Carbs Glorious Carbs

Discover the importance of carbohydrates - and get your fix with barely a pasta shape in sight - with a little help from these culinary tips and tricks

Posted: 19 April 2012
by Alice Palmer

Runners need carbs - it's as simple as that. Carbohydrate is the fuel that keeps your body moving - the amount of glycogen stored in your muscles affects how long and hard you can run.

Paying attention to your carbohydrate needs doesn't just mean sucking up energy gels and drinks - if your overall diet is high in carbohydrate (60-70 per cent of your diet) you'll enjoy better endurance.

It's good to know what kind of carbs to eat when, and the GI Index can help work this out. The GI Index ranks foods from 0-100 based on their immediate impact on your blood sugar levels - a measure of how quickly your body can convert the food into glucose. Food with a very high GI is best for an instant glucose hit during or after exercise, while lower-GI foods, which release energy more slowly, are perfect nutrition in between sessions.

Fibre is also a vital ingredient in a runner's diet. Soluble fibre is found in beans, oats, rye and fruit and slows the digestion of carbohydrate, producing a slower rise in blood sugar - so you'll have more energy for longer. Insoluble fibre, found in wholegrain bread and cereals, whole-wheat pasta and brown rice, helps regulate your digestive system.

If you're quivering at the thought of piling in all these carbs, don't worry. It's not all "pasta, pasta, pasta" - you can get your carb fix with a little help from these inspiring alternatives.



Potatoes are unique, as the only starchy carbohydrate to also be a vegetable. This makes them amazingly nutrient-dense, packed with vitamins and minerals (including vitamin C, which is missing from rice and pasta) almost entirely fat- and cholesterol-free. Served in their skins, potatoes are also a great source of fibre.

If you're craving chips, go for a healthier alternative by making your own oven-baked potato wedges rather than firing up the chip pan.

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are rich in fibre, Beta-carotene, amino acids and vitamins A, C and B6 as well as being an excellent source of carbohydrates. They also have a lower GI than white potatoes, which means they have the perfect slow-release energy for long runs.

Like potatoes, you can boil, roast and mash sweet potatoes, and they also make a great addition to risotto, pasta and curry dishes. Unlike normal mash, sweet potato doesn’t even need extra butter or milk to produce a perfect, creamy result.



The Italian word “polenta” translates as “cornmeal mush”, but it's so much more than that. Made from ground cornmeal flour, polenta is the staple food of northern Italy. As well as being gluten-free, polenta is very low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and high in dietary fibre.

Polenta is hugely versatile: you can boil it, fry it, serve it alongside stews or even bake in breads and cake. In the UK, instant powdered polenta is widely available – and it cooks in minutes. Just mix the cornmeal with water and simmer until it thickens.

Polenta can be served hot – known as “wet” polenta – or left to cool, cut into slices and fried or grilled. “Wet” polenta can be bland – for a quick snack, mix in Italian cheese, mixed mushrooms or herbs.



Couscous might look like a grain but it's actually made from rolled semolina wheat (like pasta). With more protein than potatoes or rice, couscous also makes for a perfect recovery meal - its balance of carbohydrate and protein hits the magic 4:1 carbs:protein recovery ratio.

Quick-cook couscous is widely available and takes as little as five minutes, a kettle and a bowl to prepare - just the thing for refuelling rapidly after a hard run. For an even healthier option go for wholegrain couscous, which packs in more fibre and has a lower GI rating.

Couscous is also a great lunchbox staple - it tastes just as good cold or in salads. Stir in cooked vegetables (try roasted peppers or mushrooms) or toss with chopped nuts and dried fruits and top with a dollop or two of yoghurt and harissa.



Quinoa is made from the edible seeds of a grain-like crop, which originated in the Andes, and it has been a staple food in South America for thousands of years.

Its light, fluffy texture makes quinoa a tasty alternative to rice or couscous. High in protein as well as carbs - but low in cholesterol and sodium - quinoa is a great recovery food.

To cook quinoa, just boil it like rice (two parts water to one part quinoa) for 14-18 minutes or until the germ separates from the seed. The cooked germ should have a slight bite to it (like al dente pasta). Alternatively, mix in honey, nuts or berries for a high-protein breakfast bowl.



Rice is the world's most popular crop for a very good reason: it's calorie-dense, extremely high in carbohydrates and very low in fat. Plump for brown rice for a healthier option packed with fibre and protein, or basmati rice for a lower GI.

A mound of basmati rice is the perfect accompaniment to lots of runner-friendly meals. Veggie or chicken curries, Mexican chilli and risottos are all balanced, carb-packed meals. And once you've mastered making a basic risotto base, you can improvise with whatever's in the fridge: chopped bacon, peas, roast chicken - whatever you have to hand.

Pearl barley

Pearl barley

Pearl barley is simply barley grains that have been processed to remove the outer hull and bran. Because these parts of the barley have been removed, pearl barley cooks faster and is less chewy than other forms of barley - but it's just as crammed with carbohydrate.

A nutritional superstar, pearl barley is also a good source of fibre and low in fat and cholesterol.

