I Quit Sugar: Best Carbohydrate Sources for Running Performance
I quit sugar on December 28th, 2014. After eating 2.5 pounds of sweets in 6 hours and reading about the rats who preferred sugar over cocaine, I decided to say goodbye to my beloved friend. I was not overweight. I have actually been at 10% body fat for a few years. It’s just that my brain urged me to control myself in the face of a new addiction. Meanwhile, I geared up for some long distance events and survived excellent without sugar. You might be wondering how to fuel your body while still remaining sugar-free. It’s not hard at all, just switch to the old-fashion oatmeal, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains. In addition to this, know which carbs are complex and which are simple.
The science of sugar
Running and carbohydrates seem to go hand in hand, as the vision of a runner is one who is constantly eating pasta, bagels, and wheat bread. However, variety is the spice of life and there are many adequate carbohydrate sources available that are better for the body (and the stomach) than copious amounts of wheat ingredients. In fact, when athletes consume the same ingredients on a daily basis, their chances of developing food sensitivities, where the immune system fights the food the athlete is consuming, skyrockets.
Studies1 show that when an athlete eats high-glycemic (Gl) foods, like ice cream, high-sugar energy bars, or white bread an hour before a run, he or she may feel the fatigue more quickly. Researchers found runners performed significantly better 45 minutes after consuming a low-Gl meal rather than a high-GI meal. Eating the high-Gl foods one hour before a run was causing runners to experience a sugar crash, while the low-GI foods were carrying the athletes farther and faster into the run.
Research also shows that exercising muscles can absorb a combination of glucose and fructose almost 40% faster than glucose alone. Most people do not know that whole foods, like oatmeal and fruit, contain a great combination of fructose and glucose as well.
Listed below are great carbohydrate options for runners seeking to boost their running performance.
Most often when people think of carbohydrates they think of grains. Besides providing long lasting energy, many grains also provide protein, fiber, and necessary vitamins and minerals. One great and easy to eat grain is oats.
Just one half cup of oats provides 51 grams of carbohydrates, 13 grams of protein, and 335 mg of potassium.
Oats are also a rich source of iron and magnesium, which are two important minerals for runners. Besides breakfast, oats make a delicious base for a savory meal. Simply cook the oats as normal, then add salt, garlic, onion, and top with a fried egg.
A second fantastic carbohydrate source in the grain family is forbidden rice. This black rice is a nutritional powerhouse that pairs well with fish or chicken, or can be added to soups or stews.
One cup of cooked rice delivers 34 grams of carbs, 5 grams of protein, 268 mg of potassium, and only contains 160 calories.
The rice can be cooked in chicken broth to add additional flavor, and topped with carrots, broccoli, and garlic to boost its nutritional value.
An often overlooked source of carbohydrates, beans and legumes are a jackpot of nutritional value. In particular, lentils are a great source of carbohydrates for runners.
One cup of lentils provides 40 grams of carbohydrates, 18 grams of protein, 16 grams of fiber, and plenty of iron, Vitamin B-6, and magnesium to keep you energized.
Lentils can be prepared in a slow cooker with ham, carrots, onion, celery, and garlic, or prepared as a side dish.
In addition to lentils, green peas are a staple for many runners because of the complete nutritional profile, including carbohydrates, they provide. Technically in the bean family, 1 cup of green peas contains 21 grams of carbohydrates and 8 grams of protein. Most notably, however, is that one cup of green peas also contains high amounts of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, Vitamin B-6, and magnesium. Peas can be sprinkled in with side dishes, such as rice, or seasoned with salt, butter, and garlic and served as a side dish on its own.
Vegetables are typically the last food group that is considered to be high in carbohydrates. After all, vegetables are rarely sweet, and sugars are the main carbohydrate source in many foods. One of the best vegetable sources of carbohydrates is sweet potatoes. This orange veggie trumps the white counterpart because of the additional nutrients that are found in the coloring. One sweet potato contains 26 grams of carbohydrates, 4 grams of fiber, 2 grams of protein, and a whopping 368% of your daily recommended total of Vitamin A. Sweet potatoes are a great accompaniment to fish when tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted in the oven, or when made into pasta, such as gnocchi.
A second sweet vegetable that provides a healthy dose of carbs is parsnips. This root veggie, which looks like a carrot but has pale colored flesh, has a sweet taste that lends itself great to roasting. One cup of sliced parsnips provides 24 grams of carbohydrates, 500 mg of potassium, 7 grams of fiber, and a healthy dose of Vitamin C. Parsnips go great with steak when tossed in oil and salt and baked as “fries.”
Fruits are an obvious source of carbohydrates, given their high sugar content, and can be the best way to provide yourself with a quick energy boost. Not all fruits are created equally, however, and some are better for runners than others. The key to choosing the best fruit for running performance is to look for ones with a low glycemic index and do not contain too much fiber.
Pears, for instance, contain 27 grams of carbohydrates and 6 grams of fiber, and also have a low glycemic index, meaning that blood sugar and insulin will not experience a steep rise and crash. Pears are great on-the-go snacks to have on hand, and can also be poached and topped with honey as a healthy dessert.
Similarly, another low-glycemic fruit option is an orange. Not only are oranges the ultimate portable snack, but they also provide 22 grams of carbs, only 4 grams of fiber, and provide almost double your daily recommended value of Vitamin C.
Often runners are surprised to learn that dairy products contain a healthy dose of carbohydrates. One particularly great source is plain yogurt topped with your favorite fruits, nuts, and/or honey. Although fairly low in comparison to other foods listed, one cup of plain yogurt contains 15 grams of carbs. However, when paired with favorite fruits or honey, this carbohydrate total can easily reach over 60 grams! Additionally, yogurt is especially great for runners because of the necessary probiotics they provide that help protect the immune system.
- Carbohydrates are more oxygen-efficient than fat. What does this mean? When carbohydrates are broken down, more energy is generated from the same amount of oxygen.
This is important because oxygen availability is determined and limited by your VO2max (your own individual maximum oxygen uptake). The consumption of carbs during running acts to extend performance by topping up your individual supply.
- Carbs can also be broken down quickly without oxygen to provide huge amounts of additional energy during intense workouts. This is obviously essential to maximal performance, as the extra energy prevents or delays what is usually referred to as “hitting the wall”. Without burning carbohydrates for energy during extended duration or intense exercise, your body will simply run out of fuel and eventually, come to a complete stop.
- Carbs act to improve liver and muscle glycogen stores (basically the carbohydrate you eat that is stored in your body) and optimize recovery from endurance events and long training sessions.
Remember what you should always be looking for: natural foods packed with various types of carbohydrates (both simple and complex) that allow you to run both faster and longer with less fatigue!
1. Chen YJ, Wong SH, Chan CO, Wong CK, Lam CW, Siu PM. Effects of glycemic index meal and CHO-electrolyte drink on cytokine response and run performance in endurance athletes. J Sci Med Sport. 2009 Nov;12(6):697-703. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2008.05.007. Epub 2008 Sep 12.