Fueling up for endurance events

Two years ago, I took a cold plunge and didn’t emerge until an hour and 23 minutes later.

My third plunge will be July 23, and I will once again be joined by 400 swimmers for the annual Peaks to Portland swim that spans the 2.4 miles between Peaks Island and East End Beach. Hosted by the YMCA of Southern Maine, the event raises money for swimming and aquatics classes at YMCA facilities in Portland, Freeport, Biddeford and New Gloucester.

The average water temperature is about 58 degrees. Most people wear wetsuits (some really don’t), and the swim typically takes anywhere from one to more than two hours to complete. It goes without saying that proper energy consumption is crucial for a successful swim across frigid Casco Bay, and so, I’m going to provide a balanced recipe for a meal that can be eaten the night before a big endurance event.

Because I’m not a health and nutrition expert, I asked my friend Rhea Velgos, a certified personal trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine, what she recommends to prepare for an endurance event. Here’s what she had to say:

“Endurance exercises that last more than 90 minutes use up a lot of muscle-glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates) in our bodies. This exhaustion of muscle-glycogen can greatly affect our performance. You’ve probably heard the term ‘carbo-loading,’ also known as ‘glycogen super-compensation.’ Many studies have shown that carbo-loading two to three days before an endurance event can help with our performance on the day of the event (8-10g per kg body weight). With that said, carbo-loading on the day of the event can make us feel sluggish and even cause gastrointestinal distress. Everybody is different, so it is recommended that you experiment with carbo-loading before using it for competition.”

In high school, I would “carbo-load” with my crew team the night before a regatta, consuming several servings of pasta and red sauce. I always felt horrible the next day. Instead, for the P2P swim, I prefer a satisfying and balanced meal made with whole grains and lean protein and a nourishing side dish rich in antioxidants. I leave out butter and cheese and go easy on the oil. Instead of spicy flavorings, I use various herbs, lemon juice and salt and pepper for seasoning.

Fish or chicken is my preferred protein because both are easy to digest and provide adequate protein. Quinoa is my carb/grain of choice because it offers additional protein and is a good source of iron, magnesium and manganese (great for bone health). Sweet potatoes make an excellent (and filling) side dish and are rich in beta carotene, which helps promote endurance.

The finish line for P2P is the best part. The crowd roars and swimmers are greeted with water bottles, fresh fruit and snacks. I usually head straight for the results board to check my time, and once I regain feeling in my hands and feet (kidding – sort of), it’s time for a celebratory meal. A rack of ribs, a giant burger or my favorite pizza followed up by ice cream is my professionally certified, satisfaction-guaranteed, recovery meal of choice.

Serves 2

2 medium-large sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Few sprigs each of thyme, tarragon and rosemary 1 pound haddock llets
Juice and zest of 1 lemon, separated
2 cups cooked quinoa made with chicken or vegetable broth (1/2 cup dried quinoa will yield about 2 cups cooked)
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
Salt and pepper

In a large bowl, mix sweet potato pieces, 1 tablespoon olive oil, thyme leaves, red onion slices, a dash of lemon juice and salt and pepper. Arrange the mixture in a baking dish and bake at 400 degrees for 30- 40 minutes, turning once, until the sweet potatoes begin to brown.

Place haddock fillets on top of sweet potatoes, seasoning with 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper and half of the lemon zest. Place whole sprigs of rosemary on top of the fillets. Return to oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until sh is cooked through.

In a medium bowl, mix prepared quinoa with the remaining lemon zest and lemon juice, whole tarragon leaves and chopped walnuts, and season with salt and pepper to taste (if cooked with broth, the quinoa will not need as much salt).

Optional: a side of plain mixed salad greens or a few slices of avocado.

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