Somewhere along the way, we got it in our heads that all carbohydrates are bad. That if you eat them, you will gain weight and not be able to perform at a high level. The truth is, if you eat too much of anything you can experience weight gain, but in the end, carbs are not a runner’s enemy.
“Carbohydrates are a runner’s best friend,” explains Kimberly Gomer MS, RD, LDN, director of nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa. “When we run out of them — and therefore run out of glycogen in the liver and muscles — that is when the run gets ugly.”
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF CARBOHYDRATES
Carbohydrates are found in many foods — and there are multiple kinds, from processed to whole foods. Whole foods are, of course, better for your diet, so understanding the difference is key when choosing what to consume.
“Nutrition recommendations urge consumers to opt for more whole-food carbohydrates such as whole grains, potatoes, legumes, fruits and vegetables,” notes nutrition coach Brandice Lardner. “Processed carbohydrates — such as refined flours and sugars — are less nutritious, as manufacturers stripped away the fibers to make products hyper-palatable with a longer shelf-life.”
Similar to fat, carbohydrates are being unfairly categorized as bad, leading us to assume that all carbohydrates should be avoided. Of course, there are healthy carbohydrates — just as there are healthy fats — so arming yourself with information as to which work best as fuel helps keep you running strong and away from hitting the dreaded ‘wall’ in your next run or race.
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THE BEST CARBOHYDRATES FOR RUNNERS
Many carbohydrates can be heavy or processed with other ingredients such as sugar — which is what you’ll find in many breakfast cereals — so they may be too hard on a runner’s stomach to be consumed pre-run. However, there are some options that can keep you properly fueled (and far from the port-a-potty).
“If there are any stomach issues — for example, some runners need to avoid too much fiber pre-run — runners may need to eat some unrefined carbs at that time,” adds Gomer. “Some of the best carb sources for runners that can be eaten post-run are starchy vegetables (including potatoes, corn and squash), brown rice, quinoa and oatmeal; all whole, unrefined grains.”
Eating whole, unprocessed foods is generally always the best idea for any diet and “eating clean and green” is often encouraged by both dietitians and nutritionists. Eating a well-balanced diet of protein, unprocessed carbohydrates and healthy fat is ideal, especially when you are fueling your body for athletic performance.
“Runners benefit from including carbohydrates in their diets because carbs are the preferred fuel of our muscles,” shares Lardner. “While our bodies can convert fat and protein into energy, breaking down those forms of fuel is a much slower process and does not provide the quick and accessible energy that runners benefit most from.”
RID YOURSELF OF FEAR
In our current diet-obsessed culture, many fad diets fixate on only one type of food. For example, both low-carb diets and high-protein diets are touted, without really looking at the big picture of nutrition.
“The big mistake is to just focus on one thing — like weight loss — and then forget about the rest of your health,” states Gomer. “For example, some diets say, ‘Don’t eat carbs,’ but what will you eat? Protein? That protein has plenty of fat along with it, which can be a big problem for cholesterol and heart health.”
When it comes to fueling your runs, it will take some experimentation to find out what works best for you. Play around with race day nutrition on your practice runs and never eat something new the morning of a race (or you may just find yourself suffering stomach cramps halfway through). As with any type of food, what works for your running buddy may not work for you. And remember, carbohydrates alone do not make you fat or unhealthy.
“Excess quantity of any type of food will lead to weight gain, so do your best to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues,” adds Lardner. “Be mindful of how certain types and amounts of carbohydrates make you feel and how they support your runs.”