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Five Pre- and Post-Run Foods I Discovered in Italy (That Aren’t Pasta)

When I spent a month in Italy, I expected to find great food. What I didn't expect was for that food to be great running fuel, too.

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Is it too much of a stretch to say that Italy is the capital of carbo-loading? As a lifelong runner, I’ve always loved big plates of pasta before races. When I recently went to Tuscany for a month during grape harvest season, I tried my best to avoid pasta and pizza as my main food groups – at times unsuccessfully. 

I was volunteering on a vineyard to help with winemaking, and it felt more like I was living there, not on vacation. I often cooked for myself and tried to discover new, nutritious pre- and post-run dishes, and discovered five unique foods that were perfect for fueling-up before a run or for replenishing the body afterwards, all while being incredibly delicious.

Pre-Run: Crema di Ceci

Hummus’s Italian cousin, “crema di ceci” is simple but delicious. This blend of chickpeas, salt, onion, and sage can be spread on fresh bread, amped up with sundried tomatoes, or eaten with a spoon (my preference!). Quick, portable, easy to make at home – it’s basically a perfect companion for my runs in Tuscany. 

What the science says:

“Chickpeas are high-carbohydrate foods – always great for endurance sports – but they’re special because they have a low glycemic index, meaning that they don’t cause an immediate spike and subsequent crash during metabolism like most simple carbs,” says Amber Smith, a Registered Dietitian based in Chicago. “This is a great food to fuel up with, as long as the runner doesn’t have any fiber intolerances and can handle large amounts of fiber before long runs.” 

Recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup boiled chickpeas (or pre-cooked)
  • ½ cup water
  • Pinch of onion powder
  • Pinch of salt

To make:

In a high-powered blender, combine all ingredients. Refrigerate until ready to eat. 

RELATED: How To Strategize Fiber Intake To Keep You On The Trail

Post-Run: Gnudi 

If we’re going to talk about pre- or post-run foods in Italy, I feel an obligation to include at least something from the pasta family. This unique dish is a twist on ravioli: imagine little clouds of ricotta, spinach, pecorino and a dusting of flour – in essence, it’s the filling of ravioli, but without the heavy dough. 

What the science says:

Smith says that the spinach in gnudi makes it a good option for replacing electrolytes lost in sweat, due to the amount of sodium and calcium it contains.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 12 oz ricotta, liquid drained 
  • 12 oz steamed spinach, liquid drained
  • ½ cup + 1 tbsp pecorino, grated
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg

To make:

  1. Mix all ingredients except the 1 tbsp of pecorino, then cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  2. Sprinkle a parchment-covered baking sheet with flour, then make 1 tbsp balls of the mixture and place on the sheet. Refrigerate for 1 more hour. 
  3. In a wide pan, cook the gnudi in boiling water, then remove and add to a bowl. Sprinkle the remaining pecorino on top.

Pre-Run: Tuscan Cecina

While talking to the other volunteers on the vineyard, I kept hearing about this thing called “cecina.” On a day off, I made the trek to Pisa to finally find one. This crispy, salty chickpea pancake was squeezed between two slices of fresh focaccia, and it . . . was . . . heavenly. 

What the science says:

Along with the benefits of being high in carbohydrates, as Smith states, there are even more benefits of chickpeas for runners. “Chickpeas are an extremely nutrient-dense food, providing a significant amount of potassium, phosphorus and magnesium per serving,” says DJ Mazzoni, Registered Dietitian and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. “Since they provide a blend of macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbs), they make an ideal fuel-up food.”

Recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 5 tbsp + 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups chickpea (garbanzo bean) flour
  • 3 cups water
  • Sea salt

To make:

  1. In a bowl, add the chickpea flour and salt, then gradually whisk in the water and 5 tbsp olive oil until smooth.
  2. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit for two hours.
  3. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. 
  4. Oil a large roasting pan with the remaining 1 tbsp olive oil, then pour the mixture in a thin layer and bake for 20 minutes or until the top is slightly brown.
  5. Sprinkle with additional sea salt, then slice and eat, or put between focaccia as a sandwich.

RELATED: A New Take On “Carb Loading”

Post-Run: Pumpkin “Lasagna”

Why is lasagna in quotes, you ask? Because this dish doesn’t quite have a name, but visually it looks a lot like lasagna. While working in the winery kitchen, I saw the chef peel a small fresh pumpkin with a potato peeler, then put it through a meat slicer. I was shocked, but the result was perfectly even layers of fresh pumpkin. I was tasked with alternating layers of pumpkin with fresh bechamel sauce. It was the most delicious recovery food I’ve ever had after my run.

What the science says:

Although pumpkin doesn’t pack a big punch from a macronutrient standpoint, it does contain significant amounts of potassium, which is beneficial for runners, due to the electrolytes lost in sweat, says Smith. “Pumpkin is a great recovery food for this reason.”

Recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 2 small pumpkins
  • 2 cups bechamel sauce
  • 2 tbsps pecorino, grated

To make:

  1. Peel, cut and then evenly slice the pumpkin using a mandoline (or meat slicer, if you have access to one!)
  2. Grease and flour a springform pan, then add a layer of pumpkin, covering the whole bottom of the pan.
  3. Add a thin layer of bechamel sauce to cover the first layer of pumpkin, then add another layer of pumpkin and another layer of sauce, repeating until you run out of ingredients. Sprinkle the pecorino on top.
  4. Bake at 375 for 45 mins to 1 hour, or until the top is slightly brown.
italian food for runners
(Photo: Getty Images)

Pre-Run: Potatoes Roasted with Lemons

I had never thought to roast potatoes with fresh lemons until I saw the winery chef do it. Infusing the bright acidity of lemons while baking the potatoes, plus the addition of sage and rosemary, takes these potatoes to the next level. It sounds so simple, but it’s so unique. 

What the science says:

“Potatoes are a healthy form of carbs that can provide energy before a run. They’re very nutrient-dense, containing the minerals potassium and magnesium, along with vitamins B6, C, B9, B3, and more.” Mazzoni recommends steaming or baking potatoes rather than frying them to maximize nutrient return.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 3 yellow skinned potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces 
  • 2 lemons, quartered
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 sprigs sage
  • 2 sprigs rosemary
  • Sea salt

To make:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F. In a large bowl, combine the potatoes, olive oil, and a big pinch of salt. Toss to coat the potatoes with the olive oil.
  2. Spread the potatoes on a greased roasting pan and space out the sage, rosemary, and lemons on top.
  3. Bake for 40 minutes (tossing halfway) or until the potatoes are slightly brown.
  4. Either remove the lemons before serving, or keep them in with the potatoes – just make sure not to eat them! 

Italy is proof that simple food can be both nutritious and delicious. The next time you’re looking to change up the pre- or post-run menu at home, you might consider doing as the Romans do (or in this case, the Tuscans), and try one of these unique Italian dishes.