The Way We Eat

Meet Colleen Quigley, the Professional Runner Powered by Granola, Quinoa Bowls — And Cake Truffles 

published Oct 3, 2021
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Colleen Quigley in front of building
Credit: Brooke Fitts

Name: Colleen Quigley
Location: Currently Portland, Oregon, but she’s moving to Los Angeles in October and recently bought a house in Flagstaff, Arizona, her new homebase for high-altitude training
Number of people who eat together in her home: Two — Colleen and her boyfriend, Kevin Conroy
Allergies and avoidances: Kevin is allergic to peanuts 

If you had told a middle-school Colleen Quigley that she’d one day compete in the Olympics, she would have laughed in your face. As a kid, the professional middle-distance runner from St. Louis, Missouri, enjoyed tap, jazz, and ballet but was too afraid of rejection to audition for the school musical. It wasn’t until her freshman year of high school that she joined cross country — and even then, it was just to get in shape for soccer tryouts. (Hating competition, though, she opted out of soccer and returned to track.) Eventually, she says, she “succumbed to running,” and had the good fortune of being mentored by her dad, who also happened to be the high-school coach. 

Colleen signed with West Model Management and Wilhelmina Models at age 13, which took her all over the world. As that career took off, her future started to take shape. The plan was to move to New York City after graduating high school — that is, until a track coach at Florida State University offered her a full-ride scholarship to pursue running. Looking back, Colleen says it was the best decision she ever made.

After winning an NCAA National Championship, Colleen signed a contract with Nike and joined the Bowerman Track Club in Portland, Oregon. She finished 12th in the 3000-meter steeplechase at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, eighth in the same event at the 2016 Summer Olympics, and first in the mile run at the 2019 USA Indoor Track and Field Championships. 

When she’s not pounding the pavement, leaving a trail of fire in her wake, Colleen loves sharing tips and advice for leading a healthful lifestyle with her 248,000 followers on Instagram. Cooking is a passion of hers, and she gleefully posts recipes for zucchini crust pizza, turkey quinoa burgers, and more on her website.

We called up Colleen in Portland to chat about quarantine cooking, foods that won’t zap your energy, and the worst thing to eat before a big race. 

Credit: Brooke Fitts

How long have you and Kevin been cohabitating?

We’ve been dating since 2009 but just started living together during quarantine. Before that, he was in Los Angeles and I was in Portland. 

Did you discover any interesting food habits of his that you didn’t know about until you lived together?

Kevin likes to cook, but he runs a business that focuses on renewable energy financing — so he’s very busy. What I’ve found out is that when he does cook for me, it’s all or nothing. He’ll be so into making filet mignon with scallops on the weekend, but he doesn’t want to do the 20-minute weeknight dinner. If he’s going to cook, it’s going to be a big deal. 

So Kevin goes all out on the weekends; what are your meals like Monday through Friday?

For breakfast, I do either oatmeal or avocado toast with my eggs over easy. It’s a good pre-workout dish for me because I know it will sit well in my stomach. 

Credit: Brooke Fitts

How do you like your oatmeal?

With nuts and seeds or almond butter and maybe a little brown sugar or maple syrup, just to spruce it up. But actually, my favorite thing to add is a scoop of chocolate protein powder. I work with Vital Proteins, which makes chocolate-, vanilla-, strawberry-, and coffee-flavored protein powders. It livens up the flavor. 

And you make your own granola too, right? 

I do. I make my own homemade granola because I can make it exactly the way that I want, with just the right amount of sweetener. I use coconut oil and maple syrup and whatever else I have on hand: almonds, walnuts, cashews, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, that kind of stuff.

Credit: Brooke Fitts

What’s a typical lunch?

Lunch is usually leftovers because it’s quick. After I come back from my workout, I’m hungry right away and don’t have the energy or time to cook anything. So I do a lot of leftover rice with grilled or baked veggies, and maybe throw an egg in there to repurpose it as fried rice. 

What would a typical weekday dinner be?

One of our favorite things is rice or quinoa power bowls. I pick a green or a few roasted vegetables — broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, mushrooms — and a couple of different toppings like shredded red cabbage or chopped-up roasted cashews for texture, and maybe Parmesan or goat cheese. Then we add a protein: grilled chicken, grilled fish, ground-up tempeh, or tofu. Put it all in a bowl, and then drizzle some sauce on it. The sauce might be a yogurt tahini herb sauce or a cashew butter sauce with a little maple syrup, curry powder, Sriracha, and water to make it runnier. That’s something I can whip up in 30 minutes. It feels really healthy and you’re getting all the nutrients you need, but the sauce makes it feel almost decadent. 

Where do you stand on dessert?  

I cut out most alcohol and dessert when I’m training hard for something like World Champs or the Olympics. They’re not great for helping you recover and fight inflammation, so I feel better when I don’t have that kind of stuff. But sometimes it’s worth it for the mental break of having a treat at the end of a long week of training. My go-to dessert is ice cream, especially Salt & Straw in Portland. My other favorite is Milk Bar. They have these truffle cake balls that you can buy from the grocery store now — they’re incredible. So yeah. If I’m gonna go for a treat, I’m gonna go big. 

Credit: Brooke Fitts

Amen. What do you find yourself snacking on when you are training?

I love yogurt. Granola is a great snack too. When I’m training hard, I might have whole milk Greek yogurt topped with granola and fresh berries for dessert. The other go-to in our house is my homemade hummus, which we eat with carrots or pretzels.

You mentioned steering clear of alcohol during training. Do you experiment with mocktails?

