All human bodies need certain nutrients. But athletes need to pay closer attention to these nutrients in order to maximize their body’s performance!
The main macronutrients we need are protein, carbs, and fat. Some “healthy cultures” (diet plan, fitness gurus, etc) tell us that carbs make us fat, but that’s an outright lie!
Carbs can be extremely helpful in an athlete’s diet. The trick is choosing the best good carbs for runners – nutrient-packed ones, not empty-calorie, processed carbs.
Here’s all you need to know about the crucial nutrient that gets a bad rap!
Why are Carbs Important for Runners?
Carbs are an essential nutrient that our muscles use for energy. When ingested before exercise (whether training or a sporting event), they’re easily accessed by the body and converted into energy.
When eaten after exercise or at other times of the day (during recovery), they break down in the body into glycogen. This compound is stored in the muscles and accessed during exercise when there isn’t an immediate source of carbohydrate in the body.
It’s important to note that carbs are turned into energy not just for the body, but for the brain too! They’re an important part of staying mentally strong and sharp.
That being said, it’s not just athletes who need carbs. Everyone needs carbohydrates to fuel them through the day.
Diets and eating plans that advocate low-carb or no-carb eating can be dangerous. The body can run off protein and fats, but it has to work harder and differently to process them.
Your best bet is simply to include healthy carbs in your diet in appropriate amounts. One of the best things about vegetables (which are the healthiest of carbs) is that they have a fairly low-calorie count, so you can eat large amounts of them without racking up too many calories.
For example, My Fitness Pal shows that:
- Sweet potato (4 ounces) contains 96 calories
- Broccoli (4 ounces) contains 36 calories
- Cauliflower (4 ounces) contains 28 calories
- Russet potato (4 ounces) contains 64 calories
Carbohydrates also contain fiber, which is important to keep your digestive system running as it should.
How Many Carbs Should You Eat Every Day?
This will be different for everyone, depending on your body and your goal. But the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 recommends getting between 45 and 65% of your total daily calories from carbohydrates.
That means you’ll need to work out your daily calories. This can differ vastly depending on gender, age, and weight, so we recommend using a calorie calculator like this one to work it out.
Once you know your total calories, just multiply that by 0.45 (if you want to do 45% carbs) or 0.65 (if you want to go for 65% carbs). Or anything in between!
If you’re an endurance runner who does ultramarathons, you should stick to the higher end of the scale, between 60 and 65% of your calories.
Before a Workout
Carbs give you instant, easy-access energy, which is why they’re great pre-workout nutrition.
Firstly, you shouldn’t eat a full meal before your workout. In fact, your last large meal should be more than four hours before you workout.
This is because when you’re running, blood rushes to the muscles instead of the stomach and could delay proper digestion, leading to gastric problems.
If you’re doing a serious training session, you should have a “snack” in the hour or two leading up to your run. It should be low fat, moderate protein, and high carb. A good rule of thumb is ingesting 0.25 to 0.4 grams of carbohydrate for each pound of body weight.
For a light recovery run, you can have some fruit or another light carb snack about 30 minutes before your run. That should be more than enough to see you through your run.
If you’re getting ready for a competitive race, carbo loading could help prime your body for action. Increasing the amount of carbs you eat in the day or two prior to your race can increase the amount of glycogen stored in the muscles, which helps you run for longer on that stored energy.
Carbo loading does NOT mean binging on all of the carbs. Those athletes who take the chance to load up on tons of pasta and donuts and potato chips before their race? They’re only going to weigh themselves down and won’t even get the expected benefits.
Carbo loading only works if you ingest healthy carbs like fruits, veggies, and grains. Not processed carbs! Those pastries are mostly sugar, which will burn away in no time and leave you with the dreaded sugar crash.
Increase your carb intake to 70 or 80% of your total daily calories. For a quick and easy way of figuring how many grams that is, multiply your body weight (in pounds) by 4.
The Best Carb Sources for Athletes
Not all carbs are equal. These are the ones we recommend eating the most often in your diet. They’re healthy, minimally processed, and contain fairly few calories so you should be able to fit them into almost any eating plan.
1. Brown Rice
Brown rice is highly recommended over white rice, as it’s less processed, completely gluten-free, and contains a good amount of nutrition and fiber.
Half a cup contains just 120 calories, with 26 grams of carbs, 3 grams of protein, no fat, and an extra bonus of 2 grams of fiber. Remember, it increases in size so don’t be alarmed at how small half a cup looks before cooking!
You don’t have to cook a cup and eat it just like that, though. You can get really creative with brown rice by including it in stir-fries or soup to bulk them up, spicing it nicely and stuffing it into a pepper, or even making rice pudding!
Quinoa is another wonderful grain option and is extremely versatile.
You can use it just as you would rice, as a side dish, or to bulk up stir fry, stuff it inside a pepper, add it to a salad, mix it with mince to create patties or meatballs, or even use it as a breakfast porridge!
You’ll find about 110 calories, 20 grams of carbs, and 4 grams of protein in half a cup of quinoa. It contains slightly more fiber than brown rice, with 2.5 grams in this serving.
