Inside the Diet of an Elite Marathoner: How Ariana Hilborn Fuels Her Workouts

On February 28, Ariana Hilborn won the Phoenix Half Marathon by over three minutes in 1:14:52 – averaging 5:43 per mile for over 13 miles.

A week later, she placed second at the Mountain to Fountain 15k in 53:03.

Ariana Hilborn

Impressed? Me too!

Ariana Hilborn is a professional distance runner for the Sonoran Distance Project in Phoenix Arizona. Previously a member of the Hansons Brooks professional team, she is now coached by John Reich and is sponsored by Brooks and Garden of Life.

She started running in 2007 and debuted with a 4:36 marathon. But within three years, she completely transformed her running: in 2011, she qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials, beating the “A” Standard of 2:39:00. Her current marathon personal best is 2:35:20 set at the Twin Cities Marathon in 2014.

Her other personal bests include:

  • 5k: 16:59 (road)
  • 10k: 34:53 (road)
  • 10-mile: 57:56
  • Half-Marathon: 1:14:22

Now, she’s training for several spring races including the Eugene Half Marathon with the goal of running a fall marathon.

In this article, you’ll see exactly how an elite female runner eats during peak training: from her pre-run fuel, lunch, and dinner, even her alcoholic beverage of choice.

I’m sharing this with you today because there’s a lot to learn from what the best runners in the world eat on a daily basis.

And like the vast majority of professional runners, Ariana follows a few simple rules:

  • She doesn’t count calories, fret over nutrient percentages, or “score” her food in any way
  • She doesn’t follow any specific “diet”
  • She eats animal products like meat and dairy
  • She eats a lot of carbohydrate

These high level lessons can help all of us understand what an optimal diet looks like for endurance runners.

But this is not a meal plan that you should copy. Ariana has found what works best for her – and you should too, since we all respond to food differently.

The goal with this article is to illustrate the practical implications of the food principles we’ve found to work best with runners.

These are the same principles in Nutrition for Runners, which you can learn more about here by downloading a free audio seminar with Anne Mauney, RD (the program’s co-author) and myself.

For anyone hoping to to optimize their marathon training diet, I hope this case study is helpful.

Ariana’s “Easy Day” Diet

Below is a sample of a typical day’s diet for Ariana on an easy day when she’s not running a workout or long run.

Keep in mind that when she recorded this food log, she was running 90 miles per week with several fast workouts.

Pre-run: Coffee with almond milk creamer and 12 ounces of water

Run: 8 miles at an easy pace

Breakfast: Generation UCAN chocolate protein smoothie with one banana, 1/2 cup Greek yogurt, 1 tablespoon Udo’s oil, and 2 tablespoons of Dark Chocolate Dreams Peanut Butter

Lunch: Turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese, one banana, Noosa Yoghurt, and one chocolate chip cookie. Also: Iron and Vitamin B12 supplements.

Snack: 12 ounces Green Juice (grapefruit, spinach, lettuce, cucumber, ginger, green apple), 1/2 cup tropical trail mix, iced tea.

Run: 30 minutes at an easy pace

Dinner: Dinner salad: greens, carrots, cabbage, and mushrooms. Red curried lentils with one cup rice and one Swami’s IPA beer.

Ariana’s Diet on a Workout Day

Here you’ll see a typical meal schedule for Ariana on a day when she’s running a challenging workout. Notice how this also includes a second run later in the day and a strength routine.

Pre-run (5am): 1 serving Generation UCAN with 12 ounces water (Tropical Orange is her favorite) and one cup of coffee with almond milk creamer.

Workout: Warm-up + 1 PowerBar gel (with caffeine). 3 x 2-miles with 1:00 rest + cool-down.

Post-run: Generation UCAN chocolate protein with 16 ounces of water

Breakfast: One banana and a Generation UCAN bar

Gym: 30 minute strength routine

Lunch: Turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese, lemon Noosa Yoghurt, and dark chocolate almond milk. Also: Iron and Vitamin B12 supplements.

Snack: One cup tropical trail mix, Green Juice (same as above), iced tea.

Run: 30 minutes at an easy pace

Dinner: Asian Noodle Salad from Kris Carr’s cookbook and one Swami’s IPA beer.

What Can We Learn From the Diet of an Elite Marathoner?

Like I mentioned, it would be unrealistic to copy Ariana’s diet. Just like it would be silly to copy her workout schedule.

