Why runners need carbs
By Henry Howard
When it comes to nutrition, we are all an “n” of one. However, there are some truths amid the flurry of opinions being circulated about what’s best for athletes.
Among the most important ones: carbs are absolutely vital to runners and other endurance athletes. Carbohydrates serve as a source of energy, giving runners a needed boost and assisting in recovery.
Unfortunately, carbs can get a bad rap. It’s true some carbs are loaded with refined sugar or highly processed. Of course, it is best to focus on whole foods and limit the processed ones.
Why you need carbs
Let’s start out with what makes carbohydrates a necessity for runners. Carbs are stored in the muscle and liver as glycogen, and the body converts them into energy when needed.
You may not feel like you need carbs if you do a short run or exercise for a brief period. That is because your body is burning fat to conserve the carbs. As you rev up the intensity and/or duration of a workout, the body senses the need for more energy and transitions to burning carbs for fuel.
For me, I have found that it is wise to eat about 20 grams of carbs between 15 and 30 minutes before I start a workout, depending on its duration and intensity. (A go-to of mine is gluten-free Honey Stinger waffles, which have 21 grams of carbs, taste great and are easy to digest.)
However, I don’t profess to be an expert so I reached out to Stevie Smith, who has worked as a registered dietician at InsideTracker since 2018. She’s also an endurance athlete, completing Ironmans, marathons, ultras and open water swims. (I’ve used InsideTracker’s analysis and recommendations to improve my health. Use my code HENRYHOWARD to get 20% off.)
“Each athlete is very different when we're thinking about the approach to fueling and carbs,” she says. “But fueled workouts are best. One thing I feel like I'm always driving home is that fueling our workouts is not only going to have a performance benefit in that workout, but it's also going to help us recover faster after our workouts.”
During our phone interview, I was at a community park where a half-dozen high school athletes were doing their own individual drills for soccer and football. So it occurred to me to ask about whether there are different carb recommendations for masters athletes as compared to ones in high school.
“When it comes to masters athletes versus a high school athlete, the student athlete is just going to need overall more carbs and protein,” she says. “They're going to probably need more for the recovery because they also have the demands of growth compared to the masters athlete. I don't think it's necessarily something that's as granular as like you need 20 more grams of protein for recovery, right? Their needs are just, in general, going to be higher, so their recovery needs are going to be higher for the growth demands.”
Smith looks at carbs, as well as hydration, sodium and other factors to gauge how an athlete is recovering. And she wants to see how increased carbs boost the athlete.
“When we think about the carbohydrates, can we push above 60 grams per hour? Can we get closer to 90 grams an hour?” she says, illustrating how she works with athletes. “Some of the newer research is showing that if we're using multiple different types of carbs, using slightly different metabolic pathways, up to 120 grams of carbs can be tolerated. Obviously, I wouldn't recommend that people just go out and try to take in that much. It's actually kind of challenging. But let’s see where they're at and see if they can push above 60 grams per hour and see how their body responds, performance- and recovery-wise.”
She also pushes for a variety of carbs.
“If there's only one expressway into a city, there's going to be a traffic jam,” she explains. “So 60 grams per hour of carbohydrates in workouts is OK, but you might start to see the GI issues really show up when people went over 60 grams. It's been found if we're using three different expressways to get in the city — or three different carbohydrates — you're able to tolerate more and your performance is going to benefit.”
Recommended sources of carbs
When I started my running journey, carb loading was all the rage. Pre-race pasta dinners were common. Runners loaded up on bread. Stomachs were bloated.
Runners are better off incorporating carbs throughout the days, weeks and months during their training and through race day. While I don’t recommend a pre-race carbo load, focusing on carbs rather than protein and fiber will pay off on race day. Healthy fats like avocados will also work well.
Remember the old adage: “Nothing new on race day.” Use your long training runs to not only practice your race day nutrition but also what you plan to eat in the day before your race.
Carbohydrates come from a variety of sources. Here are some are regular staples in my diet:
Apples: An easy-to-transport snack that is tasty with plenty of variations and flavors to select from. Apples are packed with nutrition, including fiber. Runners who experience GI distress after having a pre-workout apple may want to opt for one later in the day, perhaps topped with peanut or another nut butter. One large apple has about 30g of carbs.
Bananas: Rarely a day goes by when I don’t eat two bananas. They are a staple in my go-to fruit and granola bowl post-workout in the morning. And I usually have another one as part of a mid-morning snack such as peanut butter on toast, a smoothie or with a layer of peanut butter on top of it. In addition to carbs, bananas are a great source of potassium and are rich in natural sugar. A banana has about 27g of carbs.
Black beans: Be sure to get various kinds of beans into your diet. Black beans are among the healthiest and also help fight health issues such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood sugar. Black beans also are powerhouses for iron, fiber, zinc and magnesium. One cup has 41g of carbs.
Brown rice: It’s healthier than white rice due to its high content of fiber, protein and vitamins. One cup of cooked brown rice has 52g of carbs.
Lentils: Another member of the legume family, lentils are packed with fiber and carbs that release glycogen into your bloodstream. And they are also a solid source of protein. One cup of boiled lentils has 40g of carbs.
Quinoa: Not only does it have a high carb count, the gluten-free grain is a complete protein with all seven essential amino acids. Just half a cup of quinoa has 20g of carbs.
Sweet potatoes: Another food that I have just about every day. There are a variety of healthy ways to have this delicious, carb-loaded source of goodness. Mashed or baked in the toaster oven are my preferences. Microwaving is OK too, but that nukes some of the key nutrients. Depending on its size, a sweet potato has about 25g of carbs.
What else you need to know
Another benefit of carbs is they help with hydration. Every gram of stored glycogen, also contains 4 grams of water.
Smith often recommends liquid recovery, especially for athletes who struggle with post-workout appetite suppression or on hot days when someone doesn’t feel like solid food.
“The liquid nutrition is going to be easier to get in than trying to eat something solid when you don't really have an appetite,” she says. “It's also going to help you start to rehydrate. Those products have the protein, the carbohydrates, the electrolytes that we're looking for in that post-workout window.”
It’s crucial to get in a mix of carbs and proteins soon after the workout concludes. After returning home, the athlete can still get all the recovery benefits from a healthy meal.
“There's lots of really quick and easy things that you can find a lot of places that can help with a quick refuel, like chocolate milk and a banana,” she suggests. “Or for my vegans, Ripple Milk is a pretty good equivalent to add in if you're not doing dairy or animal products.”
I’ve been working on incorporating more smoothies into my diet. And have found that they make a great post-recovery snack, especially when I venture to a trail then have to drive back home for a proper meal.
After a recent Saturday long run, I enjoyed a smoothie with kale, banana, blueberries, watermelon, hemp seeds and Gnarly Nutrition Vegan powder with almond milk on my way home. I also added a scoop of Gnarly’s creatine to boost recovery. Additionally, I ate a Honey Stinger nut and seed bar. The smoothie and nut bar combined for 769 calories, 85.6g of carbs and 51.6g of protein.
The smoothie and protein tasted great and really hit the spot. And, best of all, the carbs will spur my recovery after a tough long run and reset my body so I can continue progressing toward my big goal race this fall.