I’m not huge on mocktails because they often have a lot of sugar in them. Kombucha is a great replacement for me — and I get probiotics from it. We also have a sparkling water maker in our kitchen. Whenever I’m craving something bubbly, that with a squeeze of lemon or lime does the trick. 

Tell me a little about where you grew up, what that was like, and if you have any fond food memories from your childhood.

I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri — so, Midwest roots. Kevin as well. But I would say my family is very non-typical for a Midwest family. My parents are super granola; they would fit in better in California or Oregon. Our family followed a whole foods diet; there were not a lot of frozen foods or instant dinners. Both of my parents liked to cook, and I grew up with a big garden and chickens in the backyard, which was kind of a novelty. [That upbringing] definitely plays into how I approach food, nutrition, and cooking today.  

Credit: Brooke Fitts

Right. And I know you have a degree in dietetics. If you were already eating healthy as an adolescent, did your diet change all that much when you started training as an athlete?

Not really. As a kid, I sometimes pushed back against my parents’ really clean diet. We did trick-or-treating and ate ice cream sometimes, but we didn’t have a lot of sweets in the house and were only allowed to eat sugar cereals on our birthday. I pushed against that because I wanted to eat what other people around me were eating — Lunchables or whatever. I just wanted to fit in and hated that we were weird. But now that I’m older, I make the same choices for myself that my mom and dad made for me. 

I noticed you work with several food and wellness sponsors. How do you decide if a brand is right for you?

It’s funny. Whenever I post something like Vital Proteins’ recovery drink, people always ask me, “Do you actually use this stuff?” I’m like, “Of course!” I would never promote a brand I wouldn’t use on a regular basis and pay real money for. And I say this with a sense of gratitude, but I feel like I’m in a position where I can be choosy. I never want to break that trust with people who are following along and taking my advice. I have to feel confident about every brand I work with — that they’re a good company that makes good products, so I feel proud recommending them.

Are there any products you find yourself using so often, you’re like, “I should really be their mascot”? 

[Laughs] Oh my gosh, yeah! I have never worked with a sparkling water company, but I drink sparkling water every single day. It’d also be cool to work with a local produce company. I currently use Imperfect Foods for a lot of our weekly produce, because they deliver all this local surplus food that would otherwise go to waste. What you’re offered in Portland isn’t going to be the same as what you’re offered in LA — that’s pretty cool. 

Credit: Brooke Fitts

Do you also shop at brick-and-mortar supermarkets or farmers markets?

Yeah, we do everything. There’s a really cool farmers market in downtown Portland on Saturdays that has good produce, cheeses, local honey, stuff like that. And there’s one I already know of on Saturdays in Calabasas [in the San Fernando Valley] — that’s the biggest one I’ve ever been to.  

How often do you two eat out?

Kevin goes to Chipotle, like, three times a week for lunch. [Laughs] He’s not really good at eating leftovers; it’s much easier for him to just pick up a burrito. But we’ll usually go out to dinner once or twice a week — unless there’s a global pandemic, and then we get takeout.

What restaurants in Portland will you miss the most when you move to L.A.?

Ken’s Bakery, across the street from us, is one of our favorite things to do on a weekend — especially if I don’t have a long run. We’ll wake up, take the dog to the dog park, and then swing by and get a couple of fresh croissants. We bring them home and make egg-and-avocado breakfast sandwiches. I’m gonna miss that, for sure. There’s a bunch of good pizza in Portland, too: Oven and Shaker is one of our favorites. 

Credit: Brooke Fitts

You travel a lot as an athlete. Is it hard to balance your training diet with the desire to try new foods in every place you visit?  

I try not to get too crazy, especially if I’m there for a race or competition. I don’t want to eat anything I’ve never eaten before the night before a competition, not knowing how that’s gonna make me feel. 

Did you learn that the hard way?

[Laughs] No, luckily I’ve known that since high school. Like — don’t go out, don’t go crazy, don’t eat anything spicy or have a massive steak-and-potato dinner the night before a race. I do love trying different cuisines, but I wait until after the race is over to experiment.

Smart! I saw you were in Houston recently, going through some intense testing for pain that has been plaguing you these last few months. Are you comfortable talking about that?

I have dealt with a lot of injury issues in my career. But in the past, it was more cut-and-dry: You get an MRI, find out you have a stress fracture or something, and it’s like, OK, you just have to take time off so it will heal. Then you’ll be good to go. But I haven’t been able to figure out what exactly is causing the pain this time, which makes it frustrating because there’s no clear path to recovery.

Do you think there’s a connection between food and pain management?

Food is a source of fuel. It nourishes your body in a way that gives you all the nutrients you need to fight inflammation, recover from hard workouts, and get you ready for the next one. A good friend of mine, mountain biker Kate Courtney, was telling me how disappointed she was with a race at the Tokyo Olympics. Afterward, her nutritionist was just like, “You don’t need to worry about being on a really strict diet right now. You just need to fuel yourself in a way that makes you feel good. If you want ice cream, eat ice cream. Do whatever is good for your soul right now.”

She said that and I was like, “Yeah, I need to be doing that too sometimes.” Our lives are all about high performance and fueling yourself for optimal athletic performance, but sometimes you’re just having a rough go of it and need to find a little bit of joy wherever you can. If your joy is having pizza and ice cream, do what you gotta do. 

Credit: Brooke Fitts

So the takeaway here is … Salt & Straw for everyone?

Yeah, absolutely. [Laughs] For her and for me and for you — do whatever you need to do to get through it.