Pop a stew in the slow cooker for something to look forward to after a long run - chicken pieces, stock, pearl barley and chopped vegetables add up to a nutritionally-balanced, super-healthy comfort food.



Amaranth is one of the few gluten-free grains, and a diet staple for runners with coeliac disease. But other runners would do well to follow their example.

Amaranth has an excellent balance of carbs, fat and protein and a much lower GI than pasta. It's also packed with calcium and iron, the perfect recipe for strong bones and muscles.

In Mexico, amaranth grains are popped and mixed with honey to make a sugary sweet called alegría (which is Spanish for happiness). You can make your own by frying the grains in a covered pan - or buy it ready-puffed as breakfast cereal from health stores.



Despite the name, buckwheat actually isn't related to wheat. Instead, it's a gluten-free grain with a hefty flavour that's especially popular in Eastern European and Russian cuisine.

It's also perfect running fodder - packed with carbohydrate, protein and fibre but low in fat and even lower in cholesterol.

Combine buckwheat flour (search it out in health food stores) with wheatflour for a healthier, savoury twist on pancakes - whether you're inspired by Breton galettes or American pancake stacks layered with bacon and maple syrup.



Bread is the ultimate versatile carb. Because of the myriad cooking methods and types of flour, bread can be really healthy - or really unhealthy - depending on how it's made.

In general, the more processed the flour the higher the GI rating bread will have. This means that if you're looking for a source of slow-release energy, it's best to ditch the white sliced and opt instead for wholemeal bread with added seeds and nuts. Rye bread is especially packed with soluble fibre - a filling, low GI option. Or to make sure you know exactly what's gone into your bread, you could even make your own!

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Discuss this article

A sub 60 ten mile and sub 80 half suggest I should complete a sub 3hr marathon but I seem to tire after 18 miles. Is this a fueling problem? I've tried gels but they play havoc with my guts.
Posted: 23/03/2010 at 10:46

You'll have to give us more information PhilW5 - e.g. what long runs do you do? How do you carbo-load before your marathon? Do you take on sport drink during the race? What breakfast do you have?

and the classic

at what pace do you set off at the start of your marathons?

Posted: 23/03/2010 at 17:43

I trained up to 24 miles for London last year. I was less than a minute over the three and found i tired in the last 4 miles. I was using gels.

I like to have porridge the morning of a race and take a cerial bar/banana to eat just before the start.

I'm training for shakespear (25/4) and up to 22 mile at a slower pace than i would like. On my last long run I had a banana half way and water. I seem to be able to run 3 hour pace from the start but just can't hold that pace to the finish line.

Maybe I'm just not cut out for the longer distance?

Posted: 24/03/2010 at 13:49

One of my favourite post-run snacks is raw sweet potato, cut into fingers and dipped in low-fat hoummous.  Sweet potatoes are delicious raw: very crunchy, a bit like carrots, but even nicer in my opinion.
Posted: 24/03/2010 at 20:17

this article states brown rice has a lot of fiber but the back of the rice package says a serving has barely one gram....? so which is it??
Posted: 04/12/2010 at 20:09

You'll need to do the maths - how big is a serving for starters?

Posted: 05/12/2010 at 10:44

I wonder. Gels make me nauseous. Energy drink (eg sis) becomes entirely unappetising after a bit if made up to recommended strength.

OK, I'm a slow runner, but I have found that real food with a bit of variety works best for me. Favourites: drinkable vanilla bean yoghurt, fruitcake. Have been known to eat small portions of dense sausage. The fruitcake is homemade and is mostly fruits and nuts. It is a little difficult to chew and swallow (not one of those who can walk and chew gum at the same time), but worth the trouble.

I think one of the purposes of the long runs is to do the experiments with fuelling. I am suspicious of calculations. Spending all my days working with theory, I have learned to respect the observation that theory is a guide, to be trusted only when proved acceptable in the particular case by experiment.

Posted: 05/12/2010 at 12:50

I ran the Brighton Marathon last Sunday and followed a carb loading programme for the 3 days leading up to last Sunday that someone recommeded to me and it really did work! With the recommendation of 3.5lbs - 4lbs of carbs per pound of body weight, this worked out to 600g a day keeping total daily calory intake the same. It takes some doing to eat that amount of carbs -  It was a lot of porridge, bananas, toast, bagels, scotch pancakes with jam, pasta, rice, energy bars to the point of carb overdose and have to admit that at the start line on Sunday I felt like Mr Blobby and sluggish for the first few miles but the energy boost kicked in around 4 miles and I managed an amazing personal best of 3 hours 15 mins which is some 30 minutes faster than when I ran Brighton last year and no "hitting the wall " syndrome! I was actually aiming to achieve a sub 3-30!  There is a great app (free for 7 days) called Perfect Diet Tracker where you can track you calories, carb, protein and fibre intake which I would recommend as I had no idea how much to eat to get to 600g of carbs! Also eat reasonably early Saturday night, breakfast 3-4 hours before the race on Sunday and an energy drink 90 minutes before. Did take gels with water after each 6 miles.  Worked for me. Good luck to everyone running London on Sunday - have a great race!
Posted: 19/04/2012 at 15:35

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