Brett Ely is an elite marathon runner for Team Run Eugene and New Balance. She just completed her 4th Olympic Marathon Trials last week in LA with a very strong performance. Brett’s physical and mental strength show every day in her training as she balances her work on the roads, trails and track with working towards her PhD.
Brett majored in Nutrition in her undergraduate studies and lives a vegetarian lifestyle that powers her through marathon cycles. Brett shares her experience with team culture and food on her college team and shares comparison with her ‘Collegiate diet’ vs. ‘Pro diet’.
Note the changes she makes that allow her to train at the level of a strong, accomplished professional runner. Thanks Brett for sharing your knowledge and experience!
I was a mediocre high school runner who just barely scraped her way onto a Division I team. I was honored and intimidated and watched every move of every good runner in an attempt to absorb some of the greatness I witnessed around me. I learned about the little things: I had never before seen a foam roller or an ice bath. I learned what pool running was, and that I should probably show up at workouts in running shorts rather than the boxers I used to wear under my field hockey skirt. We gathered for post-workout meals and I carefully examined what every ‘fast’ woman was eating. I still remember the are-you-actually-going-to-eat-that-we-only-ran-50 minutes-today horror on their faces when I made a Belgian waffle and topped it with soft-serve ice cream and chocolate syrup after eating a full dinner. I had some learning to do, apparently. I learned that salad dressing=no. Cereal=dessert. Cheese was an inedible garnish on pizza that should be peeled away before consuming. Skim milk and water were the only acceptable beverage choices. A Powerbar was the perfect race-day breakfast. Salad should be consumed with every meal. A weekly frozen yogurt was the height of indulgence. And so, I set out to add the perfect runner’s diet to the list of things that would make me a better athlete. I adopted every one of these behaviors with the sincere desire to be healthy, fit, and strong like the women I admired. These women had no idea I was watching them. Each had found their own formula for success, and there were many positive behaviors—eating and otherwise–to emulate as well.
I spent most of my college career on the sidelines, constantly injured while trying so hard to be healthy. I majored in dietetics (nutrition) and most of what I read actually supported the way I ate: runners need carbohydrate, not fat. If you wanted strong bones, you needed to eat calcium. Pre-packaged energy bars were perfect, convenient runner food.
I’m not suggesting my injuries were solely the result of diet, and my diet wasn’t horrible. It was just marginally inadequate for the amount I was running and I had no idea this was the case until I changed it.
Once I was out of school, cooking entirely for myself and training for my first marathon, I started grocery shopping with a newfound blend of ‘I know this is healthy’ and ‘I actually really like this food.’ The biggest changes I made were making more things from scratch, cutting down on processed food, and eating more fat. I learned to love cooking and experimenting in the kitchen, and figured out that stir fried vegetables tasted much better when I used a tablespoon of olive oil rather than a squirt of fat-free cooking spray.
My body responded by feeling full of energy, recovering between workouts, having a regular menstrual cycle for the first time in years. I did not gain any weight. In fact, I probably eat twice as much as I did in college and I’m actually a little leaner now. It was never about weight—it was about trying to do things right but having no idea what the right thing was. It was participating in a team culture of not enjoying food, and thinking only about whether something would help my running.
I still care about performance and still try to give my body high-quality fuel, but I have also realized that if you are doing that most of the time, you feel no guilt or shame about sometimes getting the fries instead of the salad or eating real, honest-to-goodness-cake on a friend’s (or co-worker, or casual acquaintance, or friends pet’s) birthday. My diet isn’t perfect, but that isn’t the goal. If I had to pass some pieces of dietary wisdom on, they wouldn’t relate to the exact number of grams of protein you need or the acceptable amount of cookies in your diet. It would look something more like this list:
–Have staples in your grocery cart every week that you know you can use to prepare healthy meals.
sweet potatoes, quinoa, tempeh, avocado, beets, baby spinach, fresh-baked bread, black beans, almond milk, nut butter.
–Branch out and try new things.
The best way to ensure you’re getting a variety of nutrients is by trying new fruits, vegetables, proteins, and grains. I go to the Farmers Market all summer and try to pick out one new fruit or vegetable every time I’m there. They aren’t all winners (I’m looking at you, Dandelion greens), but some have become my new go-to favorites (Rainbow Chard).
–Don’t skimp on fat.
Some research has suggested that fat intake is an important predictor of menstrual health and bone health, as much or more so than body fat. Cook with oils, add nuts and seeds to meals and snacks. Even leave the cheese on the pizza!
Take the time to prepare a full meal, sit down and eat it slowly. Prepackaged energy bars and meals are fine occasionally, but unless you’re an astronaut, you shouldn’t be relying in them.
–Leave a little room for treats.
Savor good dark chocolate. Eat an occasional cinnamon bun. Whatever your favorite indulgence is, know that you’ll enjoy having a small amount every day or treating yourself once a week more than you’ll enjoy trying to replace it with something you perceive as healthy. Cereal is great, but let’s be honest…cereal ≠ dessert.
–Find your own way, and set your own example.
If you are part of a college or professional team, know that the choices you make contribute to the culture of your team. Understand that there may be an awkward freshman watching you, and consider the example you are setting. If she looks around and sees healthy, strong women who appreciate their bodies AND appreciate a good meal, you can have a positive and powerful impact on her mindset, her health, and her future.
