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The Runner's Kitchen: Emma Coburn Dishes on her New Cookbook

Emma Coburn is a pro track and field athlete, two-time Olympian, eight-time U.S. Champion and three-time global medalist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Coburn publicly shares her love for food and cooking via Instagram and recently channeled that passion into her new 100-recipe cookbook, The Runner’s Kitchen, which just released early at Fleet Feet stores and online.

We sat down with Coburn over Zoom to learn more about her passion for food, her philosophy on nutrition and what we can look forward to in her new cookbook (you can also join us live on Instagram on December 17 at 6 pm ET, to cook one of her favorite recipes).

Describe what your cookbook is like. Why should a runner buy it?

The cookbook is really fun. I think it will surprise people because it’s not just stereotypically healthy recipes. There are plenty of healthy recipes in there but it’s also a genuine mix of what I eat in my daily life. I just cooked everything that I ate and wrote it down.

I’m the type of person who will just see what’s in my fridge and just make something out of it. I love desserts. I initially turned in like 20 desserts to the publisher, and they thought that maybe the cookbook shouldn’t be one fifth desserts. I had seven different types of cookies in there, and five different types of cake. So...I had to pare that down a little bit.

It’s like Chrissy Tiegen’s Cravings meets runners, which is how I like to eat. Granted, I train like crazy, so, everyone has to do what’s right for them. But I try to give the message that there’s no food that’s off-limits. There’s no food that should be considered bad or dirty. I think there’s a little bit of a myth, especially in female distance running, that you have to be restrictive. I try to emulate the message that you can be strong, have muscles, have a strong body and perform really well. I hope to inspire people to eat a little differently.

How complicated would you say your recipes are? Are these meals that will take a lot of planning and skill? Are there meals you can whip up in a hurry?

There’s a little bit for everyone. You don’t have to be an expert cook. There are several easy ones in there and several that are a little more advanced for people who are really into cooking.

What is your philosophy on food as a reward? For example, the mindset of, “I ran 20 miles, so now I can eat whatever I want.”

You know, I think in general that’s a slippery slope. I think people who have unhealthy eating habits use that reward a little aggressively. But if I do a really big 18-mile long run, I know I want to fuel myself with protein, carbs, fat, sugar. After those workouts, that’s when your body most needs quick fuels like basic sugar (like syrup) on your pancakes.

So, having food as a reward for something is kind of an unhealthy narrative. But I tend to think of it like wow, I put my body into a big deficit. So, I’m going to give it a lot of calories, a lot of protein, carbs and simple sugars. That’s your time to really go for it, and eat all the stuff your body needs. However, I’m also not saying, I only ran six miles today so I’m not giving myself any fats. That’s not a good philosophy.

What do you love about cooking and sharing food with others?

I think meals are a fun bonding moment. Growing up, that’s when our family bonded over dinner. That’s when we tell stories of what happened at school. That was a big thing for our family, to have dinner together every night. So that’s rooted in having really great food. You look forward to sitting down together because you know you’ll have a great meal.

Now, as a professional runner, mealtimes are an important way that my teammates and I connect after big workouts. And it’s a big part of what keeps me going and fueled emotionally as an athlete.

Try Emma's recipe for Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Herb Sauce.

Tell us about your love for food, and how that came about. Your mom is really into cooking, right? Did you grow up helping her in the kitchen?

My mom is really into cooking. I never really cooked with her growing up except for making cookies and baking. She did a great job of providing us with a healthy relationship with food. She made a lot of things from scratch but wasn’t afraid of cooking with cream, butter or frying something on occasion. Her cooking was always balanced with fresh produce and whole grains. Because of that, my relationship with food has always been a really good balance of mainly healthy food.

When I went to college and started cooking on my own, I realized cooking is not as easy as my mom made it seem. Once I graduated and had more time on my hands as a professional, I started cooking more for myself, baking more and using my mom’s knowledge as a resource in the kitchen. I turned to her while writing this book, too. She contributed a few recipes.

Nutrition is a crucial aspect of performance as an athlete. What has your nutrition approach been like throughout your running career? How has it changed over the years?

I had achilles tendonitis in 2015 and 2016. That’s when I started focusing on collagen for an injury prevention protocol. Since then, collagen protein remains a daily part of my nutrition plan to make sure I get enough collagen to help my muscles.

I have a few recipes in the cookbook that highlight that. I have a collagen chicken noodle soup that is really loaded up with bone broth to help if your tendons are hurting.

Did you test recipes on your teammates?

Yes, I did. I tested a lot of recipes on my family, my husband and my teammates. Everyone loves the baked fried chicken sammie. I’ve been making it for years. Every time I'm in charge of a team dinner, that's the first meal I'll make. It’s such a crowd pleaser. Great protein and carbs, veggies.

It's a baked chicken sandwich that tastes rich and indulgent even though it’s really pretty healthy. I’ve been cooking for my teammates for a long time, and so I know what their favorites are. There were a few new ones that I made up that they tasted and said, oh, it’s too salty, or, you should add more chocolate. I trust their opinions as friends and as runners, the target market for my cookbook.

If you had to cook one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Honestly, the Best Friend Bolognese from the cookbook. I love it so much. It’s delicious on spaghetti squash or over regular pasta. Sometimes I’ll eat it as a chili the next day because it’s so good. That’s one of my all time favorites and it’s easy to cook.

But I also have such a sweet tooth, that I might also choose any of the quick breads from the book. I have a chocolate orange zucchini bread and a pumpkin bread. I could make and eat those all of the time. They're a great way to use up the veggies and fruits that are going bad in your fridge.

How did this project come about, and what did you learn from it?

I love to cook. I’ve been sharing recipes on my Instagram for years, and when I do, I get DMs saying, “you need to write a cookbook!” I never had the confidence or the time to start that. But about a year ago my mom was diagnosed with cancer and we bond so much over cooking. So my husband said, you and your mom should make a cookbook. You should have something positive that you can talk about that’s not cancer, that you can work on together. Two weeks later I got a call asking if I’d be interested in doing this book.

The timing was really special. You have to think outside of the box, have to make things that people want to make and eat. I have a lot of stuff I didn’t include that I love to eat that I thought might be too weird for people. But I wrote everything without a ghostwriter, a team or a co-writer. My mom contributed a handful of recipes and she helped me brainstorm basically the table of contents. It was a lot of work, but the whole process was really enjoyable. I’d love to do it again if I had the opportunity.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

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