The best carbohydrate sources for runners include a healthy mixture of grains, vegetables, and fruits. I’ll outline the best ones. This comprehensive list can be mixed and matched for a plethora of healthy recipes.
So many people spend their lives avoiding carbohydrates. For those watching their weight, carbs are seen as ‘the bad guys.’
But carbs are a vital part of the runner’s diet.
They shouldn’t be avoided or eaten with guilt. Carbohydrates are a source of energy for runners, propelling you farther and faster than you’d be without them.
Carbohydrate Sources for Runners: Why You Need Carbs for Running
Carbohydrates are stored in the muscle and liver as glycogen. When you need it (i.e. when you’re running), the body converts them into energy.
For low-intensity runs (like a quick jog) the body uses more fat and less carbs. But for high-intensity runs like race training or long distances, you need more carbs.
When you train regularly, you alert your body that you’ll be running again soon. So you train it to automatically store up more glycogen and to take more energy from carbs.
How Many Carbs Should a Runner Ingest?
While you don’t have to measure out your carbohydrate intake to the tee, it helps to have a general idea of how much you should be eating.
Sports dietitian Lizzie Kasporek recommends these daily carb doses, per pound of bodyweight:
- Moderate exercisers: 2.5 – 3 grams
- Endurance athletes and racers: 2.5 – 4.5 grams
- Ultra-endurance athletes: 4.5 grams
It’s best to eat carbohydrates 15-30 minutes before your run so they last through the run, giving you energy throughout.
The 11 Best Ways to Get Carbs In Your Diet
A balanced, varied diet is critical. Even in a category as specific as carbohydrates, you have so many options to choose from.
Don’t limit yourself to one type of carbohydrate.
Spread your intake among a variety of sources.
To make it easier, I’ve divided your carbohydrate options into 2 groups: grains and vegetables and fruits.
And remember, carbohydrates come from a variety of sources – although where you can, you should stick to whole food sources. If you’re a beer lover, one of the few drawbacks of doing a Sober October challenge is you lose a source of carbs!
1. Brown Rice
Known as a cereal grain, brown rice is one of the best sources of carbohydrates. It’s healthier than white rice because it holds more fiber, protein, and vitamins. White rice is the least healthy type of rice since it gets bleached before processing. That process strips it of its healthiest nutrients.
Even though brown rice does contain more healthy elements than white rice, the two sources have roughly the same amount of carbohydrate levels. So if your only goal is ingesting an energy boost for your run, either type will be fine.
Just keep in mind that your diet as a runner is never about one exclusive ingredient. If you want to become a fast runner, you have to consistently maintain an all-around healthy eating routine.
Brown rice may not offer more carbs than white rice, but it certainly adds more nutritional, long-lasting benefits to your overall health.
1 cup of cooked brown rice = 52 grams of carbohydrates.
Quinoa often gets overlooked as a carbohydrate source because of its high protein value. While it is a complete protein (with all 7 essential amino acids), it offers a high portion of carbs.
Scientists call quinoa a pseudocereal, which means it’s not technically a grain. It is the seed of a plant that comes from the South American Andes and is in the same family as Swiss chard and kale.
If you’re buying quinoa at the store, you’ll typically just find 2 variations: white and red. But the plant-based grain actually makes over 120 different types. If you weren’t already a big fan of quinoa, now is the time to get acquainted.
Quinoa is a versatile ingredient that pairs with vegetable bowls, can be made into a salad, and can even be used as a substance for holding together veggie burgers or gluten-free recipes.
As a runner, it’s a must-have item to be stocked in your home and used in creative ways.
½ cup of quinoa = 20 grams of carbohydrates.
3. Black Beans
Whoever said eating healthy was expensive never tried black beans. They’re one of the cheapest carbohydrate sources in the grocery store.
When you eat a portion of black beans you brace your body to fight against major health problems: Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, and high blood sugar.
So they’re not just a high source of carbohydrates – they provide much more value. Some of these are iron, fiber, zinc, and magnesium.
