Best Carbs for Runners

Boule loaf of bread baked by Jill

I’ve got Holly Martin from The Run Experience guest posting here again, this time we’re discussing carbohydrates. Having been through eating disorder treatment, I can’t condone anyone cutting out entire food groups. Nutrition is personal as we’re all individuals with different needs, but your brain needs carbs so don’t dismiss them completely! – Jill

There are many different types of carbohydrates, some of which have a bad reputation. As runners, it can be tough to figure out which carbs to eat and when. 

In this article, we will take a look at why runners need carbohydrates at all, which types of carbohydrates are better for which types of training sessions, and some general tips for adding carbohydrates into your diet.

Note that nutrition for runners is highly individualized. Because of this, try any or all of these tips, and welcome some trial and error. If you did not feel great on a run, consider shifting the times at which you are eating, or the particular food you ate before that run. 

Play around until you design a healthy diet that is not only nutritious but works for you. 

Why Runners Need Carbs

Your body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose, and glucose is what your body uses for energy. Because of this, runners need carbs to fuel their runs. 

The term “fuel” can mean different things depending on what type of training you’re doing. Your body has different needs for a short, fast run than it does for a long endurance run.

For a shorter, more intense effort, your body needs carbohydrates that digest quickly so that your body has access to all of that fuel right away.

For longer, sustained efforts, your body needs carbohydrates that digest more slowly, so that some of the fuel from the carbohydrates is still available for use during the middle of your run. 

Fuel for Shorter, Intense Runs 

When fueling for a shorter run, simple carbohydrates are going to be your best bet. This is because they digest more quickly, so all of their fuel is readily available for your body to use right away.

However, note that this mainly applies to shorter, intense efforts. While this remains true for any shorter effort, your body does not usually require additional fuel for a short run at your normal speed.

Because of your body’s ability to store fuel, your normal diet and eating schedule will usually be able to get you through a run at normal speed that is under an hour.

If, however, that short-run includes hills, or you are practicing speed work or trying to drop your pace time, you will want additional fuel.

This is where simple carbs come into play. Some options include:

  • A banana
  • A piece of white toast
  • Dates
  • Berries
  • A spoonful of honey 

All of these options are simple enough that your body can break them down quickly and use the fuel they break down into. 

Aim to ingest your fuel one to two hours before your run. If your schedule does not allow for that, use trial and error to see how you feel best on your shorter, intense effort.

Fuel for Longer, Endurance Runs

For longer runs, complex carbohydrates are preferred. These are runs that are over an hour.

As explained above, complex carbs break down more slowly. Because they will still be breaking down over your run, your body will essentially receive new fuel mid-run, without you needing to pull out a gel or an energy block. 

Complex carbohydrates often incorporate some fats as well. Good options for these include:

However, if your run is longer than 90 minutes, you will want to consume additional fuel during the run. Aim to consume 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour on these long runs. In addition to the options above, pretzels and potato chips are also good options for mid-run. They’re fairly easy to eat, and the salt on them helps replenish some electrolytes you may have lost.

Carbohydrates In General

Casting your fuel needs aside, let’s take a look at what types of carbohydrates are preferred for your runner’s diet in general. 

As a rule of thumb, simple carbohydrates are often found in processed foods that are not as good for you. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are usually found more readily in whole foods or less processed foods.

Complex carbs also tend to be higher in fiber, and just more nutrient-packed in general. As a result, aim to incorporate more complex carbs than simple carbs into your everyday diet. Choose brown rice over white rice, whole-grain bread over white bread. Small changes like that will help give your body the nutrients it needs, without you having to drastically change your diet.

Lastly, do not forget about recovery nutrition. While your fuel needs may be distinct, they certainly are not all that matters. A healthy diet outside of pre-run fuel is essential and eating to ensure optimal recovery is a major part of that.

Be cautious about eating nutrition-less food after a long run because “you deserve it.” While you certainly do deserve to splurge after a tough effort, be sure that you’re not throwing off future runs with poor post-run nutrition. 

About the Author

Holly Martin is a San Francisco-based running coach and personal trainer. With a 20+ year background in dance, Holly brings a strong focus on technique and mobility to all of her coachings. Currently, she coaches online with The Run Experience, an online training community that specializes in providing running plans for beginners, marathon training, half marathon running plans, workouts and more. She trains clients at Midline Training and Nfinite Strength. Check out her blog for more advanced tips for running.

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