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Appetite of a Champion: Endurance Athletes and What They Eat

Photo by Jack Goras Photography

Whether you run 50 miles a week or none at all, you can learn from some dietary tips from some of the fittest athletes on Earth. These athletes have to prepare for events and fueling up is paramount.

Two champions gave some insight into what they eat. They are: Ryan Atkins, a three-time World’s Toughest Mudder winner, back-to-back Spartan Ultra World Champion in 2018 and 2019, and the 2021 Spartan World Champion, and Rea Kolbl, winner of every race over eight hours that she has entered including back-to-back World’s Toughest Mudder wins in 2017 and 2018, and Spartan Ultra wins in 2019 and 2021. She was also a member of the second-place team with Atkins at “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji,” which is available to stream on Amazon Prime. 

What do you eat the week before an event?

Kolbl: “I don’t change my diet for events. I try my best to fuel for the day: eat enough of everything every day to support my training. I always eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Each of the meals have all macronutrients, with the amount/proportions changing to account for my training. My typical breakfast is oats with fruits, nuts, and maple syrup; lunch varies depending on what I’m doing, what leftovers are left in the fridge, and how hungry I am. Dinner is typically either rice or pasta with veggies and meat. I usually end the day with dessert, my favorite being ice cream and dark chocolate. On race weeks I pay more attention to getting in enough carbs and protein, and try to always have an Ascent protein shake after workouts, even if they’re not hard.”

What do you eat the day of an event?

Atkins: “Before an event, I usually eat white rice, with some almond butter and coconut oil and a bit of salt. About two to three hours before the event starts.”

Kolbl: “I always try to wake up at least 2 hours before the event and have a small breakfast. Oatmeal is usually my go-to. When races are really early I sometimes have an energy bar instead, looking for something that has some protein along with carbs (Spring Energy Nature Up bar is currently my favorite). And I always start my day with coffee. Immediately after the race I always have either Ascent protein recovery shake or recovery water; something with a good amount of protein and some carbs to immediately jump-start recovery process. Then I try to get a bigger meal in whenever it’s convenient, and whatever I crave.”

Photo by Jack Goras Photography

What do you eat in the days following to replenish what was lost during the event?

Atkins: “After the race, I will usually eat a smoothie, or something easily digested, but with some protein. In the days following an event, I will just eat normal healthy foods. Salads, lean protein and usually something tasty.”

Kolbl: “I try to always fuel enough during a race that I don’t end up in a huge calorie deficit. I also usually follow up the race with a bigger meal the day off. This allows me to return to my regular diet after the event and also speeds up recovery since my body is never too depleted from an event. For races that are longer and inevitably land me in a calorie deficient state (24-hour races or longer), rather than compensating with food I compensate by decreasing the amount of exercise after. I snack more often and eat bigger meals like I would for days when I’m training long or hard, and since I’m not training hard (or at all) all the nutrients and calories can go into replenishing what was lost.”

Do you have a favorite post-event meal as a celebratory meal?

Atkins: “Not really. Probably a burger with friends.”

Kolbl: “It really depends on the race; how long it was, whether I was hot or cold during, etc. Usually burger or pizza are what I crave, and in the hot summer months fruits and ice cream. But I tend to just respond to my body cues for what it wants, while making sure I’m getting calories in regardless.”

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Appetite of a Champion: Endurance Athletes and What They Eat