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Sonia O’Sullivan: Good food is like smart training

Food is primary fuel for training, recovery, and for making sure you stay as healthy as possible

'The world of nutrition is constantly changing, especially with the arrival of the so-called 'superfoods' that we sometimes struggle to pronounce.' Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Most athletes will tell you they eat to train. Not train to eat. Food is primary fuel, for training, recovery, and for making sure you stay as healthy as possible.

I’ve always seen food as something to be enjoyed and appreciated as well. As an athlete, I have always been an avid reader of nutritional books, and as the years went on I soon converted to reading all sorts of cookbooks.

Hardly a day goes by without someone asking me what I like to eat before training, after training, or before a race. This can be a minefield of information. What is certain is that what works for one person may not work for another. And the same goes for the taste buds.

I usually just recommend some of my favourite foods or recipes. By now I have a small library of cookbooks in my kitchen, even if my daughter Ciara often remarks that you can just look these up online, as she walks around the kitchen, phone in hand, trying to locate the required ingredients.


Still I’d much rather pull out my trusted cookbooks. Often I’ll have a stack on the kitchen counter, along with a notebook and pen, to write down the ingredients. There’s nothing worse than setting about creating a meal and realising you are missing a crucial ingredient.

Even if I’m writing or busy with something else I can’t sit still until I’ve satisfied my productivity in the kitchen.

For starters, I like to have my staple snacks at hand. Seedy crackers, energy balls, a jar of home-made muesli. Once you’ve made your own muesli you’ll never take a box off the supermarket shelf again.

Time-efficient meals

As the winter months set in, it’s something heartier. A big bowl of soup that can last a couple of days and make for some time-efficient meals, or a large pot of green saffron curry to spread throughout the week.

I’ve been through many phases of what’s best to eat, and where to source the best food. As a lover of food I can be very particular about what I eat but also where the food comes from.

In Cork, we’re spoilt for choice of farmers’ markets. Whenever I’m home there are frequent trips to Mahon on a Thursday, Ballyseedy on a Wednesday, Cobh on a Friday and occasionally Midleton on a Saturday. It’s just great to meet the producers and talk to them about favourite recipes, always learning and sharing ideas.

I actually find it a lonely place walking into the supermarket, looking around, wondering where to start. There are times I walk in and want to turn around and walk back out again. There’s just too much food, all bombarded at us: two for the price of one, buy one get one half price. The time has come to stop this madness, take a step back and realise that quality is so much greater than quantity.

A little of something good is so much more satisfying than a lot of mass-produced, lower-quality food. There is so much talk of obesity and the link with lack of exercise. But for exercise to play its part we must also be aware of diet, and work both of these into our daily routine.

I believe nutrition and food education should be part of the school curriculum from a younger age. Children should be learning how to make smart choices at school, just like athletes are encouraged to make smart choices to fuel their bodies, for recovery and performance.

There is so much more to cooking than weighing and measuring

Children can benefit in the same way. Being better educated about food can help them perform better, be more in tune with learning and better able to concentrate and focus in the classroom.

It has become a lot more complicated in recent times. It used to be just vegetables, carbohydrates and some protein. Divide the plate in three, and make it as colourful as you can.


The world of nutrition is constantly changing, especially with the arrival of the so-called “superfoods” that we sometimes struggle to pronounce, things like quinoa, acai, macca. And there used to be just one type of milk looking out at you when you opened the fridge door, the addition of the nut milks adding a whole new dimension.

I remember when low-fat milk started to become popular. You had to get in early before the few cartons were gone in the local shop. Now I’m starting to believe that whole-milk products are much more satisfying, and last longer, because you don’t need as much to be satisfied. Still, I’m always open to trying new things, wavering in tangents, trying to always incorporate a mixed and varied diet.

As for best cooking practice, my favourite everyday method is using one pot and one bowl. This is especially good when travelling, as I often find myself cooking for one. Even when I’m away from the family it’s important to take the time and make an effort to create a nutritious, appealing and tasty bowl.

It’s so easy to line the bowl with some spinach or mixed salad leaves, some chopped cucumber and avocado, then a sprinkling of quinoa left over from the day before.

Next up the pot. I recently found myself a very neat wok to quickly toss some vegetables, red onions, a little garlic, red and yellow peppers, a few slices of courgette, maybe a few slices of chorizo or black pudding or some smoked salmon to top the bowl.

Cooking skills

It’s easy to add things to the growing bowl. A dash of olive oil, a splash of lemon juice, some balsamic vinegar, topped off with a sprinkling of feta cheese and some pomegranate seeds. This is just one variation of many; whatever you can find in the fridge or cupboard.

Another good base on a winter’s night is a spoon from that pot of soup prepared earlier. Just keep topping up. The spinach cooks into the soup and can be topped with home-made croutons of bread and sprinkles of cheese.

I learned most of cooking skills from my grandmother in Cobh: a handful of this, a pinch of that, and a sprinkle on top. This was making soda bread but the same skills can be carried across so many simple nutritious meals.

There is so much more to cooking than weighing and measuring. You also have to immerse yourself in the kitchen, feel the ingredients, embrace the nutrients and satisfy the taste buds.

We need to think about every ingredient we add, weigh up the benefits and be conscious of every meal we eat, and share the love of food with those around us. Food is an evolving language we can all learn to understand a bit better.

It’s not much different to planning a training programme. There are a number of sessions and runs to choose from each week. The key is to pull the right mix of sessions together, balance the efforts and have the confidence in what you are doing when it comes time to finally line-up.

It’s often a fine line, but working off feelings and experience helps deliver better results than rigid times and distance. Just like cooking you need to be immersed and know the feeling. A handful, a pinch and a sprinkle to create the right balance.