We all could stand to have a few extra hours in the day, and Stephanie Howe and David Laney are no exception. These two ultrarunners have made healthy, whole-foods diets a reality, despite huge training weeks, challenging race schedules and life obligations. Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different.
Stephanie is a coach and sports nutritionist who holds a PhD in Exercise Physiology and cooks avidly with a sound education in nutrition In addition to being a professional ultrarunner. David was the 2015 Ultrarunner of the Year after making the podium at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 170k, and ran the 2016 Olympic Trials and doesn’t have any professional training in nutrition.
Both athletes trust their intuition when it comes to their food and cooking philosophies and both subscribe to these same five rules for fueling their bodies; rules that are beneficial to any athlete, whether you’re looking to amplify your performance, or your general well-being.
1. Eat whole foods and avoid the packages.
Both Stephanie and David have limited amounts of time to shop, and cook, but they subscribe to a food philosophy that demands whole, unprocessed foods, prepared simply. So, what’s in the shopping carts of these two athletes?
“My staples are seasonal produce, spinach, sweet potatoes, apples, avocado, nuts, yogurt, and fresh herbs.” says Stephanie. “We have a freezer full of elk (my husband bow hunts) and a bunch of different grains I’ve bought in bulk and put in glass jars. We buy most of our food from the local produce stand. I rarely get anything from the grocery store, and if I do it’s only from the perimeter.” (Though she does admit that she goes down the aisles to buy toilet paper and Kleenex!)
David’s cart is similar, filled with a wide variety of nutritious fruits and vegetables that are simple to prepare, and also taste delicious raw. “The core of my diet is really simple foods,” he says. “I eat simple foods because they are cheap, easy to eat, easy to prepare and ultimately good for you.”
His combinations of fruits and vegetables along with some black beans and brown rice make meal possibilities endless and inexpensive. Without the quick, prepared foods, snacks and meals must be prepared but a little bit of forethought puts and end to those nothing-to-eat-freakouts. Fresh raw veggies are a great snack, and one afternoon or evening of cooking a big stir-fry once a week will leave you leftovers of fresh, healthy options all week long.
2. Don’t restrict yourself. Eat what you crave.
Both athletes agree that food is delicious fuel, but they never think of it as a “reward.”
“I don’t ‘treat myself’ when I have a good race and I don’t ‘restrict’ myself when I have an off day. I DO listen to my cravings though, and that normally means a burrito with chips and guacamole. I usually crave salt and fat after a long, hard race or run. Good or bad.”
As for David, he knows his favorite chocolate chip cookie formula by heart. “Some days you eat more calories than you can possibly burn,” he says, “and you have to refuel your body with stuff that will make you a better athlete.” Sometimes, that thing your athletic mind and body is craving is a cookie!
3. Eat amply and eat often!
Perhaps not surprisingly, both Stephanie and David are eating all day long to meet their caloric needs of training and racing. What’s a typical daily menu like for an ultrarunner?
A pre-run breakfast for David is nearly always toast with nut butter and chai tea. “When I finally get home at 11:30am,” he says, “I’ll have a big breakfast of scrambled eggs with leftover sweet potatoes, onions and peppers from night before, pancakes with yogurt and peanut butter. “He typically doesn’t eat lunch but always eats an afternoon snack (“something similar to breakfast,” he says). And then dinner.
“Dinner is typically grilled vegetables or salad with a large bowl of black beans, brown rice, cheese, salsa. Sometimes I go with grilled chicken on the salad. Usually a lot of grains, some veggies, cheese and occasionally meat. Dessert is usually cookies or ice cream or if I’m still hungry I’ll have a bowl of cereal. But I like my cereal cold so I put the cereal and bowl in the freezer, then top it with nut butter, honey and milk.”
“I really don’t have a typical daily menu,” says Stephanie.”I like to vary what I eat, so everyday is quite different. It also changes with the seasons. Right now it looks something like this:
Breakfast 1: (pre-run) coffee, smoothie, 2 pieces of toast with peanut butter and banana.
Breakfast 2: (post-workout): yogurt with nuts/seeds or homemade baked good + more coffee.
Snack: fruit or sweet potatoes (I always have roasted sweet potatoes on hand) a piece of toast with avocado.
Lunch: leftovers from dinner, topped with avocado and apple and yogurt and a homemade cookie or something.
Snack: if I’m at work I’ll eat a Kit’s Organic bar. At home I’ll have whatever sounds good. Sometimes (ok, often) it’s spoonfuls of peanut butter from the jar.
Dinner: Stephanie’s homemade creations. Usually some sort of vegetable, a grain, elk, lentils or eggs, topped with avocado, homemade sauce, or Flora 7 sources. Served with wine most nights.
Snack: ice cream topped with peanut butter (of course), dark chocolate + nuts, or whatever other goodies I’ve made for the week.”
4. Keep it simple.
While their caloric needs are significant, both Stephanie and David agree that keeping things simple is key. Their signature dishes? “I don’t know if I have a signature dish,” says Stephanie, “but my go-to dinner when I’m lacking creativity is a bunch of stir fried veggies (whatever we have in the fridge), rice or grains, topped with a poached egg and avocado. I call it a bowl. I probably eat this or a variation of it a couple times a week.”
David’s quick go-to meal is a Pesto Chicken Pizza. “You’re gonna roll out some dough, slather on the pesto, layer on some cheese, top with grilled red onions, peppers, chicken and anything else that particularly inspires you. “ Et, voila. “I guess I eat like a little kid a lot,” he says, which makes sense. Simple, delicious foods that can be pulled together in minutes.
5. Listen to YOUR body.
Above all else, these runners agree that, as an ultramarathoner, nutrition is personal. Their advice? “Don’t get caught up in what others are doing,” Stephanie advises. “My race day fueling plan is based off of my knowledge, and lots of trial and error. I like to think of the science as a template for runners to fill in their individual preferences. Your body knows what to do (truly!), you just have to learn to listen to it. Learning what it’s telling you takes time, patience, and effort but it’s worth it.”
David agrees, when it comes to nutrition, “There is so much misinformation out there that is hard to sort through what’s actually true,” says Stephanie. Don’t believe everything you hear; if it sounds too good to be true it generally is.”
Keeping ingredients and techniques simple in the kitchen, and learning to trust what you know, what your body is asking for, and decoding your own cravings are all important parts of finding a cooking and fueling strategy that works for you, whether you’re running ten miles a week, or one hundred miles; listen in, turn up the heat on the stove and get going!