rest is up to you to come up with your own creations that suite your cravings. My family devours Power Bowls for dinner at least once a week…everyone gets to design their own bowl using up a hodgepodge of leftovers. And here’s the simple grain salad I tossed up this morning for packable work lunches: quinoa, kale, fennel, carrot, green onion, feta, sunflower seeds, #runfasteatslow apple cider vinaigrette. T-minus 6 days until our cookbook launch. Get your book pre-ordered so you can celebrate with us on launch day. Links to retailers available on our website, click on Books. #runfasteatslow
Focus on what you’re eating, not how much.
If you try to hit certain macros every day, Kopecky wants you to take a different approach. “I believe that people shouldn’t measure macronutrients and that it’s more important to get back in touch with listening to your body,” she says. Plus, if you’re in the habit of measuring fat, protein, carbohydrates, and calories, you might be leaning more heavily on packaged foods that come with these numbers on the label, she says. Instead, she suggests tuning in to your hunger levels throughout the day and focusing your efforts on eating balanced meals and snacks made with whole foods over packaged products. (Try these plant-based recipes perfect for vegan athletes.)
Eat your largest meal at breakfast.
If you’re not that hungry as you wake up, you might be eating a small breakfast or skipping the meal altogether. But Kopecky believes that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, regardless of what time you’ll be working out. “On busy days when I don’t eat a very decent breakfast, I find that I’m hungry and I’m snacking a lot more,” shes says. That’s why she likes to start the day with a smoothie with scrambled eggs and roasted sweet potatoes or a “power bowl” with rice as a base. Fitting in your other meals is also important to your performance. As a general rule, you should aim for three substantial, balanced meals a day with one or two snacks in between if you’re training hard, she says.
Have nutritious options prepared—or at least almost ready.
You’ve heard it before, but having a well-stocked pantry and prepped meals and snacks can make eating healthy feel way easier. If you don’t mind some prep but don’t want to part with your protein bars, Kopecky suggests making your own so you can decide what goes in it. (Try these 10 easy recipes for homemade energy bars.) But if meal-prepping is a definite no-go, at least have some snacks you can make in a minute or two when hunger strikes. Kopecky suggests avocado sprinkled with sea salt, a handful of nuts and fruits, an apple or banana with nut butter, or a hard-boiled egg.