Carbs For Runners: The Best Carb Sources To Fuel Your Runs

After all, who doesn't love a few carbs?

Many of the most popular weight loss diets are low-carb diets.

However, for endurance athletes such as long-distance runners, carbohydrates are a key source of energy not only for your actual running workouts but also for supporting your overall energy needs and recovering from all of the training that you do.1Ludwig, D. S., Hu, F. B., Tappy, L., & Brand-Miller, J. (2018). Dietary carbohydrates: role of quality and quantity in chronic disease. BMJ361, k2340. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k2340

‌But, how many carbs do runners need to eat per day? What are the best carbs for runners? What are good high-carb foods for runners to eat before running and as part of an everyday diet?

In this nutrition guide, we will discuss how many grams of carbohydrates runners should eat per day, fueling with carbs before and during long-distance or high-intensity workouts, good carbs for runners, and the best carbohydrates for a runner’s diet.

French toast.

Are Simple Or Complex Carbs Better For Runners?

Before we start looking at how many grams of carbohydrates runners need per day and the best carbohydrates for runners to eat, it is important to present the disclaimer that I am not a registered dietitian. This does not constitute medical advice.

I am a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-Certified Endurance Nutrition Coach, and I have a master’s degree in Exercise Science and Nutrition.

Therefore, while I have a background in nutrition for runners and work with many marathon runners and endurance athletes on their nutrition strategy, the advice provided is not individualized and should not constitute medical advice.

By and large, healthy high-carb foods for runners are the same healthy high-carb foods for non-runners or athletes of other sports alike.

However, when we are considering the “best carbs for runners,“ the main differentiating factor between good carbs for runners and those that might not be necessarily “good carbs“ for non-runners is when discussing high-carb fuel sources before, during, and right after workouts.

Essentially, carbohydrate needs for runners fall within two categories: carbohydrates for sports performance and everyday carbohydrates in the runner’s diet.

A person opening an energy gel.

How Should Runners Time Their Carbohydrate Intake For Optimal Performance?

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an endurance-trained athlete can store up to 1,800 to 2,000 calories of fuel as glycogen in the muscles and liver, though smaller runners might store closer to 1,500 calories or so.

Depending on your body size and running pace, this means that you might store enough glycogen to support about 90-120 minutes of running at your marathon race pace effort.

Pre-race and fueling during your race or run with simple carbs helps provide a trickle of additional blood glucose so that you don’t deplete your glycogen stores, which can cause muscle cramping, fatigue, and “hitting the wall.”

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), endurance athletes should ingest 30–60 grams of carbohydrates per hour during workouts lasting 1-3 hours or more.2American College of Sports Medicine. (2009). Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise41(3), 709–731. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0b013e31890eb86

‌However, more isn’t necessarily better. 

A person calculating carbs.

Evidence suggests that the maximum rate of carbohydrate absorption during exercise is 60 grams per hour. Therefore, sticking to the 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour recommendation is a good idea.3Jeukendrup, A. (2013). Carbohydrate Supplementation During Exercise: Does It Help? How Much is Too Much? Gatorade Sports Science Institute. https://www.gssiweb.org/sports-science-exchange/article/sse-106-carbohydrate-supplementation-during-exercise-does-it-help-how-much-is-too-much-

‌Note that because there are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates, 30-60 grams works out to 120-240 calories of carbohydrates per hour.

These carbohydrates can come from sports beverages, energy gels or chews, or whole foods such as dried fruit, pretzels, or bananas.

The standard recommendation to refuel glycogen storage after long workouts is to consume 0.6–1.0 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of weight within 30 minutes and again every 2 hours for the next 4–6 hours.4Jentjens, R. L. P. G., van Loon, L. J. C., Mann, C. H., Wagenmakers, A. J. M., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2001). Addition of protein and amino acids to carbohydrates does not enhance postexercise muscle glycogen synthesis. Journal of Applied Physiology91(2), 839–846. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.2001.91.2.839

‌For example, if you weigh 165 pounds (75 kg), you should aim to eat 45 to 75 grams of carbohydrates within 30 minutes after finishing a long run for marathon training or half marathon training.

Because there are 4 calories for every gram of carbohydrates, this equates to 180-300 calories of carbohydrates.

Protein in your post-workout high-carb meal has also been shown to help facilitate glycogen resynthesis.5Cintineo, H. P., Arent, M. A., Antonio, J., & Arent, S. M. (2018). Effects of Protein Supplementation on Performance and Recovery in Resistance and Endurance Training. Frontiers in Nutrition5(83). https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2018.00083

A variety of healthy carbs.

How Many Carbs Do Runners Need?

So, how many carbs do runners need per day?

There isn’t a set “amount of carbs” or number of grams of carbohydrates per day that you should eat.

Like the other macronutrients, the ideal amount of carbs in a runner’s diet will depend on how much you are running, your body size, your overall physical activity level, your dietary preferences, and your weight goals.

That said, most sports nutritionists and recommendations for the carbohydrate needs of runners and endurance athletes suggest the following:6Burke, L. M., Cox, G. R., Cummings, N. K., & Desbrow, B. (2001). Guidelines for Daily Carbohydrate Intake. Sports Medicine31(4), 267–299. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200131040-00003

  • Runners who are training at a “moderate“ level, which is considered to be less than one hour of running most days per week at a moderate or low intensity, need 5-7 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per day.
  • Runners who are training at a moderate to high level—considered to be 1 to 3 hours of moderate- to high-intensity exercise per day—should consume 7 to 10 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight per day.
  • Runners training at a very intense level, such as 4 to 5 hours of moderate to high-intensity running per day, such as competitive marathon runners and ultramarathon runners, should consume 10 to 12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram per day.
A person eating a rice bowl.