But there are timeless principles and lessons we can draw from this example so that we can better plan our own diets.

Here’s what I see:

  1. At no point does Ariana go for a long period of time without eating. She eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner PLUS a snack and pre / post-run fueling.
  2. Her fueling strategy changes on days when she’s running hard.
  3. She doesn’t “back-load” her food intake with most of it coming at dinner and afterward with evening snacks.
  4. She enjoys a beer with dinner (I was so happy to see this – plus, she loves IPA’s, my beer of choice so I’m just thrilled).
  5. There’s little to no processed foods in her diet.
  6. She isn’t on a low-carb, high-fat, or some other fad diet.

What do you notice about her diet?

I’d love to hear what YOU think about this diet. As always, keep it positive 🙂

What’s absent from this diet?

What’s surprisingly included in her diet?

Is there anything that surprises you?

Would you like to see more of these diet case studies?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

And if you really want to geek out on diet, get our free nutrition e-course here (audio seminars, sample recipes, case studies, and a lot more).

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Comments

  1. Hi,
    Re. point 3: “She doesn’t “back-load” her food intake with most of it coming at dinner and afterward with evening snacks.”
    Sorry, being at bit slow here, but could you clarify what you mean by this, please.
    Many thanks.

    • Meaning, she doesn’t eat a majority of her daily food at dinner and later in the evening. This is a common problem for runners who under-eat during the day by having a small breakfast (or none at all) with a light lunch. Ariana “front-loads” her daily food intake so more of it comes in the morning and afternoon.

      • Thanks – I thought that’s what you meant but wasn’t sure. Must confess that I “back-load” probably out of habit more than anything. Btw: great article; interesting to see the variation between easy and hard days and the use of protein shakes.

  2. Christine says:

    Any reason why she would take a B12 supplement even though she’s consuming meat protein sources and protein smoothies?

    • No guarantee that there’s B12 in her protein smoothies (haven’t checked the label). But she might take it on recommendation from her Doctor after testing or as a preventive measure – running 80-90 miles per week requires extra nutrition insurance!

  3. Marcela says:

    Hi Jason,
    Thanks for sharing.
    Nutrition is such an important key for success.
    Wow! is very impressive she went from 4:30 marathoner to an elite runner.
    I am going to keep it positive:
    You said she does not eat process food, but what is generation UCAN? in my opinion: process food.
    I also see from her log that she gets all her protein and vitamins intake mostly from such supplements.
    What about eggs? sweet potatoes? beets? quinoa? mix berries? almonds? chicken? salmon? real food? what is your opinion on that?
    Yes. I would love to read more about nutrition. about Generation UCAN and other supplements and specially how do you fuel during the marathon.
    Do you think nutrition was key for her to become a faster runner? 4:30s to 2:30s is really a big jump.
    Thanks

    • Yes, you’re right that the protein powders/bars are processed. Though I put them into the “fueling” category rather than the “diet” category so you can be more liberal with what you eat. And running 80-90 miles per week sure does give you some flexiblity!

      Keep in mind this is just a snapshot over two days. I’m sure Ariana eats a lot more varied foods if we were to look at her diet over a week or month.

      Nutrition was important to her success I’m sure, but this level of improvement is likely caused by her uncovering a lot of innate talent (and more hard work than you can imagine).

  4. This is super interesting and I would be more interested in seeing/hearing more elite diets. I think in this day and age everyone has a recommendation for food. For the most part, we don’t need to exclude certain food groups.

    It might just be Ariana’s diet (which is clearly working for her) but I didn’t see a lot of bread and did see less carbohydrates than I would have expected!

  5. Obviously her diet is working for her with times like that! Fantastic! But I agree with Marcela, she is missing a lot of real food. Veggies & whole protein sources. I looked up the UCAN Generation protein powder and it doesn’t contain a lot of protein per serving.
    That was really a good article! I would love to see more nutrition articles.
    Thanks for always coming up with different articles for your readers!

  6. I’m interested in seeing more elites diets’ definitely. Please make sure to include plenty of women and plenty of Masters – and ask them how their diet has changed as they got older and why, and what the effects were.

    Ariana (from reading on her blog and hearing her on Runner Academy podcast a while ago and on the Athlete on Fire podcast most recently) has gone through a lot of trial and error with her fueling to get to this point, so I’m glad she’s found something that’s working for her. (If you’re interested in her story and journey as a runner, I’d recommend those 2 podcasts.)

