By Matt Fitzgerald—Runners need a lot of carbohydrates. Why? Because your muscles are fueled primarily on carbs when you run hard. Thus, sports nutrition experts generally recommend that runners get approximately 60 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates.
But you need to get the right kinds of carbs at the right times. Immediately before, during, and after exercise, fast-acting high-glycemic carbs are best. At all other times, your carbs should come from low-glycemic foods that provide longer-lasting energy and are packed with lots of other nutrients. Following are the top 10 carbohydrate sources for runners. Some are best for use during and after exercise, while others are ideal for regular meals and snacks.
Because they are easy to eat and digest and are loaded with fast-acting carbohydrates (one large banana provides 31 grams of carbs), bananas make the perfect pre-exercise or post-exercise snack. Just be sure to have your banana with some form of protein after exercise to promote muscle recovery and repair.
Strawberries, blueberries, and other berries are among the most nutritious sources of carbohydrate. They are rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that promote health and performance in all kinds of ways. Berries are not the most concentrated source of carbs, however (a full cup of strawberries contains just 12 grams), so don’t rely on them too heavily to meet your daily carb needs.
Cereal grains such as brown rice are among the richest sources of carbohydrate. One cup of brown rice has 45 grams grams of carbohydrate. Whole grains such as brown rice are considered healthier than refined grains such as white rice because they contain more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They are also absorbed more slowly (their glycemic index is lower), so they provide more lasting energy and promote less fat storage.
Real energy bars—the kind designed specifically for use before, during, and after exercise—are great for fueling and refueling around workouts as they provide abundant, fast energy. Before and after workouts, choose bars that are high in carbs, moderate in protein, and low in fat and fiber. With 44 grams of carbs, 9 grams of protein, 3.5 grams of fat, and 1 gram of fiber, PowerBar Performance is a good example. For snacking, choose bars made from real food—fruit, nuts, and whole grains—and with minimal added sugar, like Forze GPS.
Lowfat milk-based foods such as yogurt are very rich sources of carbohydrate. A six-ounce serving of lowfat blueberry yogurt supplies 26 grams of carbs. Lowfat yogurt is a better choice before and immediately after exercise, because it has a higher glycemic index, so the carbs go to work quickly. Most yogurts, even those with fruit in them, contain added sugar, which is totally unnecessary and less healthy. So try to find a brand with no added sugar.
Old-fashioned oatmeal is an ideal pre-exercise breakfast choice. It’s easy to eat and digest and provides a ton of carbs: one half-cup gives you a whopping 54 grams! Add a sliced banana and wash it down with a glass of OJ and you’ll take in 100-plus grams of carbohydrate.
Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Accelerade provide the carbs you need to fuel your muscles during exercise, along with water and electrolytes for hydration (plus protein to reduce muscle damage, in the case of Accelerade). Because they are high in sugar, though, these products should only be used immediately before, during, and right after workouts and races.
Tomato sauce is a rich source of carbohydrate (at roughly 21 grams per cup), as well as various vitamins and minerals and antioxidants such as lycopene. Studies have shown that, thanks to these antioxidants, regular tomato sauce eaters have a lower risk for certain diseases, including prostate cancer in men.
We Americans love our sandwiches. But often we make them with low-quality breads that contain refined grains. Whole-grain breads are a better choice. They don’t have any more carbohydrate than refined-grain breads (one slice has 12 grams), but they have more fiber, vitamins and minerals, and a lower glycemic index to give you longer-lasting energy. Just note that even most whole-grain breads have added sugar, so try to find brands that don’t.
You don’t need me to tell you that pasta is high in carbs. One cup of whole-wheat spaghetti provides 37 grams. As with other grain-based foods, whole-grain pasta supplies more nutrition, yields longer-lasting energy, and promotes less fat storage than regular pasta. Serve it with a protein, such as shellfish or meatballs made with lean ground beef or turkey, and you get a lower glycemic index meal for even longer-lasting energy.