The Best Carbohydrates for Runners
Carbohydrates are an essential part of an endurance runner’s diet, but not all carbohydrates are created equal. Sure, technically speaking, 1 gram of carbohydrates will always equal 4 calories. But as a runner who constantly requires so much from your body, you need to get as much nutrition from each gram of carbohydrates as possible.
Below, I have created tables to help you explore and compare different forms of carbohydrates. Use these as a resource to increase the variety of carbohydrates in your diet as well as get the most bang for your buck with each gram of carbohydrates you consume.
Pasta has been a part of the running world for a long time. Enjoying pasta before long runs or races starts at a young age and continues through our entire running careers. Middle and high school students meet before major cross country or track events for pasta dinners. Local running teams and communities gather for pasta potlucks before races, and every running website has pre-race or long run pasta recipes.
I will begin by comparing white pasta to whole wheat pasta and spaghetti squash. Both whole wheat pasta and spaghetti squash are superior to white pasta, but for different reasons.
Whole wheat pasta
Whole wheat pasta is a better choice than white pasta because it offers more fiber, more vitamins and minerals, and even a few essential fatty acids. Spaghetti squash is also a betteroption than white pasta, especially if weight loss is your goal, because two cups of cooked spaghetti squash is only 84 calories, compared to 221 calories per cup of white pasta.
Spaghetti squash, as a vegetable, is also a great source of vitamins and minerals and a better source of omega-3 fatty acids than whole wheat pasta. Omega-3 fatty acids help decrease the inflammation that can take place in your muscles after a hard workout or long run.
White pasta is still a good source of carbohydrates, but to get the most nutrition for your calories, whole wheat pasta or spaghetti squash are much better options. To get the bestof both worlds, mix whole wheat spaghetti and spaghetti squash in your next pasta dish. This will increase the vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids you are consuming while decreasing calories.
Here is an easy and helpful comparison table of pastas:
Whole Wheat Spaghetti
Spaghetti Squash (per 2 cups)
|Calories (per cooked cup)||221||174||84|
|Carbohydrates||43 g||37g||20 g|
|Vitamins & Minerals > 10% Daily Value (DV)||10% Iron23% Manganese
|10% Thiamin11% Magnesium
|18% Vitamin C12% Niacin
16% Vitamin B6
12% Pantothenic Acid
|Omega 3||–||14 mg||121 mg|
|Omega 6||–||284 mg||72.8 mg|
If rice is your go-to carbohydrate before long runs or races, opt for wild rice over white or brown rice. Of these three, white rice is a good source of carbohydrates; however, brown rice is better, and wild rice is the best option when all nutritional factors are taken into consideration.
For example, wild rice has 50 less calories than brown rice, and almost 100 calories less than white rice, but offers more protein and more omega-3s, along with similar vitamins and minerals as brown rice.
|Calories per cooked cup||267||216||166|
|Vitamins & Minerals > 10% Daily Value (DV)||37% Manganese||12% Thiamin15% Niacin
14% Vitamin B6 21% Magnesium
|11% Niacin11% Vitamin B6
|Omega 3||18.4 mg||27 mg||156 mg|
|Omega 6||84 mg||603 mg||195 mg|
With all the low-carb diets floating around in the last two decades, potatoes have gotten a bad rap. Potatoes should not be forgotten or thrown out in a runner’s diet. Both white potatoes and sweet potatoes actually have more vitamins and minerals to offer than pasta. Between the two, sweet potatoes are the best option.
As you can see from the chart below, the amounts of vitamin A and C in sweet potatoes are excellent, and the extra fiber is a bonus. Don’t hesitate to mix things up in your diet and switch out your morning oatmeal for a baked sweet potato with cinnamon for a boost in vitamins A and C.
|Calories(per 1 medium potato w. skin)||161||162|
|Fat||.2 g||0.3 g|
|Vitamins & Minerals > 10% Daily Value (DV)||28% Vitamin C12% Niacin
27% Vitamin B6
|692% Vitamin A59% Vitamin C
26% Vitamin B6
16% Pantothenic Acid
|Omega 3||22.5 mg||7.2 mg|
|Omega 6||74.4 mg||108 mg|
If you are not acquainted with ancient grains, it may surprise you that they offer more nutrition per cooked cup and are better options than white rice or white pasta.
Amaranth and quinoa are very comparable sources of carbohydrates and can be used interchangeably. Both amaranth and quinoa offer more protein, vitamins, and minerals per cooked cup than most of the typical carbohydrate sources in our diets.
|Calories(per 1 cooked cup)||251||193||222|
|Vitamins & Minerals > 10% DV||14% Vitamin B614% Folate
105% Manganese 19% Selenium
|16% Niacin12% Iron
|15% Iron13% Thiamin
11% Vitamin B6
|Omega 3||–||33 mg||–|
|Omega 6||–||303 mg||–|
To Wrap It Up
In each group of mentioned carbohydrate groups, there are good, better, and best options. Ultimately, eating the best of all the sources and varying your diet is going to ensure you consume the healthiest carbohydrates possible. Use these charts to mix up your carbohydrates and try something new; the variety of your diet will keep you enjoying each meal and will increase your overall nutrition and performance.
Simopoulos, Artemis P. (October 2002). “The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids”. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy 56 (8): 365–379.
Evans and Hughes. “Dietary carbohydrates and endurance exercise”. Am J Clin Nutr May 1985 vol. 41no. 5 1146-1154