Using these guidelines for the carbs per day, the majority of everyday recreation of runners who are running for fitness for training for 5k races or 10k races fall within the first category of 5 to 7 grams of carbohydrates per day per kilogram of body weight.

Half marathon and marathon runners who are consistently running at least an hour most days per week, or doing harder workouts or longer runs should be closer to the 7 to 10 grams of carbohydrates per day per kilogram of body weight.

For example, a recreational runner who weighs 165, or 75 kg, should consume 375-525 grams of carbs per day.

Because there are 4 kcals per gram of carbohydrates, this works out to 1500-2100 calories of carbs per day.

If this same runner starts marathon training or is doing a more intense training plan, they should eat 525-750 grams of carbohydrates per day.

Note that the amount of carbohydrates in energy gels and sports drinks can vary, so make sure you check how many grams of carbohydrates are in your particular fuel source for during your runs.

Toast and jelly.

What Are The Best Carb-Loading Strategies for Runners Before a Race?

Carb loading, also called glycogen supercompensation or carbo loading, is a dietary protocol7Nakatani, A., Han, D.-H., Hansen, P. A., Nolte, L. A., Host, H. H., Hickner, R. C., & Holloszy, J. O. (1997). Effect of endurance exercise training on muscle glycogen supercompensation in rats. Journal of Applied Physiology82(2), 711–715. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.1997.82.2.711 that some marathon runners and endurance athletes undergo in order to try to increase their muscle glycogen storage above their baseline level.8Jensen, R., Ørtenblad, N., Stausholm, M. H., Skjærbæk, M. C., Larsen, D. N., Hansen, M., Holmberg, H., Plomgaard, P., & Nielsen, J. (2021). Glycogen supercompensation is due to increased number, not size, of glycogen particles in human skeletal muscle. Experimental Physiology. https://doi.org/10.1113/ep089317

‌Basically, the idea behind carb loading before a marathon is to overpack your glycogen storage so that you will have more glycogen available during a long race or long run so that the carbs you take in will be enough to prevent bonking. 

Carb loading involves first depleting your glycogen stores by following a very low-carbohydrate diet for 2-3 days (coupled with a carbohydrate-depleting workout) and then following a very high-carbohydrate diet for 2-3 days leading up to your marathon or endurance workout. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, you should aim for 8-12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight for 1-3 days before the event.9Mayo Clinic. (2022, March 22). Carbohydrates: How carbs fit into a healthy diet. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/carbohydrates/art-20045705

Pancakes on a fork.

What Are The Best High-Carb Foods To Eat Before A Long Run Or Race?

Now that we’ve covered some of the basics about the importance of carb loading for marathon running and longer workouts let’s look at some ideas of the best high-carb foods to eat before a marathon, long run, or long-distance race:

  • Oatmeal or porridge
  • Cream of wheat hot cereal
  • Low-sugar whole-grain cereals that don’t have tons of fiber. If you only have 30-60 minutes before your race, dry, plain cereal like Cheerios, Chex, or Kix can be good.
  • Bananas
  • Pretzels with peanut butter
  • Applesauce
  • Plain croissant
  • Rice cakes 
  • Whole-grain waffles or pancakes 
  • Fig Newtons or other whole wheat fruit cookies
  • Fruit cereal bars like Nutrigrain bars
  • Toast, bagel, or English muffin with jam, butter, or peanut butter. Since nut butter contains other macronutrients (protein and healthy fats), ensure you have at least 90 minutes to 2 hours before your race to digest this type of pre-race or pre-long run meal.
  • Crackers
  • An energy bar or a high-carb granola bar like Bobo’s Oat Bars or Bob’s Red Mill Oat Bars
  • Dried fruit such as raisins, craisins, yogurt-covered raisins, dried apples, dried pineapple, dates, dried apricots, and figs all work well for many runners.
  • Fruit smoothies 
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Whole wheat bread with healthy fats like peanut butter or almond butter
  • Mashed potatoes
  • White rice
  • Couscous
  • Pastina
Healthy carbs.

What Are The Best Carbs For Runners In Their Everyday Diet?

  • Vegetables: Spinach, kale, artichokes, arugula, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, cauliflower, radishes, mushrooms, peppers, cabbage, celery, asparagus, yellow squash, cucumbers, beet greens, onions, etc.
  • Starchy veggies: Sweet potatoes, white potatoes, winter squash, peas, corn, cassava, beets, turnips, parsnips, carrots, yams, pumpkin (technically a fruit).
  • Fruits: Apples, bananas, pears, peaches, oranges, grapefruit, berries, cherries, pineapple, kiwi, plums, mangos, star fruit, grapes, nectarines, papaya, melon, guava, clementines, pomegranates, apricots, figs, etc.
  • Whole Grains: Whole oats, whole wheat, quinoa, buckwheat, rye, barley, brown rice, quinoa, teff, farro, arameth, pasta, bread, oatmeal, muesli, healthy cereals, etc.
  • Legumes: Beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, soy, etc.
  • Running-Specific Sports Performance Food: Energy bars, energy gels, sports drinks, dried fruit, chews with glucose and electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium), etc.

Overall, if you have any concerns about your nutritional needs, including how many grams of carbohydrates you need per day or the best carbs to eat as a runner, you should work with a registered dietitian.

If you are looking for some pre-run snack ideas, check out this next guide:

References

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

1 thought on “Carbs For Runners: The Best Carb Sources To Fuel Your Runs”

  1. I read this about running and carbs,I dont do carbs much as I need,im trying to lose my lower belly pooch and I have ibs ,but during my run today I couldn’t even go uphill at all and no energy,very frustrating after 3 years of trail and road running,im 61 slim and no real bad habits,but I need to get better on these runs ,im so up and down and lately more down

    Reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.