Sonia O’Sullivan: Drawing comfort and warmth from winter training foods

Autumn and winter vegetables have a role to play, lending a hand to hearty and wholesome cooking

Seasons change and once the clocks go back and dark mornings and evenings take hold it’s a good time to make some other changes.

I always find there’s a quick transition from the once bright evenings and pleasant temperatures to when it’s hard just to get warm. With that you tend to crave some comfort in warmer foods, leaving behind the fresh berries and cold salads, and searching more for the autumn and winter seasonal foods.

As an athlete, you often tend to look at food as just fuel, but when it’s cold outside the body needs to warm up from the inside. I often get asked what are some of the best foods to eat when training for a marathon or recovering from one.

It all depends on the time of year you are training for the marathon and when the marathon takes place. On one hand, it’s often easier to eat light in the summer months and also spend less time cooking: with fruit salad for breakfast and garden salads in the evening it’s a little easier to eat healthy too and also easier to stay hydrated when you crave more cool drinks and water-based foods in summer.


On the other hand, when it comes to winter food it can be easier to batch cook and spread the effort of a meal over a few days lunch and dinner.

For starters, I find soups and stews can be the ideal one-pot meals, easily saved in the fridge or freezer for the next day’s lunch or dinner. The aroma and bubbling pots also help warm up the house, in the atmosphere at least.

Some of my favourites are red onion, mushroom and kale, and you can also add in any favourite herbs and spices, along with some canned kidney beans

The autumn and winter vegetables also lend a hand to hearty and wholesome cooking; pumpkins, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, red onions and kale. It’s also the perfect time to make a pot and invite friends around, the deep warm colours are always much more attractive in winter than in summer.

One of my favourite go-to meals is a wild rice dish that uses a blend of brown and wild rice combined with any selection of vegetables and herbs. Some of my favourites are red onion, mushroom and kale, and you can also add in any favourite herbs and spices, along with some canned kidney beans, cannellini beans or chorizo to add some extra substance.

The thing with the wild and brown rice is it keeps well in the fridge as an option for the next day’s lunch. It’s a meal in a bowl, and also just cooked in one pot, keeping things simple and also saving time.

On the nutritional value, you get your carbohydrates, vegetables and protein, a filling and substantial meal all packed away in just one bowl, topped with some micro-greens and feta or parmesan cheese.

It’s simple and easy. Without much preparation or fancy recipe required, the result is also a good feel for the balance of foods and combining enough different flavours without any becoming too overbearing.

I am always trying to squeeze in a run or gym or some hour of exercise in the day, and as my daily work can vary, as in no day is ever the same, I try to prepare my food the day before at least to have some snacks between activities and heading off to the next activity.

I’m sure after years of activity and instant fuelling, my body adapts and often gets away with less than you think you might need. You find the busier you are the less time you have to sit down and have meals when always on the run.

I tend to eat the same things most days, and in the winter months rarely leave the house without a banana and a mandarin, a flask of hot water and a selection of tea bags to choose from.

Scones are another quick satisfying snack to have with your tea. Whether you make them yourself or find a good spot to stock up on when you find a good scone it’s hard to find anything more satisfying alongside a cup of tea as you warm up after the day’s exercise.

It’s a combination of adapting to what satisfies you at certain times of the year and how you can fit this into your day. With so many people now running and training for marathons, it’s the perfect time to review the diet and find good clean healthy foods.

We can all crave the nasties that would not be so good in large quantities still, they can all serve a purpose when broken down into small pieces and shared across the week.

It’s also good to know that the winter foods will often be more filling and satisfying and warm you from the inside out when immersed in what the winter days have to offer

That’s why it’s always important to be prepared with some healthy snacks to tide you over until you get the chance to sit down to a proper healthy bowl of soup or more.

It’s also good to know that the winter foods will often be more filling and satisfying and warm you from the inside out when immersed in what the winter days have to offer. Winter or summer, there’s always room and need in my day too for the coffee and chocolate.

An early morning run can also warm you up for the day, get the fire burning inside so the good fuel is needed to sustain you throughout the day.

Sometimes this could be a protein shake or a smoothie topped up with some immunity-filled supplements, but I do like to try and get as many nutrients from real food, homemade muesli or a quick porridge pot topped with fruit and seeds and yoghurt.

If you have a little snack bag you are less likely to just eat anything because hunger overrides everything. So it’s always better to take the edge off hunger before going to the supermarket or local cafe when otherwise you are more likely to eat anything without really thinking about what you need at that particular time.

It’s important to sometimes feel hungry and not always be topped up and to empty and cleanse the system by drinking plenty of water. In winter when the need for cold drinks is not always so obvious, it can help to have a flask of herbal tea close by.

These are all the good foods that you can ensure you have throughout the week, to be well stocked up in the cupboard; rice, pulses, vegetables and eggs. As long as they are in stock you always have the option for a quick and easy meal, to stay inside and satisfy your hunger, because there’s nothing more satisfying than something you’ve made from scratch.

Recipe — Sonia O’Sullivan Wild Things: one pot, one bowl


2-3 Shallots or red onion chopped;

A handful of mushrooms per person quartered;

Chorizo, cooked chicken pieces or beef (or whatever you have to hand);

Tin of drained beans (kidney beans, pinto, lima, cannelini);

Bunch of kale torn into pieces;

1/2 cup, 100g of wild rice per person;

Salt, pepper;

Coriander or micro-greens to garnish;

Crumbled feta cheese or shaved Parmesan, even a little blue cheese is good.


Heat a little oil in a large fry pan or wok. Add in some chopped-up red onions or shallots, and some chopped-up chestnut mushrooms. Add some chopped chorizo, cooked chicken pieces or any leftover meat you may have. The measurements are always a bit ambiguous but if you have a handful of everything for each person and a little extra to ensure some leftover for the next day’s lunch or side to a meal.

Heat a little oil in a pot and add the wild rice (long-grain brown, short-grain brown, wild rice, black rice, red rice).

Shake the pot and toast the rice for a minute, then add in a cup of stock; this can be vegetable, chicken, beef or even some miso. Cover the rice with boiling water and let the rice boil up and absorb the water, keep an eye as you may need to add extra water to ensure the rice is cooked. The wild rice can take 20-25 mins to cook so allow a bit longer than white rice.

When cooked add the rice to the onions and mushrooms, stir together and then add in torn-up leaves of kale without the tough stalk and a tin of kidney beans, pinto beans chickpeas, or whatever you have in the cupboard. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve in a wide bowl and top with some micro-greens or coriander, some parmesan cheese or feta or whatever you have available.

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