We are what we eat. And it takes more than energy bars and gels to power triathletes through three sports to the finish line.
U.S. triathletes have had a banner season, with four different women earning ITU World Triathlon Series podium finishes this season: Katie Zaferes, Kirsten Kasper, Taylor Knibb, and Taylor Spivey. And the team of Zaferes, Kasper, Ben Kanute, and Matt McElroy won a silver medal in the ITU Mixed Relay World Championship — making the U.S. a favorite to medal in the mixed relay when it makes its Olympic debut at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
We asked a few of these triathletes to share their favorite dinners. Their recipes give a few clues about why they are as strong as they are. And they all include abundant vegetables — a challenge for Summer Cook, who confessed that she once hated veggies.
Katie Zaferes: Do-It-Yourself Mixed Veggies
Katie Zaferes likes to save her energy for training. Currently ranked third in the WTS, with two podium finishes so far this year, plus the mixed relay world championship silver medal, the 2016 Olympian’s go-to meal is “pretty boring,” she said via email. But she likes it because it’s easy, and when she’s exhausted from training, she wants an easy meal.
She cooks meat in a sauté pan (usually chicken or fish). Then she adds frozen vegetables — Brussels sprouts, peas, broccoli, and cauliflower — to the same pan, along with a sauce. One of her favorite sauces is Trader Joe’s Sesame Soy Ginger Vinaigrette.
If she’s extra hungry, she dishes the veggie/meat mixture over rice, or over spinach sprinkled with hardboiled eggs and feta or goat cheese.
Why frozen veggies?
“I hate cutting vegetables,” she confessed. “I find it annoying, and it just takes a lot of energy. So the frozen veggies solve this problem.”
“It’s good for recovery because it takes so little energy to make while still being nutritious,” Zaferes said of the meal. “It’s also so easy to adapt to my cravings or nutritional needs.”
Kirsten Kasper: Grilled Salmon and Roasted Veggies
A former runner at Georgetown University and Massachusetts state champion in the mile, Kirsten Kasper scored her first ITU WTS podium this season — third in Yokohama behind Zaferes. Kasper also was part of the team that won the silver medal in the mixed relay world championships in July, and she’s currently ranked fifth overall in WTS standings.
In the summer, she lives and trains in Victoria, British Columbia, and takes advantage of fresh produce and salmon. She grills the salmon with maple syrup, then roasts veggies in the oven — cubed and tossed with olive oil and salt and pepper.
“The more colorful the better!” she said of the veggies, listing beets, carrots, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, cauliflower, etc.
“It provides a great assortment of nutrients and flavor,” she said. “It also is easy to prepare which is necessary at the end of a training day.”
Ben Kanute: Fish Tacos
What would a list of favorite athlete meals be without fish tacos? Team USA’s top-ranked male triathlete, Ben Kanute, who’s been a triathlete since he was a kid, lists them as a favorite. Originally from Illinois, Kanute graduated from the University of Arizona in 2014, and the 2016 Olympian still lives in Tucson. He was part of both U.S. mixed relay teams that won a gold medal at 2016 world championships and the silver medal this year.
“I couldn't really pick just one meal I love, but this one fits because I am in the southwest and I make them myself,” he wrote via email.
He picks up fish from his fish guy — “Everyone needs a fish guy who has fresh fish,” he said.
Then he makes a homemade pico de gallo from tomatoes, sweet onions, jalapenos, fresh squeezed lime, salt, cilantro, and cotija cheese (a crumbly white cheese made in Mexico). He also cooks black beans and jalapeno in a pan with other peppers. For tortillas, Kanute found raw tortillas at the grocery store and cooks them himself.
He then assembles the fish tacos into “a very tasty meal.”
“This is good for recovery because fish is a very lean protein and has good oils,” he wrote, “and the other ingredients have your veggie and carb load all covered!”
Matt McElroy: Veggie Stir-Fry
A standout collegiate runner at Northern Arizona University, Matt McElroy transitioned to triathlon in 2015 and won the duathlon world title that year. This summer, he helped power the U.S. to the silver medal in the mixed relay world championships.
As a vegetarian, McElroy’s favorite meal to cook is a veggie stir-fry.
He starts with brown rice and adds different types of veggies, his favorites being beets, sweet potatoes, carrots, and broccoli. He also likes to add chia and flax seeds. Finally, he adds an assortment of spices to bring out the flavor.
“I like this meal because it has a lot of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats,” he said. “Being a plant-powered athlete means that I need a lot of carbohydrates and protein.”
He cooks bigger portions for dinner, then has leftovers for lunch the following day. He also drinks a plant-based protein shake after his last workout of the day to supplement his protein intake.
Summer Cook: Tempeh Peanut Noodles
Summer Cook isn’t a vegan or vegetarian. But she often uses The Thug Kitchen Official Cookbook. The Thugs, who are liberal with their use of bad language, want to inspire people to “eat like they give a [expletive],” and their cookbook is a trove of flavorful vegetarian recipes.
Cook (no pun intended), a former standout swimmer and runner at Villanova University who won the fourth WTS race that she ever entered (Edmonton in 2016), likes the Thug’s tempeh peanut noodles recipe.
“I used to hate vegetables and I didn't really know how to flavor them, which I think is a pretty common problem,” she said. “Vegetables, like meats and other foods, don't have to be bland and boring! I quickly realized after a few recipes that I was genuinely enjoying the meals, including the vegetables.”
She now owns several other vegetarian cookbooks and has added a wider variety of veggies to her diet, making it “more nutrient dense and well-rounded as a result.”
“I've even found a recipe that makes the dreaded cauliflower taste good!” she said.
The tempeh peanut noodles recipe uses a homemade peanut sauce made with peanut butter, water, rice vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, agave, and hot sauce to dress a dish made of noodles, kale, tempeh, more soy sauce and rice vinegar, fresh ginger and garlic, topped with green onion.
If you are really averse to the tempeh (fermented soy beans with a slightly nutty flavor, found near tofu in the grocery store), you can always substitute chicken, Cook added.
“This meal is great because you can eat it warm or cold, so it’s perfect to come home to after a hard day of training,” she said. “It’s also a good source of protein (tempeh has 30 grams of protein per cup) and carbs to aid recovery and prep for the next day of training.”
The Thug authors recommend adding carrots and cucumbers cut into matchsticks to the leftover noodles.
“It’s a lazy costume change,” reads the recipe, “but nobody will [expletive] notice.”
Taylor Spivey: Chipotle Burrito
In June, Taylor Spivey landed on her first WTS podium with a second-place finish in Leeds, England. A former lifeguard and Cal Poly graduate (with a BA in architecture), Spivey heads to Stockholm WTS race this weekend ranked 10th, up from 50th last year.
Spivey’s favorite meal? When she’s too exhausted from training to cook, she usually heads to Chipotle or another burrito restaurant.
Burritos have ample carbs and protein “and everything my diet needs for optimal training and recovery,” she said.
“Burritos come in many shapes and sizes,” she added, “and as long as I choose healthy ingredients, it is a very well balanced meal.”
Into her burrito, she puts brown rice, black beans, fajitas, chicken, pico de gallo, cheese, lettuce, and guacamole (“when I’m feeling spendy,” she said). She usually adds sour cream because the extra calories are good when her training volume is high. She also likes the creamy taste.
“As an endurance athlete, it’s easy to get into a calorie deficit,” she said. “And I find eating out to be the best way to dig myself out of that deep dark hole of depletion.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. She promises to try cooking all these meals — and she eats burritos regularly!