1 cup of black beans = 41 grams of carbohydrates
4. Whole Wheat Pasta
Mixed with lean protein and vegetables, whole wheat pasta is an incredible energy source for runners. Similar to rice and other grains, it’s better to eat whole wheat over white pasta because of its natural, unbleached nutrition.
With more nutrients in their natural form, eating whole wheat helps create longer-lasting effects, keeping you running faster and longer.
1 cup of whole wheat pasta = 37 grams of carbohydrates.
Oatmeal should be a frequent staple for runners. It’s made up of complex carbohydrates, which are natural sugar molecules strung together in a complex chain.
A complex carbohydrate is much better for you than simple carbohydrates because all their original vitamins and minerals are still intact. Refined sugars are sometimes called empty calories because they don’t leave you with lasting energy during your run.
1 cup of oatmeal = 27 grams of carbohydrates.
Like beans, lentils are a part of the legume family. Eating lentils kills two birds with one stone: they’re packed with fiber and carbs that release glycogen into your bloodstream, but they’re also a strong source of protein.
So eating lentils can sustain you through your run and help your muscles recover at the end.
1 cup of boiled lentils = 40 grams of carbohydrates.
Vegetables and Fruits
7. Sweet potatoes
For runners needing a quick carbohydrate fix, sweet potatoes are both easy to make and full of complex carbs. Pop one into the microwave for a quick baked potato with some salt and you have a perfectly healthy and carb-injecting snack.
You can also use sweet potatoes for snacks like muffins or cookies, making a typical treat healthier.
1 sweet potato = 26 grams of carbohydrates.
The amount of carbs you’ll get from beets is slightly lower than the sweet potato or other, more starchy vegetables. That doesn’t mean they’re not effective, especially if you combine them with other carb-filled vegetables in a bowl mixed with quinoa.
Then you’ve hit the carbohydrate jackpot.
But beets are great for runners because of studies regarding their nitrate content. Many scientists believe beets can make you run faster with sodium nitrate. Nitrate supplements have shown evidence that runners perform better with regular intake.
You can find nitrate in all vegetables, but green leafy vegetables and beetroot have the highest concentration.
1 cup of chopped beets = 13 grams of carbohydrates.
Have you ever noticed how sweet bananas are? That’s because they rich in natural sugars and carbohydrates. Runners eat bananas because the levels of glucose molecules delay fatigue and keep you going mid-run.
Bananas are also great as a source of potassium. The electrolyte keeps fluids and nutrients moving through your body, preventing cramps and muscle spasms.
Lots of races will supply you with bananas either mid-run or after you finish. But when you’re running alone, you’re on your own.
If you feel yourself lagging or getting tired toward the end of your run, try eating a banana beforehand or even during the workout.
1 banana = 27 grams of carbohydrates.
Compared to many other fruits, apples offer a hefty source of carbohydrates. At the same time, they make a light and refreshing snack. They don’t go bad as quickly as bananas, so it’s easy to buy a big bag of them and keep in the fridge to chip away at daily.
Some runners find that apples don’t agree with them because of their large amount of fiber, so you’ll have to test them and see if they’re right for you.
If they cause problems for you on the run, you can always substitute them from a pre-run snack to a post-run recovery.
1 large apple = 31 grams of carbohydrates.
Mangoes are a powerful running superfood. They’re filled with carbs, but they’re also seeping with Vitamin C (for your immune system), and inflammation-fighting antioxidants and electrolytes.
Aside from fueling your run, they’re an excellent substitute from sugary desserts like ice cream or baked goods.
Eating plenty of mangoes will take way your craving for sweets, helping your overall health, and boosting weight loss – if that’s your goal.
1 mango = 50 grams of carbohydrates.
Incorporating All the Carbs in Your Diet
You’ll see the best results when you mix and match as many of these ingredients as you can. As you’ve seen, none of these are isolated food groups: when you go looking for carbs, you get a plethora of other vitamins and nutrients too.
If you’re planning on training for a race, all of these food items will make a huge difference in your running performance and progress.
Each one is fully customizable, so adjust it for your schedule and needs, grab a quick mango snack, and get started.
Related: Carb loading for runners
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