Esther Atkins, USA Marathon runner and dietitian talks training and smart eating


Distance running takes a strong mindset. Esther Atkins, USA Marathon runner and dietitian, shares her insight on smart food choices, training and some guilty pleasures.

Determination, zeal and grit are common adjectives that describe distance runners. Esther Atkins and her passion for distance running goes beyond those adjectives. Having won the 2014 USA Marathon Championships and placed in the 2015 World Championships, her accolades are many. As she prepares to compete in the upcoming Brooklyn Half Marathon, she spoke with me about her food philosophy, eating plans and the one food that she avoids.

Personally, I admire distance runners. While I happily train for my local 5Ks, runners who tackle half and full marathons earn my respect. Although running often clears my mind, the concept of running 13 to 26 miles over several hours seems daunting. In some ways, that mental hurdle is taller than a hill at the end of a course.

While I might run so that I can eat that bowl of ice cream without a spoonful of guilt, elite distance runners eat for fuel. Often their diets are carefully crafted to assist with their training. The combination of carbs and proteins or just the total caloric intake is key to aid athletic performance.

Although each runner has her own approach to diets and training, listening to their thoughts and opinions on food can offer good lessons for the amateur runner like me. From a traditional pre-race meal to foods to avoid during training, these concepts can make a difference in just running and hitting a PR.

Recently, I had an opportunity to chat with Esther Atkins. The elite distance runner has some very real, approachable thoughts on food and training. While I don’t know if I can give up my occasional pale ale, her thoughts on food and training could help anyone who is looking to uncover that runner ready to hit the road.

Esther Atkins, 2017 Airbnb Brooklyn Half., photo provided by Esther Atkins

Below is a transcript of our conversation.

Cristine Struble: Marathon running seems like it would require significant calories, and maybe a lot of carbs, to sustain energy, can you share what you eat on a typical day?

Esther Atkins: When I’m in serious training, I usually wake up and have coffee with either a bowl of oatmeal on my longer, harder days or a banana with peanut butter on my shorter, easier days. When I get back from the run, I’ll eat something more substantial like a sandwich or bowl of rice with two fried eggs and maybe some greens and various sauces. I tend to snack all day and then for dinner we’ll usually have salad with coconut rice and meat.

CS: Do you have a cheat day? If so, what is your favorite cheat food or favorite indulgent?

EA: I don’t really have a cheat day because there aren’t really any rules for me to cheat on.

CS: Is there any food that you avoid during your training?

EA: The only thing I do avoid is alcohol. I’ve found that even two drinks can really mess with my sleep, and if there is one thing that is the most important for recovery between workouts and runs, it’s sleep. And since recovery is such a huge part of training, that’s really where I draw the line. But generally I don’t really have to cut myself off. All I do is remember the last time I had a restless night due to a second or third drink, and that does it for me.

CS: Does your diet change during your training? As you get closer to race day, do you eat more or less?

EA: If anything, as my mileage and intensity increases, I really try to make sure that instead of eating empty carbs I steer myself towards foods that will satiate and fuel me better. So when I have a craving for something sweet, instead if digging into the candy, I’ll reach for the greek yogurt and put some nuts, granola, honey, and fruit in it instead. Or instead of Chex Mix, I’ll go for a bowl of rice with an egg and cheese.

CS: Are there certain foods that are rich in nutrients that help with your performance or help you perform better?

EA: Honestly, I’d say that a good solid amount of carbs is the most important part of my diet. Rice is a huge staple for us, and it is not only a super easy fuel for us to digest and use, but I also find that when I have carbs closer to bed, my sleep is a lot better. Again, it all comes down to recovery.

CS: Do you have a ritual or a favorite meal that you always have before a big race?

EA: I started eating Pad Thai before big races back in 2012 and have done it ever since.

CS: What advice would you give to a younger runner who wants to keep improving? How can you encourage him to understand that nutrition is important?

EA: I always tell people that when you start training, don’t just decide “oh, I ran this much, so now I can eat this {garbage}.” Instead, keep listening to your body. As you get fitter, you’ll actually find your body wants cleaner fuel because the fried food and empty calories might taste good, but they don’t really fuel you as well on your next run. That doesn’t mean you should avoid all fried food or sweets either. Just don’t rely on it as your main source of fuel. And instead keep listening to the feedback your body is giving you on each run.

I would like to thank Esther Atkins for taking the time to chat with me and I wish her well in her upcoming races.

Related Story. Brogan Austin, elite distance runner talks cheat meals, training and his love of cereal. light

Do you have some some eating tips, tricks or advice for runners? Share your thoughts in the comments section or tag #FoodSided on social media.