For the Love of Carbohydrates… And Running

Tis the season for running! Whether you’re a track star, ultra distance runner, weekend warrior, 5K fanatic, or training for the zombie apocalypse, you’ve probably recognized that how well you fuel plays into how well you run.


While carb-o-hydrates (a fancy word for ‘food that turns into blood sugar’ in the body) have in recent years gotten a bad wrap, they’re the human body’s number one source of fuel. Now, having said that, they’ve gotten a bad wrap for good reason. Most of us eat and drink waaaaaay too many of the not-so-great kind of carbohydrates.


Carbohydrates (carbs) can be broken down into two categories: simple (refined, processed, or readily absorbed into the blood stream) and complex (think long, fibrous chains that are difficult to grind, blend, chew, digest, and absorb).  Neither are necessary ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but for overall health and well being, we know that complex = more whole and intact = closer to it’s original form = it probably has more life giving nutrients (fiber, water, minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals) = it’s digested and absorbed much slower with less shock to the body. While simple = more refined and processed = no longer in it’s whole form = probably has fewer nutrients = digested and absorbed much more quickly causing a hormonal cascade in the body as it tries to figure out what to do with this mad rush of blood sugar.


To the average Joe who wakes up and takes the dogs for a walk before driving to work where he’ll sit in a desk, get out and walk to lunch and coach little league baseball in the evening before going home to take out the trash and head to bed, a balanced intake with no more than a handful of complex carbohydrate foods at each meal would be ideal.


To the endurance athlete who wakes up early for a 15K run followed by a bike to work and an evening swim, a heaping handful of complex carbohydrates might be a better idea, along with a sprinkling of simple carbohydrate foods spread throughout the day for a combination of quick and sustained energy.


Check out this list of simple and complex carbohydrates for more info:



  • Complex  
    • o Green vegetable
    • o Whole grains such as brown rice, millet, quinoa, and barley and foods made from 100% whole grains like oatmeal, cream of wheat, buckwheat pancakes, pastas, and breads.
    • o Starchy vegetables like summer and winter squashes (butternut, acorn, spaghetti squash), sweet potatoes, pumpkin, beets, other root vegetables, corn and peas.



  • Simple
    • o Table sugar
    • o Soda pop
    • o Brown sugar
    • o Honey
    • o Maple syrup
    • o Molasses
    • o Jams, jellies
    • o Fruit drinks
    • o Candy
    • o Cake
    • o Cookies
    • o Sugary Cereal
    • o White pasta
    • o Enriched Bread
    • o Breakfast bars
    • o Chips, Crackers and Pretzles


Carbohydrate Loading is an often talked about topic at every running event I’ve ever been to. Some runners swear by their tried and true methods, while others are seemingly in the dark about this idea of taking in more carbs on the days leading up to a race.  I’ve outlined a few ideas polled from research, the pros, and personal experience to give novice loaders an entry level ‘how to’. What we know from history is that it’s not an exact science and each runner and running event is different.  Thus, a sound method of tried and true ‘trial and error’ is always the best approach.


  • When to Start Loading:
    • o Loading up on carbohydrates more than 3 days before an event has not been shown to impact performance. Most high endurance athletes will start shifting their % carbohydrates at mealtime from 40% to 60% to 80% and 90%, 2-3 days prior to the event.  Note that if you’re event is anticipated to last less than 90 min, 1-2 days prior should be sufficient.
  • Tapering:
    • o Most athletes are aware that just as important to put more glycogen (stored muscle glucose or sugar) in their muscles prior to an event, it’s important to keep it there by not overusing muscles on the days leading up to the event. Many athletes will limit exercise to 20-30 min 2 and 3 days prior to an event and do little to no exercise the day prior.
  • Portion Sizing:
    • o Contrary to popular belief, carbo-loading doesn’t imply that athletes pig out on carbs on days leading up to an event. Portion sizes should stay just the same as they do during training. If you’re eating a balanced diet already (2 handfuls of food at each meal and 1 handful as a snack) with 1 palm filled up with protein while the other holds your starch, thumbs filled up with healthy fats and fingers spread wide with non-starchy vegetables and fruits, then as race day nears, you maintain the same quantity of foods at each meal, but the proportion of a palm full of carbohydrates crowds out the protein a bit, and lose one of the thumbs and part of the fingers holding the veggies and fats to additional whole food starches like grains, beans, legumes, and root vegetables or squashes.
  • Hydration Status:
    • o A big part of why carbo-loading is so effective is because for every gram of carbohydrate stored in muscles, 3 grams of water is also stored. We’ve all got that friend who lost ‘10# the first week’ on a low carb diet… Sadly that was mostly water losses, not fat losses as water is stored in our muscle tissues along with the carbohydrates we keep there for immediate energy.  This is good news for endurance athletes who will need a lot of water to perform well during an event. Hydrating to the point where every pee you take is a pale yellow color and continuing to hydrate at that rate will ensure adequate fluids on board pre-event. Alcohol, because it flushes stored water from the body as the liver breaks it down, isn’t a great idea on the days leading up to an event. Sports drinks and sugary beverages aren’t necessary as long as adequate amounts of foods are consumed at regular meal times.
  • Fueling Right Before an Event:
    • o Event day breakfast. This is a highly debatable topic and the jury’s still out about eating right before performing. A lot of athletes have sensitive tummies due to race day jitters and many events start early in the AM. The rule here is don’t do anything you haven’t tried in training. If you usually train without breakfast, then perform without breakfast. If you typically eat, make sure it’s 1-4 hours prior and keep it at nearly 100% carbohydrate as any protein, fat, and fiber will delay stomach emptying and impact performance. No new foods on race day!
    • o Fluids on race day are critical. Give yourself 2 hours to down 24 oz. of fluids to process and get rid of before the race starts. 5 or 10 minutes before the race starts, take in another 8 to 16 oz.
  • Time it Right:
    • o If you’re thirsty or hungry during the event, it’s too late! That’s the general rule of thumb. Eat and drink early and often. Typically athletes will consume 5-10 oz. every 20 min but it varies on body size and intensity. Get to know your typical fluid losses by weighing yourself before and after a training session. (1# lost = 16oz fluid losses, not fat!)
    • o For long distance events, roughly 250 calories from carbohydrates each hour is ideal to keep enough glucose (blood sugar) flooding the muscle tissue to keep up with the demands of the body. That’s about 60g of carbs every hour, (1 large banana or 3 energy gels, 32oz sports drink)
  • Recovery:
    • o It’s back to normal after a race when it comes to meal planning. Avoid the urge to overeat and allow your body to use your post-event meal as recovery. It’s also back to basics. 2 handfuls of food (one palm protein, the other complex carbs, and loads of anti-inflammatory veggies, fruits and fats.)



Chat with many competitive endurance athletes and they’ll almost all agree that towards the end of any event, it becomes an eating competition as much as a physical endurance competition and everyone has their own devised strategy. Having said that, I’m curious to know what your strategy is? How do you fuel up for a race? What foods and drinks keep you fueled during competition and training? What’s your favorite way to recover?


If it so happens that you’re still working to devise a nutrition plan, let us know! At Nourish Appalachia we love helping active people reach their goals!

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Posted on

January 16, 2018