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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