Eight Life Lessons From One of America’s Best Marathoners

Shalane Flanagan goes deep on what it takes to achieve peak performance.

Last year, on November 5, I watched the end of the New York City Marathon on television. I got chills as Shalane Flanagan crossed the finish line, becoming the first American woman to win the race in 40 years. I could only imagine the years of dedication, passion, and resolve behind that extraordinary moment.

After the race, many in the running community thought the 36-year-old Flanagan might retire on top, maybe focus on promoting her book, Run Fast, Eat Slow: Nourishing Recipes for Athletes. But she’s decided to throw herself back into the arena at the Boston Marathon this coming April against a stacked women’s field that includes Americans Jordan Hasay, Molly Huddle, and Desi Linden. I recently had the chance to catch up with Flanagan, who lives and trains in Portland, Oregon, to learn how she continues to improve as most athletes her age are hanging it up.

Trust Your Training

“In the 24 hours prior to the New York race, I had a general calmness about me. I was equipped with fitness and a level of training I’d never achieved before. I didn’t feel worried because I knew deep down inside how prepared I was. I’ve always tried to get so fit that I can’t make a bad decision in my racing because my fitness literally won’t allow me to — it will just carry me. I guess what I’m saying is that the more confident you are in your training, the less nervous you’ll be on race day.”

Motivation Is Contagious

“My job is enhanced 100 percent if I’m surrounded by other like-minded athletes who are going to challenge me and hold me accountable to my goals. My teammates inspire me, and I thrive off their energy. I can literally look to my right and left and say to myself, ‘This woman is such a badass.’ I don’t think I’d still be running if not for my training partners. These women support me through both highs and lows.”

Age Is Only a Number

“Even though I’m 36, I decided to come back after New York because I finally felt the accumulation of all the work I’d put in over the past two-plus decades paying off. It’s like I was finally getting to the good stuff, coming around to the type of endurance runner I’d always wanted to be. I feel like I have more to give, and I’m excited by that. I’m in a major competition with myself. I want to explore my limits, to see what I’m fully capable of — and I think I still have a few special performances in me.”

Drive from Within

“When I was a kid, running gave me something to be good at, to build confidence and fit in. I liked the attention that came along with it. However, that’s not at all why I run now. I feel confident in who I am, and I run because I love it and want to pursue self-mastery.”

Skip the Diet

“People think eating healthy is bland and boring, but I want to crush that notion. You can eat exceptionally well, and it can be awesome and enhance your life. There is lots of disordered eating with young women. I want to show that, yes, you should try to eat very healthy, but you also need fat and you should derive enjoyment from great-tasting food. I’m not about diets or counting calories or measuring nutrients. That’s too obsessive.”

Don’t Overcomplicate Recovery

“Recovery, to me, means sleeping and eating well. If I’m not feeling recovered, I’ll sleep and eat more, and that usually does the trick. Maybe I’ll get a massage, but that’s it. I don’t use any fancy gadgets or anything like that.”

Go All In

“I like to go all in on one extreme for a period of time and then shift to another extreme. For me, this means going all in on running, and then taking a vacation where I go all in on things like family and other pursuits. It’s too hard — physically and mentally — to try to do everything at once.”

Have an Outlet

“Though I just said I like to go all in, I do think it’s important for all serious athletes to have a nonathletic outlet, too. For me, that’s cooking, which is like my therapy. It calms and relaxes me. I was an art major in school, so perhaps cooking is how I express that.”

Want more tips on health and peak performance? Follow me on Twitter @Bstulberg where I share tips like these daily.

Note: This story was first published with Outside Magazine, where Brad writes the “Do It Better” column. Sign up for Outside’s Bodywork newsletter to get the latest on fitness, nutrition news, and training plans sent directly to you twice a week.

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