    Diet and nutrition is so individual, especially once you get into fueling during exercise. I tried UCAN a few times and despite really wanting it to work, didn’t have luck with it. I have so much left I may try again because I want it to work (Meb uses it and Greg McMillan now recommends it) and because it makes sense it should work, but it just may not work for me. (also, I have a number of dietary restrictions that narrow my options)

    Can you clarify if she is now sponsored by UCAN and/or PowerBar? I always find that info helpful, and think it should be clear whenever a specific product is mentioned.

    I’d like to know what elites eat and use for fueling when they have to pay for it themselves!

    Thanks for making this info available.

  7. I’m glad to see she eats real food and doesn’t “count calories”, although with this sample menu, doesn’t seems like she’d have too. Not a lot of calories there. Makes sense that harder work days require different fueling. I also didn’t see that she fueled after her easy run. No need, I presume! Also glad to see she eats meat and dairy. Both are yummy.

    I don’t see any cookies, cake or ice cream in her diet. Maybe that’s why I haven’t run under 20 minutes for 5k, lol.

    I know it’s not the topic at hand, but I am amazed at the “completely transformed her running” part and went from 4:36 to 2:35. I am very curious about this part of the story! That is just astounding.

  8. Please post more of these!

  9. I’m always curious as to the nutrition habits of elite runners – both female and male. Glad to see a balanced diet with some room for the occasional treat and alcoholic beverage 🙂 Had a question on the green juice though – does she use a blender for this or a juicer? (If a juicer, what kind?) I’ve been trying to get in more greens and veggies!

  10. Stephanie says:

    The suprising thing to me about Ariana’s meal plan is that it doesn’t seem like enough. When I’m marathon training, it seems like I’m ravenous all the time. She doesn’t have nearly enough snacks in there! I keep bags of apples at work, raisins in my purse, jars of peanuts everywhere. Obviously I’m overeating!
    And, I am a huge fan of Generation U Can, I used it instead of GU during my last marathon training.

  11. Ariana Hilborn says:

    Hey guys! Thanks for the great feedback!

    Jenn- I use a masticating juicer for my green drinks.

    Like Jason said, this is just a snapshot. I eat a ton of fruits, veggies, carbs, and treats, especially after my weekend long run. 🙂 I am a huge fan of eggs, sweet potatoes, salmon, chicken, etc. Some days our dinners are toward the Vegan spectrum, some days we make steak on the grill. My husband and I like to cook so our dinners are always varied. Hope this helps to clear things up. Find what works for you, what works for your running, and what makes you feel the best!

    • Marcela says:

      Thank you Ariana,
      I actually went through your whole blog and got tons of information. I will keep track. you have not write about your mile race yet or I could not find it.
      thanks for sharing your food intake. Most of elite runners dont give such a good detail.
      Congratulations on your records.
      you are a lucky one that can go out to make your dreams a reality. when you have other commitments (like children and living in an expensive city) is hard to achieve.
      Thanks again and congratulations on your performance!

    • Thanks, Ariana!! I may have to snag one of those juicers at some point – especially with the farmers markets opening up soon – lots of great opportunities for fresh, healthy greens! Maybe a mother’s day present for me. Thanks again for being so open and sharing your diet with us!

  12. It really does not like near enough carbohydrates for someone running 80-100 miles a week with intensity especially with you pointing out that her diet is not low carbohydrate. This snapshot of her diet for that mileage looks pretty low carbohydrate and low in overall calories.

  13. I wouldn’t agree that she eats minimal processed food with all the Generation UCAN refueling going on (I’d never heard of that product before today). I looked up the ingredients in that and in the PowerBarl gel and I wouldn’t touch either with a 10 foot pole (tons of hidden GMO ingredients). But, all the rest of her food sounds really yummy! I would love to see more nutrition profiles of elite runners who aren’t using all these branded energy drinks/shakes/gels/products (are there any???). I’d also love more info on refueling with whole foods, not branded products. I didn’t think her diet was particularly low in carbs, but then I cut out bread products almost completely from my diet last summer and seriously haven’t felt better. So whatever works for each person!

  14. Thegiantess says:

    If I were her I would be really, really hungry.