Oats are a low GI carb, which means they get absorbed much slower in the body than higher GI carbs do. Because of this slow absorption, they won’t cause a spike in your blood sugar levels (which can lead to a crash later).
In half a cup you’ll get 150 calories, 27 grams of good carbs, 5 grams of protein, and just 2 grams of fat. Oats are also rich in fiber, with half a cup packing 4 grams. This helps you to feel fuller for longer, as well as aiding in healthy digestion.
4. Whole-Grain Pasta
Pasta is an excellent carb source. We highly recommend choosing whole-grain pasta over white pasta, as it’s less processed and healthier for you, not to mention containing fewer calories.
Whole-grain pasta also has more fiber in it, which helps with digestion and also makes you feel fuller for longer.
Pasta is also a fun carb because you get many different types. It’s not very versatile, but who doesn’t love a good pasta dish every now and then? For many of us, it’s comfort food!
One cup of whole-grain spaghetti contains about 174 calories (compared to 220 calories in refined, processed white pasta). It provides 37 grams of carbs, close to 8 grams of protein, and a nice 6 grams of fiber.
Beans are a superb way to increase your protein intake as well as carbs. There are plenty of different types of beans too, making them quite versatile and something you may not get bored of too easily.
They’re excellent for eating on their own or adding to soups or salads. If you really want to get creative and have a sweet tooth, you can even make black bean brownies!
Beets are high in sodium nitrate, which according to research can improve running performance when ingested on a regular basis. It’s not likely to absolutely supercharge your running, so don’t have unrealistic expectations!
But including beetroot regularly in your diet not only gives you the benefit of this sodium nitrate supplement, but it also adds a delicious bit of taste to every meal. You can eat it in a variety of ways, including in desserts!
7. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a fantastic vegetable with a bit more flavor than a regular potato. There’s nothing wrong with white potatoes. In fact, they’re very healthy. But sweet potatoes contain more vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber, as well as having more taste.
Their natural sweetness also makes them ideal for sweet treats like brownies, puddings, and cupcakes.
If you don’t like sweet potatoes, you can switch them out for regular potatoes without any problem. You might not get delicious desserts out of them, but you’ll get roughly the same calorie and carb count (21 grams carbs per 100 grams of potato).
8. Spaghetti Squash
If you’re looking for a lower-calorie alternative to pasta, then spaghetti squash could be the best bet. It’s much lower in calories than pasta and it’s packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants.
It’s also loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids, which serve many purposes in the body and can help reduce inflammation. This could be invaluable for recovery.
Bananas are unusually high in potassium, which is one of the electrolytes that we lose when we sweat. They also contain 24 grams of carbohydrates and 100 calories per 4 ounces, so they’re easy to fit into almost any meal plan.
You can also get pretty creative with bananas. They make an excellent smoothie base, especially if you aren’t keen on the popular avocado smoothie base (which is high in fat but low in carbs.)
You can eat one as is, chop it up with some nut butter, or make a variety of exciting desserts! Yes, great texture, great taste, and fewer calories. Try some of these out:
Berries are super low calorie and super high in antioxidants! They’re excellent for smoothies or simply to snack on throughout the day. If you want to mix your fruits, chop up a banana and throw in some berries for a nice fruit salad.
Or, make some banana ice cream with a berry flavor, or some berry banana muffins. There’s no end to the delicious snacks you can create! You won’t even feel like you’re on any kind of diet!
11. Dried Fruit
Dried fruit can be a bit tricky. The store-bought stuff is often laced with sugar, which does increase the carb content, but burns off super quick and leaves you with a sugar crash. It can also contain sulfites to preserve the fruit, which may lead to digestive upset.
However, if you dry your own fruit, this can be an excellent option for long-distance runners or triathletes who need a bit of a boost while out on the road or trail. It’s easy to carry, and a more natural and tasty alternative than energy gels or chews, especially if you don’t enjoy the gooey or chewy texture.
Just keep in mind that dried fruit is much less voluminous than whole fruit, which basically means it’s packing the same amount of calories into a smaller package. It’s not very filling, so while it’s a great option for on the road, it’s not always ideal as a pre- or post-workout snack.
The 80/20 Rule
All of these carbs we’ve mentioned are super healthy, high in fiber and good nutrients, and digest at a good speed, so you don’t end up having that crash afterward.
But, while we recommend filling your meal plan with these good carbs, we also understand that restricting yourself too strictly can have a damaging effect.
That’s why we also advocate the 80/20 rule! In a nutshell, this means eating 80% whole, healthy foods, and 20% “cheat foods”.
We know that eating fruits and vegetables while your buddy is eating a donut can be difficult and annoying. But eating clean doesn’t mean you have to totally give up on things like chocolate, donuts, crisps, or your other favorite snacks.
As long as you’re eating 80% healthy and making sure that your 20% cheat still fits into your calorie intake, you’re good to go!
Just don’t use your 20% cheat foods as pre-workout or post-workout carbs. Save them for another time, because your body won’t perform optimally on those carbs!