Why Runners Need Carbs (Plus The Best Ones to Eat!)
Carbs have played the villain in the American Diet for far too long. The crusade against carbs seemed to peak with the Atkins Diet craze, a high protein, high fat, and very low carb diet that started in the early ’70s and touted rapid weight loss by restricting carbs. Thus, carbs were associated with weight gain.
The truth is, we need carbs! Especially athletes. Let’s quickly go back to the concept behind the low-carb craze. Your body’s go-to energy source is carbs, so when you restrict that source, your body is forced to use fat as fuel.
Your body prefers carbohydrate as the main fuel source when you run. In fact if carbohydrates are not present, your body will convert fat and protein into carbs for energy. This is a very inefficient form of energy for an endurance athlete. –Runner’s World
Carbs are the main source of energy for your brain as well as body, so cutting back can effect your your mental and physical energy. Not so good when you’re pushing yourself in the gym or have a race coming up. The other side of this equation is this: if not carbs, where do you get your energy? We’re all pretty OK with burning fat as a fuel source, but what about protein?
Protein plays a huge role in your recovery. During intense workouts, you’re breaking down the muscle, creating tiny microscopic tears in the tissue. That’s OK though, because while you rest, it’s the proteins that repair and rebuild muscle tissue which is what makes you stronger and your workouts more effective. If you’re lacking carbs, your body will tap into it’s protein sources, leaving less to repair your muscles. This is not how you get stronger.
Having a well balance diet – which the Dietary Guidelines for Americans outlines as 40-65% carbs, 10-35% protein (athletes should aim for the higher end), and 25-35% fat (leaning towards unsaturated fat or “healthy fats”) – is crucial to your athletic performance and won’t leave you spinning your wheels.
Which Carbs Should I eat?
Alas, all carbs are not created equal. Much like fat sources, there are some that work with your body, and others that work against it. Carbs can be found in everything from pasta to fruits to soda. So what are you looking for in a “good carb”?
In one word: complexity.
Complex carbs are made of more complex chains of sugars, generally containing a little healthy fat, protein, and/or fiber. These foods digest slower, keeping you fuller longer, but also giving you a steady insulin response versus a spike. Simple carbs, on the other hand, are shorter sugar chains that digest rapidly into the bloodstream, thus spiking your blood sugar. This can come in handy when you need a quick fuel source, which is what gels offer for endurance athletes, but most of the time we want something with more staying power. (myfitnesspal.com) Here are some examples of complex and simple carbs.
- Dark, leafy, green vegetables
- Unprocessed, whole grains (pastas, oatmeal, breads, etc.)
- Starchy vegetables (i.e. potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and pumpkin)
- Sugar (table and brown)
- Molasses, honey, maple syrup
- Soda and fruit juices
- Jellies and jams
- Processed baked goods (i.e. cookies, pies, etc.)
Placing a priority in the quality of carbs you eat, while balancing your overall caloric intake with your activity level, will get you to your athletic and aesthetic goals. In the end, it’s not carbs that make you gain weight. It’s eating too much (of anything) that makes you pack on extra pounds.
Fuel your body with what it needs to make the most of your workouts by placing a high priority on complex carbs, lean protein, and healthy fats. Your body will thank you come race day!
What’s your favorite way to get your carbs?