The Best Foods for Energy and Recovery, According to Runners, Cyclists, and Triathletes
Published on April 4, 2017
Last updated May 2, 2021
By Megan O. Steintrager
Spring is here, and along with warmer, longer days (woo-hoo!) comes the desire to amp up fitness. Whether you’re training for something or just looking to improve your health, food is an important part of the equation. We quizzed a dream team of experts — including world-class runner Shalane Flanagan; triathlete and chef Jared Simons of L.A.’s No Name restaurant; and cyclist and registered dietician Matthew Kadey — about their best foods for energy and for recovery. Here’s what they have to say
1. Oats, Oats, and More Oats
Not surprisingly, oatmeal is a go-to breakfast for all three pros. It’s convenient, cheap, easy to cook and digest, and, as a whole-grain, complex carb, oats provide sustained energy. For Flanagan, an Olympic medalist and and co-author of Run Fast Eat Slow: Nourishing Recipes for Athletes, that means her Race Day Oatmeal, with bananas, nuts or nut butter, raisins or fresh berries, cinnamon, and milk of your choice. “My pre-workout meal is the same as my pre-race,” adds Flanagan, an Olympic medalist Her favorite way to fuel with oats is in the book, called Race Day Oatmeal, and it includes bananas, nuts or nut butter, raisins or fresh berries, cinnamon, and a milk of your choice (such as almond).a
After a workout, look to meals or snacks that provide a combo of healthy carbs to replenish your glycogen stores, high-quality protein to repair muscles, and plenty of produce to fight inflammation. Both Flanagan and her cookbook co-author, chef and nutrition coach Elyse Kopecky, turn to eggs after a tough workout. “My go-to post-run recovery meal is two local eggs scrambled with spinach, Parmesan, and avocado with leftover sweet potato fries or whole-grain toast with butter,” Kopecky says. Flanagan mixes it up by sometimes having a hearty grain salad with roasted vegetables and steak or chicken for lunch.
3. Plant-Based Foods
Nuts and nut butter and legumes are favorite protein sources for these pros; they all turn to whole grains and fresh and dried fruit for carbohydrates. “I am a plant-based eater, so generally speaking, I am eating many fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that benefit working out,” says Simons, who is currently training for Chefs Cycle, a fundraising event for No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit dedicated to ending childhood hunger. Kadey, who is also the author of Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sports and Adventure, says the perfect day of eating for him is one in which he’s enjoyed “whole foods like nut butters, whole grains, and fruit.” He loves his Cherry Mojito Popsicles (pictured above).
After very hard workouts, it’s important to refuel quickly to help your body repair itself. If you don’t have time to cook a full meal, take a cue from the pros. “When made right, a smoothie can give you a bunch of recovery nutrients,” says Kadey. Flanagan also craves smoothies after hard sessions, and both she and Kopecky are partial to the Can’t Beet Me smoothie from their book, which combines beets, blueberries, banana, coconut water, almond butter, and ginger. “Post workouts I am generally in a hurry to get to work,” says Simons, so he whirs together a smoothie with plenty of whole fruits and vegetables, plus superfoods such as maca, chia seeds, or açaí. “If it’s a heavy training session, I will [have] some toasted [sprouted whole grain] Ezekiel bread with almond butter” on the side, he says. “The combo ensures I get some protein for recovery and carbohydrates to keep powering through the day.”
5. Healthy Fats
Don’t limit yourself to boneless, skinless chicken breasts, egg whites and dry toast. “A balanced diet rich in good fats is essential for bone health, hormone health, heart health, brain health, and a healthy metabolism,” Kopecky explains. Some of her go-to fat sources include virgin coconut oil, nuts, seeds, extra-virgin olive oil, avocados, pasture-raised eggs, grass-fed red meat, organic dark meat chicken, canned sardines in olive oil, and whole-milk dairy, including grass-fed butter and ghee, aged cheese, and whole-milk yogurt. Flanagan points out that she starts her day with coffee with real cream, while Kopecky goes for whole milk yogurt rather than low-fat for her breakfast muesli bowl.
More Good Advice
1. Listen to your body.
This is always important, especially if you’re juicing up your fitness routine. “If you are more hungry than normal, you may need more fuel in response to training,” says Kadey.
2. Stop counting calories.
“Eat mindfully and get back in touch with listening to your body’s hunger signals,” says Kopecky. These might feel difficult at first, but the more you clean up your diet, the easier it will become. “You will be able to pick up on the physical and mental changes and continue to fine tune for your needs,” adds Simons.
3. Get in the kitchen!
Don’t just lace up your sneakers, lace up your apron. “Outside of running more miles, the single greatest thing an athlete can do to improve their performance, and their long-term health and happiness, is to learn to cook,” says Kopecky. And there’s no time like now to start cooking more. “Spring is the perfect time to seek out a local farmer’s market for the freshest and most nutrient dense ingredients.”