A day in the life of ‘College Brett’ (running 60-80 miles/week)
*Note: all measurements are approximate. The only time I weigh/measure food is if I’m following a recipe.
Breakfast: 1 cup Special K cereal with banana slices and a cup of lowfat vanilla soymilk.
Lunch: 6-inch veggie sub on whole wheat bread with ~1tbsp hummus and 1 tbsp fat-free dressing, fat-free soy yogurt, 1 low-fat brownie.
Snack: Chocolate Chip Clif Bar, apple.
Dinner: 1.5 cups black beans and brown rice with salsa, bell peppers, and onion
2c baby spinach salad with tomatoes and fat-free balsamic vinaigrette.
Dessert: 1 cup chocolate soymilk
2 graham crackers with peanut butter, banana, and honey
A Day in the life of ‘Post-Collegiate Brett’ (running 80-100 miles/week)
Breakfast: 2-3 cups* Beet Berry smoothie (recipe below)
2 slices whole grain toast with 1/2 avocado
Snack: 3 carrot cake power cookies (recipe below)
Lunch: 1.5 cup leftover sweet potato bowl (roasted sweet potato, tempeh, kale, snow peas, covered in peanut sauce)* I always make extra dinner and pack it up for a healthy lunch the next day. I can do the occasional cold sandwich for lunch, but I prefer eating a real meal.
1 pear with almond butter
3/4 c plain coconut milk yogurt mixed with 1/4 c pumpkin puree and pumpkin pie spice
Snack: 1/4c raw nuts with a few chocolate chips mixed in
Cucumber, celery, and pita chips dipped in hummus
Dinner: 2-3 cups Thai ginger stew (recipe follows)
2 pieces sourdough toast dipped in olive oil and sea salt (eaten while cooking)
Dessert: 70% dark chocolate
Beet Berry Smoothie
I’m a busy PhD student, and I eat this more out of convenience than anything. I often run very early in the morning, and this is a quick way to get carbohydrates and protein (and fruits and veggies!) into my system as I rush to school. Beets have some natural sweetness, and also have compounds associated with cardiovascular health (lowering blood pressure) and exercise performance (possibly improving blood flow to active muscles). Chia seeds are a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids. The protein I use is a blend of vegetable sources (pea, hemp, rice). Since I’m vegan, I try to make sure I get protein from a variety of vegetable sources, not just soy.
½ c frozen mixed berries
1 medium beet (roasted and peeled)
Handful of baby spinach
1 tbsp chia seeds
1.5 c unsweetened almond milk
1 scoop Vega clean protein powder
Carrot Cake Power Cookies
I set out with the goal making my own energy bars, and wanted to add vegetables while keeping them tasty. Carrot cake was an easy starting point. Nearly all of the sugar comes from fruit (dates, applesauce), with a small amount in the ginger. I used oat flour because it has a bit more protein, and I have several friends who avoid gluten so I try to be inclusive. I have no issues with gluten and am a proud bread and pasta-loving Italian girl.
4-5 medium carrots, shredded
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 cup whole oats, lightly ground
5-6 dates, chopped in small pieces
1/3 cup crystallized unsulphured ginger
1 tbsp ground flax or chia seeds
½ cup chopped walnuts
1 tsp Cinnamon
Blend oats in a Ninja/bullet blender for 4-5 seconds so that some whole oats remain but the mixture appears flour-y. Mix together carrots, applesauce, dates, ginger, flax, cinnamon and walnuts, then slowly add oat mixture until the consistency looks like cookie dough. Drop ~2 tbsp of batter onto a cookie sheet and bake at 325 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Cookies should be soft, but hold together. Makes about a dozen.
Thai Ginger Soup
This is the soup I made regularly when I was recovering from navicular surgery. I knew the protein (tofu), calcium (bok choy), and vitamin D (mushrooms) would help rebuild bone and muscle, and the ginger acts as an anti-inflammatory agent.
1 block extra-firm tofu
1 sweet onion, cut in thin slices
1 tbsp olive oil
½ tbsp. toasted sesame oil
1 c white mushrooms, sliced
1-2 tbsp minced ginger (about 1-inch piece of fresh ginger peeled and finely chopped)
5-6 heads of baby bok choy
1 package bean sprouts
1c shredded carrots
Any other veggies: celery, bell peppers, Napa cabbage, and broccoli have all found their way into this soup!
1 tbsp white miso
1 tsp chili paste
1 package rice noodles or soba noodles
~10 leaves of Thai Basil, cut into small ribbons
3-4 scallions, chopped.
Tamari and chili paste to taste (depending on how salty or spicy you like your food)
Cut the tofu into small cubes and saute along with the onion in a large pan or wok. Once the tofu is lightly browned and the onions are translucent, add the mushrooms and continue to cook for a few more minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables and ginger, and enough water to cover (~5-6 cups—you can also use miso broth or vegetable broth in place of water and omit the miso). Once the water is hot, add the miso and chili paste, and cook until vegetables are tender. Add the noodles to the boiling soup and cook according to package instructions. Top with fresh scallions and Thai basil, and season with Tamari and chili paste to taste. You can vary the amount of water and make this a brothier soup, but I keep it pretty dense and eat it as a stew.
Note: Every athlete is different. Different mileage, intensity and strength work require different fueling. Brett has learned the needs of her body as a proffesional marathon runner. Brett’s aim is to have enough energy to put in the work load on and off the track, and also enough for her body to recover and be healthy. Some thing we can all learn from here.