  15. Because I’m a proponent of a low carb diet–let’s just get that out there–the one thing I noticed is that while Ariana is certainly eating a lot of carbs, it would appear that she is careful with what kinds of carbs. For example, she has almond milk creamer. You don’t say whether this is unsweetened or not but I would be that it is based on the fact that she is also choosing to go with UCAN as her “sports drink” and that the carbs she is eating in real food form are for the most part complex. To me, this looks like someone who is conscious of staying away from sugars. It could just be for the GI issues that she goes with UCAN, but I would be curious to know what her underlying philosophy is regarding sugar, i.e., carbohydrates. Maybe she is familiar with Peter Attia’s endurance athlete information.

  16. if you think she is hungry, then do not read her blog where she describes what she eats before the marathon. I was really surprised.
    Talking about nutrition is like talking about politics or religion. They are subjects that are very polemic.
    After reading all comments, now I understand why Elite runners don’t usually share their nutrition logs..
    In my opinion, the snapshot provided as example, is not the best one. I agree with other comments. it does not look like enough food for someone running that many miles and the “cookie” does not provide the nutrients that she is missing on those 2 example days.
    It will be very interesting if you can post another example with simple food, so we can have a comparison.
    Again, what Ariana is doing is working for her for sure. is just surprising to see how little Elite runners eat. No wonder why they look so thin.
    Jason, can you let me know what is the perfect elite runner weight?

    • I couldn’t agree with you more that talking about diets brings out the same reactions that politics and religion do, maybe worse!! After much research and experimentation with various ways of eating (I hate to say “diet”), I went low carb a little over two years ago. I cannot even begin to tell you the push back and even anger I received from the people around me. And keep in mind that I wasn’t trying to convince anyone to do it, I was simply doing it for myself. As many other posters have said in their comments, it is fundamental that each person finds what works for them personally. As humans, we have similarities in now we process food, but as individuals we also have differences.

  17. Yes please!! More “case studies.” I love seeing how runners effectively fuel their bodies.

  18. This was great! It’s interesting to see what an elite runner can sustain herself on. I’m sure as her running has improved over the years, her body has become efficient at extracting the necessary nutrients from her (what looks to me like very small) intake. But I don’t know her height, or age, so that can influence what the body needs.

    And I understand the diet listed is supposed to inspire us, not necessarily include every morsel of slice that somebody’s grandmother made & it would be rude not to accept 🙂

    It would be good to see the diet of a runner who is not at the elite level, just someone who is a regular runner, completes a marathon a few times per year. The goal for me is to use only wholefoods, no added sugars, minimum supplements.

    Thanks for sharing Ariana & Jason.

  19. This is actually less than I would’ve thought, and definitely less bread/grains/pasta than one might expect. Despite being an NCAA cross country runner, it can be difficult to gauge how much to eat and when – our coach never mentions diet, but it has a huge effect on performance. Your article helps put fueling into perspective for the average runner or even someone who is at 40-50 miles a week – we don’t need much, we just need to eat smart. And it also serves to show that being a runner does not mean you can eat anything, despite the fact that we wish it did 🙂 Glad to see bananas and chocolate milk!

    Megan
    ACE CPT
    NCAA DI athlete
    meginspire.com

  20. Looks like a great diet plan, well balanced (with the obvious tilt towards carbs given her sport choice!). However, as an Indian vegetarian, I find it difficult to understand most of these ingredients or dishes and what kind of fillingness or quantities they might carry. Like with many apps that try to measure your total calorie intake for the day, its tricky to find info that is in sync with my local cuisine. Would you have any info on that?

  21. Stephanie says:

    This is really interesting. I love to learn about what other people eat, it’s so fascinating to me! There’s definitely healthy aspects of this diet, but there’s some things I would personally change. For example, it seems like she could include a lot more fruits/veggies/colorful plant foods into her diet, especially greens. Additionally, i looked into these Generation UCAN bars and they don’t seem very high quality. She’d be better off with a more nutritious superfoods bar with natural, easy to pronounce, superfood ingredients. For example she could switch the UCAN bars out for Raw Revolution bars, especially the Glo bars which are high in protein and low in sugar.

    • What you have to remember is that runners – particularly elite athletes – aren’t eating “fueling” foods for health. They’re eating them for performance. That is an enormous distinction.

      So when an endurance runner eats a bar, they don’t care about “natural” ingredients (natural has no meaning anyway), certainly don’t care about sugar (that’s what FUEL is!), and definitely don’t care about ingredients that are difficult to pronounce. Making the recommendation for a low sugar, high protein bar misses the point of why she’s eating what she’s eating.

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