Eat Carbs, Eat Smart

Eat the right carbs at the right time and you'll become more efficient and stronger in training - and see your race times plummet.

Posted: 8 July 2010
by Ben Palfreyman

Eat Carbs, Eat Smart

Gather ten runners and ask them what carbs you should be eating, and you're likely to get ten different answers. Our bodies and training plans are all different - but a few simple principles remain the same.

Eating the right thing at the right time - whether that's before training, during long races or in recovery - is crucial to racing success.

The night before your run: prepare

What to eat... pasta, rice, soup, wholegrain bread, vegetables

...and why: The week before a race is a time to reduce your training load and tuck into plenty of carbohydrates. This will allow you to draw on fully-stocked glycogen levels for energy during the run.

Aim to finish eating by 7pm - this will give your body time to process everything you've eaten.

Slow-burning complex carbs such as brown pasta or brown rice will keep your glycogen levels topped up until the race. But watch out - carbs that have been over-boiled or -baked may release their energy much more quickly.

Throw in some protein to slow the digestion of carbs and help fuel muscle growth. Chicken is a time-honoured source of protein for runners, but pork chops are a great alternative - a 3.5oz serving has 28g protein compared with 30g in the same amount of chicken. Throw in some iron-packed spinach or cashew nuts to boost your haemoglobin levels - and your energy.

It's easy to get confused about what's the right intake of fibre. Fibre slows digestion and stabilises blood sugar levels, keeping fatigue at bay. Too much fibre, however, can give you gastrointestinal discomfort the next day. Keep a healthy balance by sticking to complex carbs, which are almost always high in fibre.

On the morning of the race, blend low-fat plain yogurt with a banana, a little honey and some ice cubes for a pre-race shake. The yoghurt is packed with tyrosine which your body can convert into adrenaline, while the honey and banana will supply you with quick-release carbs to get you off to a good start.

During long runs and races: refuel

What to eat... nuts, sweets and dried fruit

...and why: After 90 minutes, your glycogen stores will be seriously depleted and will need restocking if you want to keep up the pace. In order to refuel on the go, your body requires carbs that it can convert quickly into glucose.

Nuts are among the best foods for this as they are full of Omega-3 unsaturated fat, protein and a nutrient called CoQ10, which helps cells produce energy. Unlike runners downing caffeine-based gels, your energy levels won't crash when the effects wear off.

Dried fruit is among the runner's best friends - and raisons and dates are top of the pile, with the most carbohydrates and protein. The process of drying fruit concentrates the nutrients within while simultaneously retaining the fruit's natural sugar content, which can be easily absorbed into the bloodstream.

Avoid refined sugars which will take longer to give you an energy boost - natural honey rapid releases simple sugars will give you a kick to the finish. And while adding salt to recipes is often unnecessary, a pinch of sodium chloride will replenish the electrolytes you've sweated out.

Recipe: Fruity Flapjack

After your run: recover

What to eat... Banana, whole-wheat bagels, quinoa

...and why: Carbohydrates, protein, electrolytes and fluid are the four magic words for fuelling your recovery.

Keep drinking. Although you won't need telling at the finish line, it's important to have plenty of water for the rest of the day.

Within half an hour of a run you should restock your glycogen store with a healthy balance of fast-releasing and slow-burning carbs, giving your muscles the food they need for recovery. The perfect food for this is quinoa. It's packed full of protein and carbohydrates, and contains more magnesium, fibre, iron and folate than brown rice.

In any race longer than a half-marathon, much of the body's natural mineral resources will have been sweated out. Of those lost, the most valuable are sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, known as electrolytes. Replacing these electrolytes will help regulate muscle contraction and stave off post-race cramps.

A homemade milkshake will help replenish these - blend a banana (for potassium), half a glass of milk (calcium) and ¼ tsp salt (sodium) and if you fancy a treat, a scoop of ice cream.

On rest days

What to eat... fish, whole grains, whole fruits, salad

...and why: Your rest day strategy is just as important as your workout schedule. After a hard run, it can take up to two days to fully replenish your glycogen stores and your muscles need protein to rebuild. Eating slow-burning carbohydrates and protein will help your body to recover from the hard training of the days before and revitalise it for the next workout.

Opt for bread made from whole grains, such as cracked wheat or wheat flour, with 3-5 grams of fibre per serving. Unrefined grains contain both the bran and germ, which house nutrients including B-vitamins, iron, magnesium, selenium and fibre.

Couscous is one of the healthiest carbohydrates, packed with protein and calcium and very low in fat. The recipe below takes advantage of this understated staple, and combines it with Alaskan salmon. Fresh from the wild via sustainable fishing, this salmon contains high levels of Omega-3 oils for a healthy heart, high levels of protein for speedy muscle recovery and is lower in cholesterol and mercury than Atlantic salmon and many other types of fish.

Recipe: Couscous with roasted vegetables

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Discuss this article


Posted: 12/08/2010 at 23:01

Yes what?
Posted: 14/10/2010 at 13:49

I have been running for 3 years now and have completed a few half marathons in the north west. I always Knew to stock up on carbs but never knew any specifics. As this article says everyone has a different opinion on what to eat thus making is very confusing.

I have my first marathon in Edingburgh next year and i will follow the guidelines from this article. Thanks for such a simple concise bit of info.

Bring it on!!

John Allen

Posted: 20/11/2010 at 17:37

I have only done shorter runs, but always found that a good bowl of oats porridge has done the trick.
Posted: 20/02/2011 at 22:38

pretzels are a good pre run snack!
Posted: 23/02/2011 at 15:09

Knowing what to eat and drink is certainly a learning curve. And I think everyone needs different amounts. I tend to eat less for shorter runs. So, for example, before a 10K I would only eat a banana, drink tea with honey and water. Before a half marathon I would also eat toast with jam or honey. If you run a short, fast race you can feel too heavy and uncomfortable if you've eaten too much. I think it's a matter of trial and error to learn what to eat before each type of run. So why not experiment? That's what I'm trying to do with food during the run now to see what works best.

Now, a question I'm trying to find the answer for: how long before a race to eat the banana? My current thinking is 45 mins.

Posted: 08/03/2011 at 18:07

Different types of carbs will suit some people better than others when it comes to stocking up glycogen levels - days or even 1/2 day before a race, I think the same will apply for breakfast.  Personally I would prefer to eat cous cous and will blend it with raw veg, raisins, organic apricots, pine nuts and herbs, but, race experience tells me that I perform a whole lot better on race day after an evening meal with wholemeal spaghetti served with a simple sauce.  The rule is try and test what works best for you.

 I will try the dried fruit approach during training.

Posted: 23/03/2011 at 11:09

is it necessary to eat carbs after a short run??
Posted: 02/06/2011 at 14:11

Most of this is a placebo or unprovable. You'd be surprised how little difference stuff makes. But running with a full belly (any old food) with the odd drink every few miles would be 99% optimum.

I got up and ate no food and did a 15 mile trail run in my local woods one day, just to see how tough I was. No food or water, aged 38, not a natural athlete, but slim. Was really plodding near the end, when I decided to stop.

 ...Felt like I had the flu for a few days after though.

Posted: 31/07/2011 at 12:55

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