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Carbohydrates 101 for runners

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In the world of nutrition for runners, carbs are king. Without them, we couldn’t make it through all those long runs, tempos, interval workouts and races. Despite their importance, or perhaps because of it, carbohydrates are one of the biggest nutrition topics runners ask questions about. Not sure how much, when or what type of carbohydrates you should be eating? You’ve come to the right place.

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What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients, along with fat and protein. They include simple sugars like glucose and fructose, as well as fibre and starch. Your body breaks down carbohydrates into sugar (a.k.a. glucose molecules) so your cells can use them for energy. If your body doesn’t need this energy right away, it stores it in the form of glycogen in your liver or muscles to be used later. As a distance runner, it’s important that you have plenty of stored glycogen to draw upon when you’re out for a run, workout or race.

How much carbohydrate do I need?

Runners need a lot of carbohydrates to support their level of activity, but the actual amount you need on a daily basis may fluctuate depending on your body and your training schedule. Most experts agree you need anywhere from 2.5 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight. During a training cycle when you’re running a lot of mileage or doing several higher-intensity sessions during the week, you’ll want to aim for the higher end of that range, and when you’re in the off-season or you’re doing more moderate training, it’s OK if your daily intake lands closer to the 2.5-3.5 range.

For example, a 130-pound runner who’s in the middle of a training cycle who’s trying to eat 3.5-4.5 g/lb every day needs to consume 455 g. to 585 g. per day. For a 150-pound runner, those numbers are 525 g to 675 g. Here are some approximate carbohydrate counts for some common foods:

  • 1 c. brown rice: 45 g
  • 1 medium baked potato: 30 g
  • 1 medium banana: 30 g
  • 2 slices of bread: 40 g
  • 2 tbsp jam: 30 g
  • 1c. cooked oatmeal: 30 g
  • 1 c. pasta: 45 g
  • 5-6 dried dates: 30 g

When should I eat carbohydrates?

It’s important as a runner that you eat carbohydrates throughout the entire day to ensure you’re getting enough to support your training, but “bookending” your runs with carbohydrates is a great way to fuel your workouts. This means consuming higher amounts of carbs in the hours leading up to your run and in the 30-60 minutes afterward. Ideally, you should aim to consume 0.5 to 0.7 grams are carbohydrates within 30 minutes after you finish running. That means a 130-pound runner should eat 65-91 g following a run, and a 150-pound runner should eat 75-105 g.

For runs lasting longer than 90 minutes, you should also take in some carbohydrates to make sure you don’t bottom out your glycogen stores before you make it to the finish line. Ideally, you should try to consume 40-60 g of carbohydrates per hour after one hour of running.

For longer races, like half-marathons, marathons and ultras, carb-loading can help ensure you have plenty of energy resources to draw from on race day. Carb-load effectively by consuming 4-5 grams of low-fibre carbohydrates per pound of body weight each day for 72 hours leading up to race day.

What types of carbohydrates should I eat?

As a runner, there is room in your diet for all types of carbohydrates. Ideally, you want the bulk of your carbohydrate intake to come from nutrient-dense sources like fruits, starchy vegetables and whole grains, but there is a time and place for less nutrient-dense carbs as well. You should avoid high-fibre carbohydrates before a hard run or race, and even the occasional cookie or piece of cake can help you reach your daily carbohydrate goals.

What not to eat after a run

When it comes to choosing which carbs you should eat, whether that’s throughout your day, before a workout or during a run, it will take some trial and error to figure out what works best for you. Your main goal as a runner should be to make sure you’re eating¬†enough¬†carbohydrates, and that you’re eating plenty of healthy, nutrient-dense foods.