What Training for an Ironman Taught Me About Food

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Spend eight months training for a race where you swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles, and top it off with running 26.2 miles, and I guarantee you’ll learn a lot more about yourself than you expect. I sure did.

What I didn’t quite expect is the way that training for an Ironman reshaped the way I thought about food. It also gave me some of the best kitchen lessons I’ve ever had. Turns out, participating in a 140.6-mile race is one of the best ways to perfect meal planning, figure out what kitchen tools are essential, and decide how to stock a pantry for success. This is what I learned on my Ironman journey.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

When Food Becomes Fuel

Cooking for me has largely been about pleasure, adventure, learning, and exploration. After all, I write about it for a living. But there was another part of my life — one that I’m equally passionate about — that demanded a different type of cooking. Training for an Ironman means I need my food to function as fuel. What I put into my body powered my workouts, aided my recovery, powered the next workout, and promoted better sleep. Quality in meant quality out. When the primary point of what you cook and eat needs to help produce a result, it limits how often you can cook and eat for adventure or pleasure. This was a tough thing to reconcile.

So I shifted my thinking and decided to do what I had to do in service of training for an Ironman. The first thing I had to address in this journey of food as fuel was meal planning.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Meal Planning Was No Longer Optional

With varying results, my past approach towards dinner was mostly to wing it. I tried meal planning about a dozen times in the past but just couldn’t stick with it.

After hitting a low point that resulted in hangry bickering with my husband, more slices of crappy pizza than I care to admit, and resorting to Chipotle and Seamless, I vowed this would be the year of change. It had to be if we had any hope of completing an Ironman.

Nearly all of our time and energy was getting dumped into training. We needed a system to keep healthy meals at the ready to carry us through from breakfast to bedtime. Since schedules were the key to success with work and training, schedules were going to have to work with meal planning. And they did.

Sunday Meal Prep Is Sacred

Second to my long run, the most important part of Sunday was meal prep. It took one or two missteps, but I learned the only way I’d see the benefit of meal planning and a Saturday night at the grocery store was if meal prep followed.

I spent more time in the kitchen on Sunday than any other day of the week, and the dividends were huge. It meant a week of grab-and-go breakfasts, easy-to-make salads and grain bowls for lunch, and make-ahead dinners.

(Image credit: Regina Yunghans)

Know Which Kitchen Tools Are Indispensable

In addition to my swim goggles, bike, and running shoes, I’d like to include kitchen tools in my list of Ironman training essentials. Turns out just as important as training my body was fueling my body, and of all the tools and appliances in my kitchen, there were seven I reached for on a constant basis to bring meals and snacks to the table.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

The Value of a Well-Stocked Pantry

I use the term “pantry” to describe more than my cabinet of canned food, rice, and pasta. It’s the larger assortment of core foods my husband and I eat week in and week out, made up of canned and dry goods, as well as refrigerator and freezer staples.

Training for an Ironman reminded me how much I really rely on these foods to get meals on the table for my family. Not only does keeping my kitchen stocked make meal prep a more seamless process, but it also makes grocery shopping easier since I’m buying the same items every week.

(Image credit: Sarah E Crowder)

The Importance of Keeping a Roster of Recipes Handy

I’ve always opted for variety over cooking the same recipes repeatedly, but that was the cooking-for-pleasure side of me speaking. Training for an Ironman had me singing a much different tune — namely that there’s a lot to be said for recipe repetition when the priority is functional eating, efficiency, and time management.

Whether it was sheet pan meals, frittatas, slow cooker stew, or chicken in the pressure cooker, keeping a small, personalized roster of recipes on repeat turned out to be the gift that kept on giving. It meant knowing exactly which ingredients we needed (and keeping them stocked in the pantry), what to expect from each meal, and, best of all, it meant being familiar enough with the dish to cook it without having to look at a recipe.

Cooking After Ironman

Now that the race is behind me, my view of cooking and eating has shifted yet again. It was seamless and happened so organically and without conscious thought. My diet has slowly become less about function and viewing food as fuel, and more about revisiting cookbooks and finally diving back into my ever-growing stack of recipes to try.

That hardly means I’ve totally abandoned what I learned during those months of training. Meal planning and Sunday prep are here to stay, albeit slightly modified. After experiencing the benefits, it’s been easy to incorporate into my regular weekly routine. With more free time on my hands, I’ve been able to ease back on the amount of prep and use the time I spend in the kitchen to begin feeding my curiosity again.

The Ironman Kitchen

I started training for my first Ironman in January 2016 and quickly learned that, in addition to all the swimming, biking, and running, nutrition and diet would be just as important to make it across the finish line. This series details the kitchen lessons that fueled my journey. It turns out a 140.6-mile race is one of the best ways to perfect meal planning, figure out what kitchen tools are essential, and decide how to stock a pantry for success.