For runners, carbohydrates are a fundamental source of energy. But unless you're a multi-stage ultra runner or blessed with the metabolism of a cheetah, this doesn’t equal free rein to eat your weight in pizza and chips. The key is finding the right balance and eating the best types of carbs for your training needs.
Choose your carbs wisely
Carbohydrates are generally divided into simple (refined) or complex (unrefined), with the type and amount of energy we get from food depending on which ones we eat. Opting for unrefined foods such as oats, rye and brown rice will give you more energy for longer minus a potential crash, thanks to the slow release of glucose into the bloodstream.
According to the NHS, ‘Unrefined carbohydrates give you greater, longer-lasting energy, because your body digests them more slowly.’ These types of carbohydrates have also been said to help protect against diabetes and colon cancer.
For a fast energy hit, refined carbohydrates such as chocolate and sugary sweets will do just that, although this can lead to weight gain as well as a drop in blood sugar levels, making you feel tired and lethargic. Refined carbs provide an instant energy boost, similar to an energy gel during a race or sugar rush from a fizzy drink, but this spike is usually short lived so unless you're a sprinter, stick to unrefined food groups for longer runs.
Carbs and weight gain
In recent years carbohydrates have received a lot of flak, with many mainstream diets claiming that carbs are responsible for weight gain. The truth is carbs contain less calories than you may think and excluding them from your diet could have negative consequences, particularly for runners.
The NHS back this up: ‘In fact, gram for gram, carbohydrates contain fewer than half the calories of fat’. But with any diet, balance is key. By incorporating a balance of unrefined carbohydrates and fibrous ingredients into your diet it can keep you feeling fuller for longer and feed your system with the right foods.
Wholegrain and wholemeal foods also contain a greater amount of soluable fibre, which can protect your body from sugar spikes that are usually followed by a drop later in the day, which is often why we reach for the biscuit tin in the afternoon.
To get the best from your carbs, try to vary your diet as much possible, including some complex carbs (brown rice, pasta, oats) and some simple ones (white bread, white rice) to make sure you’re getting a wide range of vitamins and minerals, but also to ensure you don’t go crazy just eating the same old pasta or rice dish over and over again.
Do runners really need carbs?
As experienced runners will know, carbohydrates are packed with energy that is fundamental to your running success. Your body converts carbohydrates into fuel, opting for this as the most efficient energy source.
If you’re running long distances you will be familiar with the art of carb-loading and how carbohydrates are key to running performance. With extra carbohydrate in your muscles, you'll simply be able to train or compete at a fast pace for longer periods of time.
Unless you're following a specific meal plan and receiving professional nutrition advice, carbs are essential for running performance, so embrace this key food group as an integral aspect of your diet.
Good mood food
Carbs contribute to more than running performance. When we ingest carbohydrates the amino acid trypophan is shuttled into the brain, one of the building blocks that helps to create the happy hormone seratonin. This can be found in simple carbohydrates, although this feeling will once again be short lived.
By eating complex, fibrous carbohydrates the body takes more time to break these down, and the seratonin production in your body is longer lasting, allowing you to maintain that good mood all day long.
Food is fuel, and not just in terms of giving your muscles energy. Mind power is one of the main things that carbohydrates deserve some recognition for. A study undertaken by the psychology department at Tufts University showed that following a severe carbohydrate restriction, the memory performance and reaction time of the participants became limited.
Science Daily explain this further, ‘The body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is carried to the brain through the blood stream and used immediately by nerve cells for energy'.
Reduced carbohydrate intake may therefore limit the brain’s source of energy. Ensure you have a portion of carbohydrates on your plate to keep your head in the game!
Try these healthy and delicious carb-heavy meals and run at your best: